Mixed signals from Washington over a possible agreement to preserve protections for young immigrants are increasing anxiety and confusion on college campuses, where the stakes are high.
Amid the uncertainty, colleges and universities are stepping up efforts to protect students enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, telling them to be hopeful but plan for the worst.
Harvard University has opened a round-the-clock emergency hotline for immigrants in the program. The University of Illinois at Chicago has posted advice on what to do if federal agents show up on campus. UC Berkeley, the University of San Francisco and many other campuses are offering free legal advice to immigrant students now facing fears of deportation. Nearly sixty college and university presidents sent a letter urging congressional leaders to make the program permanent out of “moral imperative and a national necessity.”
An estimated 350,000 of the country’s nearly 800,000 DACA recipients are currently enrolled in school, most at colleges or universities, according to a 46-state survey this year by the advocacy group Center for American Progress. Under the program, they were protected from deportation and allowed to legally work in the United States with two-year permits.
The top congressional Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, emerged from a White House dinner Wednesday to say they had reached a deal with President Donald Trump to save DACA. But amid backlash from conservative Republicans, Trump said Thursday that they were “fairly close” but nothing had been agreed to.
It was the latest in a confusing back-and-forth on the subject that started last week when the Trump administration announced it was rescinding the program, but gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative fix.
“I don’t think anybody can put much faith in the statement that there is a deal, because so much can change,” said John Trasvina, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law and an immigration expert who worked in Washington under the Clinton and Obama administrations. “I’ve seen tons of times when people think they have an immigration deal, and then it goes away.”
Under the Trump administration plan, those already enrolled in DACA remain covered until their two-year permits expire. If their permits expire before March, 5, 2018, they can renew them for another two years as long as they apply by Oct. 5. But the program isn’t accepting new applications.
The University of San Francisco, which has about 80 DACA recipients, is advising students to adhere to that deadline and is raising money to help pay the $495 renewal fee.
Despite reassurances from schools that they’ll be able to continue attending classes, many students are anxious. They’re worried about how they’ll pay for school if they can’t work.
Ana Maciel, a 23-year-old who works full time to put herself through a University of San Francisco education Master’s program, says she’s been on “an emotional roller coaster.” She fears being deported to Mexico, the country she left at age 3, and wonders if it’s smart to keep investing in school if she can’t work afterward.
“Is this what I should spend my money on?” Maciel says about her $8,000 tuition. “Everything is up in the air.”
Trump’s DACA announcement on Sept. 5 came after 10 Republican attorneys general threatened to sue in an attempt to halt the program. They were led by Attorney General Ken Paxton in Texas, which has the second-highest number of DACA recipients after California.
Three days after Trump announced the administration was phasing out the program, the Arizona attorney general brought a separate lawsuit that claims the state’s universities cannot provide in-state tuition rates for DACA recipients. Attorney General Mark Brnovich says the schools are violating Arizona law which makes it clear in-state tuition is eligible only to those with legal immigration status. The schools are vowing to fight back.
And critics of the program were swift to denounce the possibility of a deal in Congress. Numbers USA denounced the prospect of making a deal on border security to provide “amnesty for the so called ‘dreamers’ to compete and take jobs from Americans and those here legally.”
Meanwhile, immigrants are fearful of being sent back to countries they don’t consider home.
Andrea Aguilera, a Dominican University junior in suburban Chicago, worries about being deported and separated from family members, some of whom are citizens. She was illegally brought across the Mexican border at age 4.
“You never know what can happen under this administration. We do want to feel relief. We’ve been fighting for something more permanent for a really long time,” she said. “It seems like it’s a game (to political leaders). They don’t realize how many peoples’ lives are being affected by this.”
At UC Berkeley, Burmese-Taiwanese national Amy Lin, a 23-year-old doctoral student in the university’s ethnic studies department, has set up an emergency phone tree for DACA students. She fears Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials might come knocking.
“The university says it doesn’t allow ICE agents on campus, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come in,” said Lin, who was brought to the U.S. illegally at age 12.
University of California President Janet Napolitano filed a lawsuit last Friday that’s one of several high-profile legal challenges to Trump’s decision.
Napolitano helped create the program in 2012 as Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama. The 10 schools in the UC system have about 4,000 students without legal permission to stay in the U.S.
UC schools are among those offering student loans to DACA students, and they’ve directed campus police not to question or detain individuals based on their immigration status.
The University of Illinois at Chicago, which has hundreds of DACA students, has posted online instructions for students and security staff to call campus police immediately if anyone, including federal agents, comes on campus and starts asking questions.
“We have to follow the law, obviously,” said UIC Provost Susan Poser, but “we’re going to do everything we can to support (students).”
At Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, president Elizabeth Kiss plans to invite DACA students to her home to meet with an attorney. Georgia bars in-state tuition rates for students without legal immigration status.
“I have no intention of picking a fight with the Georgia Legislature,” said Kiss. “I also have to keep students safe and support their well-being.”