Dreamers, undocumented students at BYU face unique challenges

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A march in Washington, D.C., supports “Dreamers,” people whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children. The 2019 march was photographed by Nori Gomez, DACA and undocumented student liaison for BYU’s International Student and Scholar Services office. “Standing on the Side of Love” was just one poster at a march supporting Dreamers during the DACA oral arguments in the nation’s capitol. (Nori Gomez)

Students who are “Dreamers” face unique challenges at BYU because of their undocumented status.

“Dreamers” is a common term used to refer to individuals who as children were brought to the U.S. by their parents. If these young immigrants meet certain requirements, they can apply to be part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also sometimes known as the Dreamers program, which gives recipients two-year renewable work permits and protects them from deportation.

The DACA program was originally implemented under the Obama administration in 2012 as a temporary solution to immigration problems and does not include a pathway to citizenship.

A recent ruling by Andrew Hanen, a federal district judge in Texas, put a halt on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from accepting new applications for the work permits, deeming the program illegal. This is one of many rulings over the years that highlights the ever-changing policies in place for these young people.

Nori Gomez is the DACA and undocumented student liaison for BYU’s International Student and Scholar Services office and is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient herself. She said it is frustrating for undocumented students and DACA recipients to have their future so unknown.

“This isn’t the first time,” Gomez said. “It has gone around the litigation circle a lot and it always come back. It’s torture.”

An uncertain future

Hanen’s ruling affects those who are applying to the program for the first time. For everyone else, Gomez said it is another setback for immigrants and adds to their worries about whether they can stay in the country.

“That’s a scary thing if you can only determine your future on a one or two year plan. Nothing has been provided for permanent protection for these students,” Gomez said.

She said immigration reforms often get shot down in Congress even though they are usually a bi-partisan effort. The program, although helpful, is still allowing students to only function on a two-year timeline. The program was always pushed under the condition that it will eventually lead to citizenship, Gomez said, but that is still not the case.

To sidestep this issue with Congress, Gomez said Democrats sometimes put immigration reforms into budget reconciliation or other bills. She said while this isn’t the preferred route, she is hopeful this means permanent protections for immigrants can eventually be achieved.

President Joe Biden released a statement on July 17 saying Hanen’s court ruling is “deeply disappointing” and “relegates hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to an uncertain future.” Biden said the Department of Justice intends to appeal the decision and instead preserve and fortify Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“But only Congress can ensure a permanent solution by granting a path to citizenship for Dreamers that will provide the certainty and stability that these young people need and deserve,” Biden said in the statement. He then renewed his call for Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act to “finally provide security to all Dreamers, who have lived too long in fear.”

The American Immigration Counsel said as of March 2020, there are 8,490 active DACA recipients living in Utah. Of all immigrants eligible for DACA in Utah, 74% have applied.

Sociology professor Jane Lilly Lopez does research on law immigration, citizenship and family. She said the DACA program was a temporary measure, but no real solution has been made for these young immigrants. It has led the program to become something everyone is leaning on to help a population broadly seen as innocent in regards to their determined immigration status.

“We have all of these young immigrants who are undocumented but who come here and are raised in our communities and learn in our schools and they reach a point where they graduate and then everything is closed to them,” Lopez said. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals makes it easier for these individuals to access higher education and work and allows relief from deportation, Lopez said.

But only having two years guaranteed with the risk of being kicked out of the place they have always lived is psychologically traumatizing, scary and stressful for students, Lopez said.

“(DACA) was supposed to provide stability to people who find themselves in this unstable and unpredictable situation, but now it’s not even offering that much stability. It’s offering a mirage of support. I can only imagine psychologically that is difficult for students to deal with,” Lopez said.

The program also can cause problems for recipients as it is expensive and is a slow, tedious process to renew. Recipients also run the risk of causing vulnerability to those they live with who aren’t eligible for DACA since recipients have their address reviewed, Lopez said.

Challenges undocumented BYU students face

BYU students should be more aware of their classmates who might be struggling, Lopez said. “If you are going around day to day and not carrying that baggage, it can be hard to recognize and support classmates who are carrying that and recognize their need for a social and psychological safe space,” Lopez said.

Undocumented students at other schools usually are forced to pay out-of-state tuition because of their undocumented status, even if they have lived in that state their whole lives. Because BYU doesn’t charge out-of-state tuition, this doesn’t affect undocumented student tuition costs, but it makes many undocumented BYU students feel as though they only got accepted because they are “flying under the radar” and haven’t gotten caught yet, Gomez said.

BYU does not ask for Social Security information when students apply, so anyone who is a citizen or not can still apply to the private institution. The good thing about this is the school doesn’t intentionally track someone’s status as a citizen, but the school’s system has no place for and doesn’t recognize undocumented students, marking them as international students, Gomez said.

One of the biggest hurdles is those who are undocumented are seen as international students, but then don’t have the same credit or work limitations as international students. While being stuck in this “in between,” many of the students are scared to ask professors for help because they worry they could get in trouble for being undocumented, Gomez said.

Lopez thinks BYU students should try speaking up more about immigration reform on behalf of their classmates. “This isn’t an issue we should leave to the undocumented students. We as a campus community should recognize something is wrong with our immigration system and our undocumented students are important and beloved and we should come together and advocate on their behalf rather than expecting them to do that work on their own.”

Resources for undocumented students

“A lot of them don’t talk and hope they get by without being noticed,” Gomez said. This is why Gomez and other students at the BYU International Student and Scholar Services office are trying to create a place undocumented students can turn to for help so they don’t feel stuck in the shadows.

The BYU International Student and Scholar Services office has several posters and images it is promoting in support of undocumented students on campus. (BYU International Student and Scholar Services)

The International Student and Scholar Services website says the office “seeks to help all students whose legal citizenship currently comes from outside of the U.S. To this end, (our office) welcomes all undocumented students and strives to be a safe and supportive place for all dreamers.

The International Student and Scholar Services office has a webpage dedicated specifically to Dreamers with resources for legal help, free therapy or support, frequently asked questions and answers for DACA individuals, scholarship opportunities and more to help Dreamers at BYU.

On the webpage there is a tab titled #HomeIsHere with a collection of ally resources for people who want to help. There are supportive publications, Church statements, BYU devotionals, Kennedy Center lectures and other information on positive immigration reform. There are also Church-based resources that say students should be helping their brothers and sisters who face challenges in immigration, Gomez said.

When applying for DACA, individuals must report grades and provide proof that they are a good citizen and are worth being given protections. Gomez said sometimes this makes students feel they only have worth if they are good students. The office hopes to provide help for those undocumented students who may be struggling in school because of various factors, Gomez said.

“We hope students come in and trust us enough to know we can help them,” Gomez said. “We are trying to make a space for them they can turn to and show they are meant to be here just as much as any other accepted student.”

The #HomeIsHere page also includes a syllabus statement the office encourages professors to add to their syllabus to signify to undocumented students that their classroom is a safe space for them where they can get help.

Immigration and the Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in January 2018. In the statement the Church said it doesn’t advocate for any specific legislation, but “Our hope is that, in whatever solution emerges, there is provision for strengthening families and keeping them together.”

The statement continues saying the Church calls upon national leaders to create policies that provide hope to those who have built lives, pursued educational opportunities, and been employed for years in the country demonstrating a capacity to serve and contribute positively in society.

“We welcome the sincere efforts of lawmakers and leaders to seek for solutions that honor these principles and extend compassion to those seeking a better life,” the statement says.

Although immigration reforms aren’t usually viewed as conservative ideals, the Church supports immigration as it is a family issue, Gomez said. She said this is something people often forget because immigration can be such a touchy subject. However, looking at immigration in the context of The Family: A Proclamation to the World, Gomez said members should be supporting families that are in the U.S. as well as immigration reforms. She thinks a lot less heated arguments would occur inside and outside the Church if people thought about immigration as an issue of keeping families together.

All BYU students should be careful and conscious about how they talk about immigration and what judgements they make about immigrants, Lopez said. Members of the Church should recognize much of early Church history grows out of pioneers who were immigrants and policy-wise, the Church has always been supportive of immigrants, she said.

“Immigration is highly politicized but within the Church it shouldn’t be at all. We should be seeing each other first as children of God and brothers and sisters, welcoming others regardless of immigration status or other aspects of their background,” Lopez said.

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