How Universities Are Protecting Their DREAMers

Last Thursday, police arrested more than 30 Boston-area professors in Harvard Square as they blocked Massachusetts Avenue to protest the Trump administration’s announcement that it will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA allows undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as minors to live, work, and study in the country legally.

Kirsten Weld, an associate professor of history at Harvard, organized the protest and was among those arrested. “We wanted to send a message to our students that we are going to fight for them,” she says. “We also wanted to show what actions educators can take, because we’re not going to get this problem solved through signing petitions.”

The arrests of Weld and her peers are indicative of the outrage that many colleges and universities are expressing in the wake of the announcement. Around 10,000 of the current 800,000 DREAMers, as DACA recipients are called, graduate from college each year, and teachers and staff are also beneficiaries of the program.

The day after the Harvard demonstration, the University of California, which has about 4,000 DACA beneficiaries in its 10-campus system, announced a lawsuit against the Trump administration. “The DREAMers face expulsion from the only country that they call home, based on nothing more than unreasoned executive whim,” the suit states.

The lawsuit echoes another filed last week by the attorneys general of 15 states and Washington, D.C., that seeks to stop the administration from rescinding DACA. The state of California, along with Maryland, Maine, and Minnesota, filed a similar lawsuit today.

Meng So, the director of the UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program—the first of its kind in the country—calls the lawsuit a gauntlet to fight for justice and human dignity. “It’s an invitation to all universities across the nation to join us in winning this battle,” he says. While it remains to be seen whether other campuses will join UC in its legal fight, the lawsuit takes university resistance to deportations of undocumented students to a new level.

While some institutions, such as Wesleyan University and Reed College, designated themselves “sanctuary campuses” last year, pledging not to assist federal authorities in the deportation of their students (at least without a warrant), university officials generally recognize that their campuses must ultimately comply with immigration law. “[Being a sanctuary campus] doesn’t really mean very much,” Tim Cresswell, the dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Trinity College, told The Atlantic in 2016. Adds So: “Community members push for [sanctuary campus status] out of a desire to keep students and staff safe, but we are unsure if it has legal bearing.”

Since the Berkeley program’s founding in 2012, it has served as a model for how colleges and universities can offer services to their undocumented students, even if those services fall short of legal protection.

First, So recommends that universities offer free legal support to their undocumented students. Following the DACA announcement, institutions ranging from Georgetown University to the University of San Diego and the University of Iowa are beginning to provide or are augmenting this service.

Once undocumented students seek legal advice, So says about 30 percent of the time they discover they’re eligible for more permanent relief, such as visas granted to victims of crime or human trafficking. And following the Trump announcement, universities are aiming to register their students in a last two-year DACA period. Those whose status expires between now and March 5, 2018, are eligible for enrollment, and the deadline is October 5. Weld says that Harvard is looking into helping its students pay the $495 application fee.

Without DACA, undocumented students will find it much harder to fund college. For example, recipients won’t be able to secure work study at their respective universities. With such resources under threat, So says he is looking to shift work study into a public service fellowship or community engagement grant for affected students so they can maintain financial stability.

Universities are also increasing their mental health offerings. “Family dinner conversations have turned into deportation contingency plan conversations,” says So. “Our students should be losing sleep over school, not over whether they will be deported the next day.” Two years ago, Berkeley hired a counselor to work specifically with undocumented students, and other campuses are now stepping up.

At the University of New Mexico, for instance, student programs specialist Armando Bustamante is starting group therapy sessions for undocumented students and is working to cover costs for individual sessions. Harvard President Drew Faust announced a 24-hour hotline for undocumented Harvard affiliates and a weekly support group run by the university’s mental health center.

These services are seeing incredible demand. So says that last week his office saw a 350 percent increase in the number of students seeking mental health support, and the website received 108,000 page views in one day—72 times its usual traffic.

Weld notes that while the Trump decision first and foremost affects DACA recipients, it’s harmful to all members of a university community. “The federal government is talking about coming into our classrooms and dorms to drag our students and staff away,” she says. “This ensures that universities cannot be spaces of safety and sanctuary, and that’s unacceptable for everyone. Educators and institutions must rise to the occasion.”  

Alastair Boone contributed reporting.