When first-year School of Social Service Administration (SSA) master’s student Angelica Velazquillo was applying for college as a high school senior in North Carolina, she had to navigate the already complicated process with one added difficulty: being an undocumented immigrant.
“I approached my counselor for the first time and disclosed, ‘This is my situation. I’m undocumented. I have the grades. I want to apply for college,’” she recalled. “He didn’t know what to do. And that was sort of the end of our conversation.” At that point, Velazquillo was forced to take matters into her own hands.
“It was more of a personal initiative of ‘I want to go to college. I’m going to figure it out.’ So I found community members who were supportive.”
One of those people was a woman on a local scholarship committee who pointed her to different community resources and helped her find scholarships that did not ask for documentation. As an undocumented immigrant, Velazquillo was ineligible for federal or state financial aid.
While undocumented students still face immense challenges, Velazquillo noted that circumstances are changing.
The biggest development came last June, when President Obama announced a policy of Deferred Action, through which undocumented students who meet certain criteria can defer the threat of deportation for at least two years and receive authorization to work legally in the United States, opening up more financial and educational opportunities.
A policy of acceptance
In October 2010, before Deferred Action, the University issued its first public statement affirming that they would admit undocumented students. This came in response to student pressure from the UChicago Coalition for Immigration Rights (UCCIR).
"All students who apply, regardless of citizenship, are considered for admission and for every type of private financial aid that the University offers,” then–Vice President for Campus and Student Life and Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews said in the statement.
As part of increased efforts to reach undocumented students, the University designated Tamara Felden, director of the University’s Office of International Affairs, to deal with issues regarding undocumented students.
Felden explained the origins of the University’s statement on undocumented immigrants, which it reaffirmed last August in response to Deferred Action.
“We said, ‘We undoubtedly have some students who are undocumented. How do we support them?’” she said. “We wanted to be out there with a statement that gave the message to students who might be considering the University that it’s OK to apply to us…in other words, to give them the comfort level so as they communicated to us, they could disclose and not be fearful of doing so.”
Her job is to assist students with finding financial resources and to help students fill out legal paperwork, including that which is required to apply for Deferred Action. The Office of International Affairs can direct students to attorneys but cannot provide direct legal assistance.
“It’s still not enough”
But UCCIR members Velazquillo and fellow SSA student Ariel Ruiz, who is also undocumented, feel the University needs to do more to create a welcoming atmosphere for discussing issues of immigration.
“We are thankful that University of Chicago is open to undocumented students and gives us funding,” Ruiz said. “But it’s still not enough… It’s not only about the financial resources. It’s also taking the toll on how to be welcomed in a space that is not very open about discussing what undocumented is.”
Ruiz said that much of this derives from the language used to describe undocumented students, saying that fellow students and professors often refer to undocumented students as “illegal,” “criminal,” and “alien.”
“All these terms come very charged and affect people on an emotional level,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s intentional,” Velazquillo said. “But there’s a lack of awareness that undocumented and illegal are not interchangeable.”
Campus activists encourage more undocumented students to come out
Both Ruiz and Velazquillo feel that by coming out as undocumented, they can help raise awareness and promote increased dialogue. Ruiz said that if more students came out, it would help personalize the issue.
“The benefit of someone coming out as undocumented is that there’s a face to a name,” he said. “It’s a lot more difficult for people to use this type of language that is dehumanizing when it’s one of their friends.”
Both stressed the emotional toll of living life as an undocumented student and hope that by understanding these personal consequences, their peers can better conceptualize the issue.
Ruiz explained that he was unable to attend his father’s funeral in Mexico last year because of his immigration status.
“As a student, ask yourself, ‘How can you focus on academics, on your life, if you found out that your father died and the worst part is, you can’t even go to his burial? How can you keep it together?’” he said. “I think if people begin to ask themselves these questions, they can begin to internalize our situations, our experiences, our limitations, and really see beyond the numbers.”
Balancing public discussion with the right to privacy
Felden feels that “simply having that statement on our Web site and talking about undocumented students in a public way, that has encouraged undocumented applicants to reach out directly and disclose. It’s OK to do that,” she said.
But she acknowledged that there is still more to learn about the plight of undocumented students and said that she continually works with administrators, professors, and students to become more informed.
She encouraged the work of student activists but said she respects that there are some students who are uncomfortable disclosing their status.
“Anything we do at the University has to respect the student in a stage that is less public,” she said. “A student who wants to be private has every right to protect that privacy.”