Well, you see, we don’t want to get their hopes up.
I am on the phone with a woman from a small liberal arts college in New England, trying to convince them to accept an application for their diversity weekend from one of my clients. I am an immigration lawyer who also runs a cooperative center, Atlas: DIY (www.atlasdiy.org), for undocumented youth and their allies in Brooklyn, New York. Atlas works with undocumented youth, those with visas and green cards, and citizen-allies. However, our largest member group is “DACA-mented”—they have received deportation reprieve through President Obama’s 2012 memorandum. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, provides a two-year grant of legal presence in the U.S., with the hopes of renewal, along with a social security number and work authorization to the recipient. It allows students to apply for academic or humanitarian leave to travel outside the country, pauses the accrual of unlawful status, and, in some states, provides students with in-state tuition or a driver’s license.
Along with our legal work, Atlas places a strong emphasis on college and college readiness. We host weekly college club meetings and run a weeklong summer camp in Western Massachusetts to expose students to the benefits of attending schools they may have written off. Many of our youth excel academically and are excited for the opportunity to expand their horizons by attending a school outside New York City. Unfortunately, however, some schools have yet to equally embrace these students.
The woman on the phone represents such a school. Despite this school’s claims that it embraces and nurtures diversity on campus, the roadblocks it has created simply for a college visit are astounding. I try explaining the inherent tension between the college’s mission and its decision to create impediments to visitation for certain students. The woman on the other end of the line senses my frustration and tries to appease me. “It’s not like they can’t apply to the school,” she says, “they can still do that, it’s just this weekend.” I point out that the entire purpose of the weekend is to introduce the school to students who may otherwise feel a small liberal arts college is out of their reach. Indeed, many of my youth were told flat-out by their guidance counselors not to even bother looking at private schools. “Aren’t these exactly the type of disenfranchised, yet highly motivated, students, that diversity programs wanted to attract?” I asked. The woman on the other line paused. “Well,” she responded, “we don’t allow international students to apply to the program either.”
Ah, the old international student angle. I understand schools are working with outdated systems that have no categories for DACA-mented youth. Yet, relying upon terminology that ignores the reality of a student’s past, does not seem like the proper solution. Like international students, DACA youth were born in another country and, like international students, they are not eligible for federal financial aid. However, that is where the similarities end. Most students who receive DACA have grown up in the U.S., have graduated from our high schools and played in our sports leagues. They write for our school newspapers and speak fluent English. They are members of Atlas, like Luis, who has a 4.0 GPA, aspires to be a surgeon, volunteers at his local church and is an intern at the Children’s Law Center here in New York. They are girls like Arianna, whose grades suffered after being told by a high school staff member that she had no options for higher education but who now, after finding a supporting community, is a thriving high school senior, member of the ROTC, and English teacher for newly arrived immigrant youth. Lumping these youth into the “international student” category simply because of a financial aid designation due to their inability to receive financial aid is not only factually inaccurate but also unfair to students who have spent years contributing to their communities in the U.S. and deserve an equal shot at higher education in this country.
Unfortunately, the phrase, “we don’t want to get their hopes up” or “it may be too hard for them here” has been used in other eras of college exclusion. Even after women and African-Americans were “allowed” to apply to schools, many schools chose to deter applications through similar means applied to DACA students today. Women, for example, were often discouraged to apply to college because their chances of landing a job after graduation were low. Indeed, Sandra Day O’ Connor struggled to find employment other than as a legal secretary, and the 1960s were marred by protests from students and administrators alike when black students began entering state universities. To immigration advocates, the full recognition of DACA-mented and undocumented students is the next step in a long line of civil rights victories making our institutions of higher education truly accessible to all.
Some colleges have taken the first step to ensure that they are truly embodying their mission of making higher education a reality for as many deserving students as possible regardless of their immigration status. Amherst College, for example, has made its applications need-blind for DACA recipients. Other schools not only welcome DACA applicants to their programs but ensure that, should they be accepted, they understand not only the limitations but also additional resources and supports. Connecticut College, for example, provides incoming DACA freshman with a welcome packet explaining school policies and even supplies the contact information of lawyer-alumni. Some schools hire outside counselors to train admissions staff, health and wellness counselors, and deans of student life to address the challenges and better understand the options available to DACA-mented and undocumented youth.
There are incredible, sometimes seemingly insurmountable, obstacles for undocumented and even DACA-mented youth who want to attend college in the U.S. These youth are ineligible for Pell Grants or other forms of federal aid, but there are often restrictions placed upon their travel and their work authorization may be temporary. Yet, despite these hurdles, many youth not only want to attend, but fight to attend college. They are scrappy and determined, applying for dozens of scholarships that do not discriminate based on immigration status, working as babysitters or knitting hats or starting their own real estate ventures to pay for their education. Aren’t these the types of innovative and driven students we want at our institutions of higher learning?
Prisma Herrera is a remarkable 17-year-old high school senior who, though a U.S. citizen, wanted these students as her classmates. In fact, I was calling the woman at the New England liberal arts college for one of Prisma’s friends. The school was Prisma’s first choice and she wanted her DACA-mented friend to attend diversity weekend with her. After hearing that her friend was barred from applying to the program, Prisma was disappointed, to say the least. Prisma explains, “Knowing that [the school] was a liberal college that claimed to welcome 'everyone', it came as a huge shock that they would not allow DACA-mented students to apply to their fly-in program. It became such a huge disappointment that it instantly moved them down my list of colleges. I, instead, chose to apply to Scripps College in California early decision. I got accepted and will be attending in the fall.”
It is a shame that New England schools, many of which were once known to push boundaries, are missing the opportunity to become true change-agents, marshaling a new era of equality. Closing doors, even just for a weekend will ultimately mean turning off amazing students, undocumented, DACA recipients, and citizens alike.
Lauren A. Burke is executive director of Atlas: DIY and a social justice practitioner in residence at NYU School of Law.