Higher Education Leaders Rally to Advocate for Undocumented Students Under Trump Presidency

Immediately after the election of President Donald Trump — a candidate whom many perceived as openly hostile to the U.S. immigrant community — higher education leaders experienced a new level of uncertainty regarding the future of undocumented immigrants on their campuses. But in the months following, colleges and universities across the U.S. have collaborated to protect and advocate for these individuals. 

A primary reason for many college presidents’ profound sense of responsibility for the undocumented is that these individuals make up a large segment of their student bodies. In the U.S., they account for 2 percent of all college students, according to a report by the UndocuScholars Project. Nowhere are undocumented students more represented than in the California Community Colleges (CCC) system, where approximately 70,000 are currently enrolled, according to Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. 

When Oakley assumed his current position in December 2016, he says much of his time was spent advocating on behalf of this underrepresented group. “After the presidential election, we quickly realized that we needed to do a lot more,” he says. “The rhetoric coming from D.C. certainly worried many advocates as well as many of our undocumented students.”  

One concern shared by college presidents across the country was that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would no longer uphold its Sensitive Locations Policy. This policy states that undocumented immigrants will not be targeted for deportation in schools, hospitals, places of worship, and at public demonstrations. 

Also, fearing imminent deportation, students at more than 100 colleges and universities circulated petitions asking administrators to declare their respective schools a “sanctuary campus.” According to a December 2016 report by the American Council on Education (ACE), the term “sanctuary campus” has no legal status; rather, it is an extension of the “sanctuary city” concept, which expresses strong community support for undocumented persons but has no footing under federal law.  

In an effort to help college administrators protect the undocumented members of their campus communities while remaining in compliance with federal law, ACE published a white paper in December 2016. Among other things, it encouraged schools to provide students with pro-bono legal services and warn DACA recipients about the potential risks of studying abroad — specifically, the difficulty they may have encountered trying to re-enter the U.S. should Trump have followed through on his threats to rescind DACA at that time. The report also recommended that colleges and universities adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by not disclosing a student’s educational records unless ordered to do so via a subpoena, warrant, or court order.  

Ultimately, says Oakley, coping with the social and emotional distress caused by Trump’s aggressive, anti-immigrant platform was the greatest challenge undocumented students faced at the time of his election. “The impact of the rhetoric from D.C. was widespread. A student didn’t have to be undocumented to be affected by it; if they had family members [who didn’t have legal status], that affected them as well,” he explains. 

These individuals’ fears were slightly assuaged when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a statement shortly after the election reassuring colleges and universities that the Sensitive Locations Policy was still in effect. Nothing changed during Trump’s first several months in office, and the sense of urgency around creating sanctuary campuses eventually dissipated.  

Then, in September 2017, Trump moved to rescind DACA, prompting numerous college presidents to lobby the federal government to adopt more supportive policies toward Dreamers. These are people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and have been temporarily allowed to live, work, and study here under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

In response, on Oct. 19, 2017, more than 800 college and university presidents and chancellors sent a letter to leaders of both the House and Senate urging them to pass legislation as soon as possible to protect undocumented students. A month later, a group of college presidents met in Washington, D.C., to establish the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration to increase public awareness of how immigration policies affect college students. The formation of this advocacy group represented a powerful show of support and solidarity for undocumented students nationwide.  

The resource table at Skyline College’s Dream Center, which provides information about services and resources for undocumented students

Resources and Support
Higher education leaders have also worked to support undocumented members of their communities on their respective campuses through the creation of Undocumented Student Resource Centers (USRCs). According to researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of California, Santa Barbara, there are currently 56 USRCs in the U.S., with the majority — 46 — located in California. 

State Democrats have repeatedly tried to pass a law there that would encourage all campuses in the California State University and University of California systems without a USRC to establish one. According to Pamela Ortiz Cerda, program services coordinator at Skyline College’s Dream Center in San Bruno, Calif., the bill has failed to pass thus far due to a dearth of funding rather than a lack of ideological support. 

[Above: A sociology class from Skyline College visits the campus’s Dream Center to learn about resources and services available to undocumented members of the campus community.]

Cerda describes Skyline’s USRC as a “one-stop shop” for all undocumented members of the campus and local community. Services range from a free legal clinic on Wednesday nights to a food pantry to professional development trainings for Skyline faculty and staff on how they can better support this population. Another large part of Cerda’s job is assisting undocumented individuals with navigating the college application and financial aid process. 

Undocumented students currently face much uncertainty when it comes to their eligibility for in-state tuition and financial aid due to variations in state policies regarding the rights of noncitizens. Because they are not able to receive federal aid — including Pell Grants — legislation that prohibits them from receiving financial aid or discounted tuition at the state level significantly affects their ability to afford college. 

Members of the Undocumented Students and Allies Club at
Skyline College participate in the college’s Club Day event to
offer information to students.

Today, eight states offer both in-state tuition rates and financial aid to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Meanwhile, 13 offer in-state tuition rates but no financial aid. Three states — Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana — go so far as to prohibit these students from receiving in-state tuition benefits, according to NCSL. 

Due to these inconsistencies, some institutions have implemented their own policies and programs to provide financial support for these individuals. In Colorado, where undocumented students are ineligible for state financial aid, Colorado Mountain College (CMC) announced in September that it would begin offering income-share agreements to help cover the cost of their education. These types of payment plans allow students to enroll in college without paying tuition; instead, they pay a fixed percentage of their income for several years after graduation. 

According to Cerda, undocumented individuals — like any other group of students — possess varying levels of knowledge about their financial options. While many are skilled at advocating for themselves and seeking help, others are hesitant to ask questions and to take the initiative to do their research, she says. Thus, conducting outreach to local high schools and helping these young people understand their options is essential to ensuring that undocumented students even apply to college. 

Cerda also encourages institutions and advocacy groups to focus on other segments of the undocumented population, as DACA recipients make up only a small percentage of this student group. It is important to be more inclusive of older adult students as well as those who are very young who never got the chance to apply for DACA in the first place, she says. Cerda works with these individuals to make them aware of the postsecondary options available to them.

Making Campuses Great
In January 2018, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction requiring the federal government to maintain DACA by accepting applications for renewal. On Aug. 31, following several federal court cases, Judge Andrew Hanen upheld the program — for now — meaning that immigrants currently or previously protected by DACA may continue to apply for renewal. Then, on Nov. 8, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit unanimously voted to uphold DACA, prompting the Trump administration to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to add the case to its docket. 

Despite DACA’s uncertain future — and the fact that it may meet its end before the now right-leaning Supreme Court — university presidents are determined to do what they can to ensure a bright future for these students. 

Although Trump’s push to “make America great again” seems to deliberately exclude undocumented immigrants, many higher education institutions have demonstrated that they believe this community is an important part of their campuses. 

Dreamers in particular “are remarkable,” says Steven Bloom, JD, director of government and public affairs for ACE. “We’ve been blessed to see them on our campuses and to have them in our classrooms. They’ve enriched academic life at institutions across the country.” 

In Oakley’s opinion, Dreamers are also essential to the functioning of the country. “In a state like California,” he says, “it is not even rational to begin to consider life without [them].”●

Ginger O’Donnell is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more details about the latest DACA litigation, visit nilc.org. This article was published in our December 2018 issue.