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DACA students weigh the value of speaking out when deportation is at stake

Some 'dreamers' have been inspired to share their stories for the first time, viewing their voices as the most powerful tool for advocacy. Others stay quiet, out of a perception of growing hostility toward undocumented immigrants.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
DACA student Laura Piñeros, whose family brought her to the US from Colombia with her twin when she was a baby, takes notes in criminology class at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, on Oct. 3, 2017.

Stefanny Amorim almost didn't appear in this article.

When Ms. Amorim, a sophomore at Eastern Connecticut State University, first opened the email from an advisor asking for undocumented students to speak to a reporter about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), she hesitated to volunteer. She’d avoided publicly exposing herself as undocumented in the past, cautioned by her mother and deterred by the arrest of a friend.

But in the current political moment, with the fate of DACA up in the air, she felt compelled to speak out.

“We have this time where Congress can really do something about DACA and hopefully, maybe, change something for the better,” explains Amorim, whose family moved to the United States from Brazil when she was 5 years old. “I feel like it’s really important to have my story out there so people can somewhat understand and sympathize with our cause.”

Throughout his campaign, President Trump repeatedly signaled that he would not revoke DACA, which granted temporary protection to some 800,000 undocumented young people who were brought to the US as children and allowed them to apply for work permits. On Sept. 5, in a reversal of that position, the president announced that he was rescinding the Obama-era policy – pending a six-month delay – giving those whose DACA status was set to expire before March one month to submit an application for renewal.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Students walk across campus between classes at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, on Oct. 3, 2017. Out of just over 4,000 undergrads, 104 are DACA students, who attend the university on private scholarships from The Dream.US. This is the second year the scholarships have been offered.

The announcement left Amorim and other DACA recipients to grapple with an old question for undocumented students – whether to engage in public activism and the risks that could come with it – in a new political climate. Some, like Amorim, have been inspired to share their stories for the first time, viewing their voices as the most powerful tool for advocacy. Others have pointed to perceived additional risks and growing hostility toward undocumented immigrants as reason to back out of the public eye.

“We have had a lot more people much more willing to share their story because they sense the urgency of the moment,” says Camila Bortolleto, a founder and campaign manager for the statewide advocacy organization Connecticut Students for a Dream. “But we’ve also seen the exact flip side: people who are much more hesitant and scared to get involved and speak out because of the political climate.”

The moment has presented a challenge for educators, too, as they navigate how best to offer support to their undocumented students.

“Sometimes what’s hard for me is: What does support mean?” says William Lugo, associate professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) and faculty advisor of the Freedom Club, an organization founded by DACA students on campus. “How do I support them in the best way that I can, as effectively as I can? And how do I make sure I’m representing as many [undocumented students] as I can in my support?”

A different environment for sharing

For undocumented students publicly sharing their stories in 2017, the challenges and risks look slightly different than in previous years, says Ms. Bortolleto of Connecticut Students For a Dream. She compares the political atmosphere to that in 2010 – prior to the introduction of DACA – when she first began publicly identifying as undocumented as a student at Western Connecticut State University. It was around that time when large numbers of students began to “come out” as undocumented to share their stories.

“The climate was a lot different because people were a lot more scared back then,” says Bortolleto. “The administration might have been friendlier, but the risks felt a lot more real.”

Seven years later, the youth movement has grown, and “people are more comfortable” publicly identifying as undocumented, she notes, despite new fears brought about by recent anti-immigration rhetoric and steps taken by the Trump administration.

Public opinion polls show broad support for DACA across political lines: 86 percent of respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll published in September said they supported the policy.

“Here’s an issue that over the last several years has become a household issue,” says Roberto Gonzales, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s a segment of the immigrant and undocumented population that has overwhelming and bipartisan support.”

That overwhelming support may explain in part why, in the year since the 2016 presidential election and increasingly in the wake of the Sept. 5 announcement, universities have taken additional steps to create a welcoming, accommodating environment for undocumented students.

Many have made symbolic gestures, declaring their school a “sanctuary campus.” Others, following the news of DACA’s rescission, leapt into action, offering additional counseling support, legal advice, or establishing funds to help students who qualified for the Oct. 5 deadline pay their renewal fees.

“There’s just a heightened awareness and sensitivity that colleges now have about what they can and should be doing to protect undocumented students,” says Candy Marshall, president of TheDream.US, a private organization that provides scholarships to undocumented students at ECSU and other colleges.

Colleges provide safety and support

For undocumented students at ECSU, a public school in Willimantic, Conn., that's home to 104 DACA recipients – and just over 4,000 full-time undergraduate students overall – both institutional and personal support are readily available.

The school is one of a handful across the country that serves as a safe haven of sorts for students from the 15 US states where undocumented residents face significant barriers to getting an education at a public university, such as having to pay out-of-state tuition or not being permitted to enroll at all. Students from these states have been welcomed by ECSU, where they can access scholarships funded by TheDream.US, and find a unique institutional support system that's heavy on one-on-one advising and personalized assistance.

Michel Valencia, a first-year student majoring in psychology, says that growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., where very few of her friends or classmates were undocumented, she didn't often talk about her status. Here, it's a different story.

“When I first came here, I wasn’t expecting to meet a lot of people...who are undocumented,” she says. But “it’s like a whole big community. I feel more [motivated] to tell my story because there are a lot of people like me.”

Support for undocumented students at ECSU comes from the top down: the university's president, Elsa Núñez, has been an outspoken advocate for DACA. Shortly after Mr. Trump's Sept. 5 announcement that he would rescind the policy, school President Núñez led a rally in support of DACA students on campus.

Still, not all DACA students at the school are forthcoming about their status, even – or, in some cases, especially – as the policy has become more politically controversial, says William Bisese, director of the school’s Academic Services Center, who advises students in the scholarship program.

Among the undocumented students at the school, there's a wide range of beliefs, opinions, and approaches to the situation, Mr. Bisese says, noting that the population contains both Democrats and Republicans; activists and those who would rather stay out of the political fray entirely.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Dr. Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, discusses the DACA students attending her school on Oct. 3, 2017.

Staying quiet not an option

Enilse Ramirez, a junior at ECSU, has never really considered staying out of politics as an option.

Unlike some of her classmates, Ms. Ramirez has years of experience advocating for undocumented Americans, and has long been open about her own status. Between earning her associate’s degree and resuming her education at ECSU, Ramirez worked as a paralegal at an immigration law firm in her native Kansas City, Mo., where she found that being forthcoming about her own undocumented status helped the clients she worked with feel more comfortable.

Since Trump's announcement last month, she's attended rallies, contacted lawmakers, and regularly encouraged friends on social media to do the same. Ramirez sees it as a tiring but necessary way of life.

“It is just an extra hassle on top of anything that any other student has to deal with,” she says. “You have to work, you have to go to school, you have to get your assignments in, and then on top of that, worry about changes in the political world.”

Professor Lugo is conflicted when it comes to students putting themselves out there as public faces of DACA, as Ramirez has. He worries that jumping into advocacy efforts could distract from his students' academic work.

“Am I supporting you one hundred percent even if I feel like you’re exposing yourself unnecessarily?” he wonders. “I know you want to be unafraid, but is this the time for that?”

Focus on schoolwork

Throughout and since the presidential election last November, Mr. Bisese has encouraged the undocumented students he works with to focus their attention on schoolwork rather than politics – partly, he says, because he believed Trump would keep his campaign vow to protect DACA recipients.

The reversal on Sept. 5 didn't change Bisese's approach to advising. He still urges his students to prioritize their schoolwork and to stay out of the public eye.

“There’s not going to be vans pulling up to the campus to grab anybody. I try to buffer that,” he says. “Think about now, think about now.”

President Núñez echoes the importance of taking things one day at a time.

“I said to them, the gift that you can give your families is to stay here,” she says. “Finish the semester. Finish the next semester. Let’s get to March, and let’s see what happens with Congress.”

To help alleviate fears, Núñez reassures students that should the worst case scenario – deportation – occur, the school is prepared to help students find higher education opportunities in their birth countries.

“Even if they ship you back to your country, you can finish there,” she says. “There’s a dream to be had there.”

'We're human, too'

Whether now is the time for exposure is a question that Amorim has given a lot of thought to as of late. Her “coming out” process has been slow but steady, marked by one-on-one conversations with strangers rather than public declarations. Several weeks ago, she found herself telling her story to a worker at a local car dealership who, unaware that he was speaking to an undocumented student, struck up a conversation about illegal immigration and voiced support for ending DACA.

Amorim still harbors many of the same concerns about speaking out that she did before; perhaps even more so now, as the end of DACA as she knows it approaches. But she feels that those concerns make sharing her story all the more necessary.

“It’s important for people to know that we’re human, too,” she says. “We’re your friends and neighbors, and we’re not giving up and going away.”

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