NEWS

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March 4, 2018

A Dream Deferred: Meet the U of C Students Organizing for a Clean Dream Act


UChicago Organizers On Deferred Action, Donald Trump, and the Fate of Immigrant Youth

Alexandra Epstein, Annabelle Rice, Audrey Fromson, and Grace Hauck / The Chicago Maroon

“Up, up with liberation!” protesters called from one side of the Hart Senate Office Building in downtown Washington, D.C. Across the hall from Florida senator Bill Nelson’s office, another group answered, “Down, down with deportation!” From seven stories below, hundreds of demonstrators raised their fists in solidarity, unfurling a banner demanding that Congress “Pass the Clean DREAM Act now” while their chants resounded through the atrium.

The youth immigrant advocacy network United We Dream, which arranged the protest, reported to the Huffington Post that the rally was the largest group of undocumented youth they had ever gathered in the nation’s capital. This was just another day in the life for second-year undocumented student Moises Rodriguez. As a leading organizer at United We Dream, he is on a seemingly endless quest to secure protection from deportation once and for all.  

Signed by former president Barack Obama in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) offers two years of relief from deportation, or “deferred action,” along with a social security number and work permit application rights for its recipients. It does not confer lawful immigration status, provide a direct path to citizenship, or alter an undocumented individual’s existing immigration status.

To qualify, applicants must meet a set of specific conditions, including attending high school and having a criminal record free of felonies and other significant misdemeanors. Of the recipients, more than nine in 10 were born in Latin America, an approximated two-thirds are 25 or younger, and the majority are female.

DACA’s predecessor, the DREAM Act, was first proposed in 2001 but failed to pass through the House of Representatives. The “DREAMers” descriptor commonly applied in DACA revisions is a vestige of this program.

This protest took place in January, just three months after the Trump administration formally rescinded the DACA program and ceased processing new applications. President Donald Trump officially declared his administration’s decision to rescind DACA on September 5, 2017, saying that “there can be no path to principled immigration reform if the executive branch is able to rewrite or nullify federal laws at will.” He urged Congress to “advance responsible immigration reform that puts American jobs and American security first,” giving elected officials six months to replace DACA with their own legislation.

At a Center for Identity and Inclusion event in January, Rodriguez spoke about the potential effects of recent DACA developments and United We Dream’s effort to combat a “humanitarian crisis” in the United States. The group, which was founded to protect and empower undocumented immigrant youths, has fought alongside countless other groups in what Rodriguez described as a “war of white supremacy in the White House.”

“The DREAMer narrative of who is the ‘good immigrant’ is very problematic. There is a harmful pattern of justifying the presence of immigrants using economic terms. I think that most people sometimes [ignore] the fact that we are people trying to make something out of nothing. There is certainly a stereotype that in order to be deserving of papers, you have to be going to college. It’s an issue of humanity, not about what you bring to the economic table.”

For Rodriguez, the only realistic way to ensure that legislation replacing DACA passes through Congress is to include it in a continuing resolution, which appropriates money for specific government programs and agencies. Simply put, if the new legislation is not explicitly connected to government funding, it will fail to pass. United We Dream, along with DACA-supporting senators, used this strategy throughout December and January to keep the legislation under government provision.

“Ideally, a permanent solution would include a clean path to citizenship with no strings attached, no changes to the Diversity Visa program, no changes to any sort of sponsorship that [the government is] trying to exclude. ‘Chain migration’ is just family reunification, [and] people have always been limited to sponsoring only immediate family members. For Trump to claim that migrants sponsor, say, the great-grandson of a third cousin and use this to steer away from family reunification isn’t grounded in facts…. Ultimately, what we want to do is make sure families stay together.”

First-year Emilio Balderas and second-year Raphael Espinoza have joined United We Dream as documented allies for the undocumented community. Balderas and Espinoza both have U.S. citizenship but have undocumented immigrants in their family background.

Balderas stressed that attending rallies and helping with organization is one of the most effective forms of alliance.

“It’s important to know your place in the movement. When there’s someone who’s directly impacted, you should let them speak before you try to provide your own opinion,” Balderas said, adding:

"All movements should be spearheaded by the people who are most affected."

Espinoza believes that DACA is an issue that everyone should care about.

“A DACA ally is someone who is willing to put their body on the line. I protect my undocumented friends in extreme situations where they have to confront the police. I am willing to throw a punch at an officer. I’m documented, so anything that could possibly happen to me is better than what could happen to my friends,” Espinoza said.

Balderas and Espinoza joined Rodriguez earlier this quarter for a series of protests in D.C., where they occupied the Senate offices of representatives who Espinoza said could “possibly be convinced to side with DACA.”

For Balderas, the trip to D.C. was “empowering.”

“I had never met so many inspirational people in one space. I was homeless for most of my life, and I know what it’s like to feel left out of society. I carry my experience with me, and it’s this fire that drives me to demand justice,” Balderas said.

UChicago avoided formally commenting on DACA at its inception in 2010, but voiced its support of undocumented student applicants. In an interview with The Maroon in October 2010, former vice president for campus life Kimberly Goff-Crews said that the University has always been open to undocumented students.

“Our culture has been that we don’t comment on political larger social issues as a university. We comment on things that relate directly to our mission—attracting, enrolling, and supporting the best students no matter who they are,” Goff-Crews said.

University spokesperson Jeremy Manier echoed Goff-Crews’s statement and avoided using the phrase “sanctuary campus” explicitly in response to whether the University would cooperate with immigration enforcement officials seeking to deport students in the event of DACA’s repeal.

“The Provost has instructed several administrative offices to examine how potential changes to immigration policies could affect our university and the community, especially in relation to our students and staff who currently benefit from DACA,” Manier wrote in an e-mail to The Maroon.

When DACA faced a direct existential threat last autumn, the University publicly changed course.

As part of DACA’s removal, the Trump administration planned to adjudicate applications filed by September 5 and reject any requests filed after that date. Those who were already protected under DACA with the provision expiring on March 5, 2018, would be eligible to apply for renewal by October 5, 2017.

On September 2, 2017, University president Robert Zimmer and provost Daniel Diermeier sent a letter to Trump, urging that he allow DACA to continue.

“Our students who qualify for DACA are among the most talented and intellectually energetic students in the world. Our university community and our nation will be diminished if they are unable to continue contributing their talents here,” Zimmer and Diermeier stated in the letter.

Rodriguez says that the University needs to take a more inclusive approach to both admitting and engaging with undocumented students.

“I think the University needs to encourage undocumented students to participate in conversations regarding the decisions that are made about our community. I’ve only had one or two phone calls with administrators, and that’s it. Providing mental health services [to the undocumented community] is also very important,” Rodriguez said.

As the March 5 deadline approaches, Congress has yet to propose a concrete solution for reforming the program.

If Congress fails to pass a reform bill by Monday, the future of an estimated 700,000 DACA recipients remains in jeopardy. However, in a number of pending federal court cases, judges have temporarily ruled that the Trump administration has to keep accepting DACA renewals, and that officials can't revoke DACA protections without prior notice.

“On campus, I don’t feel immediately threatened, but I do know that there are people here that would prefer that to not be here. It’s painful, and there is an element of fear. Wherever you go, if you’re undocumented, you’re afraid of what could happen, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to continue taking up the space I’ve taken up. I know that this is where I belong, and that I deserve to be here just as much as any other person,” Rodriguez said.

For Rodriguez, the work doesn’t end when DACA passes.

“We are not just undocumented. We are queer, black, brown, Asian—we are so much more. This is not just an effort for the millions of DACA recipients; this is an effort for everyone, and we have to lift up every voice.”

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