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As the Fate of DACA Hangs in the Balance, Colleges Struggle to Protect Students

As the Trump administration waffles on the fate of DACA, colleges across the country are left filling the gaps—often with what limited resources they can cobble together.
A protest to defend DACA in Los Angeles, California, in 2017.

A protest to defend DACA in Los Angeles, California, in 2017.

In 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump, who made dismantling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program a key promise of his campaign, hundreds of universities and colleges around the United States pledged their support for undocumented immigrants.

But reality hasn't lived up to the hype, as many schools with DACA recipients are still struggling to offer consistent, comprehensive aid to the students whose fates are in jeopardy. For many recipients, support from academic advisers, financial aid advisers, and others on the front lines with issues including tuition payment programs, laptop and textbook rentals, housing assistance, and legal aid, has been patchy at best. And as these Dreamers are finding, though schools have been vocal about their plans to advocate for DACA students, the reality on the ground has often been different.

Some schools have been responsive in dedicating staff to work with their DACA population—the University of Maryland, the University of Notre DameCornell University, and Eastern Connecticut State University among them—while others, like the University of Connecticut rely on informal allies and advocates.

Ana Clara Blesso, a career services advisor at the University of Connecticut, feels called to speak on behalf of these students by her own story. "I'm an immigrant myself—my family is from Brazil, I was born in Brazil. I very much understand the challenges and the frustrations and the fears that come with our immigration process," she says. However, as a career services professional, she finds that the talk of how to help "DACA-mented" among administrative officials students is nearly silent.

"It's almost like higher education as a whole feels as though once we let these students into our universities, we've done enough. And then from there, figure it out yourself," Blesso says.

Even if solid foundations are built for students while they live and work on campus, a lack of effective career counseling services—ones trained to help undocumented students procure quality work—can make the transition into post-collegiate life still more fraught for DACA recipients. Of course, students have to reach graduation first, and current rates show that, despite one-third of recipients attending some college, only 5 percent go on to complete their bachelor's degree.

"I can't help but wonder if that's one of the reasons why so many undocumented and DACA-mented students don't really graduate," Blesso says. "You're grinding and you're hustling for four, five, six years, and you're paying for it yourself. You might not be eligible for in-state tuition or for financial aid, and you don't see a reason why you're getting this degree. There's no prospect of something at the end."

And yet, there seems to be no concrete reason to turn a blind eye to the challenges DACA students face. "Undocumented students have been on our campuses for years," says Mehegan Murphy, an academic advisor at Cayuga Community College. "[But] we are just catching up to the idea that they're on our campus. So one of the disappointing things sometimes is that [colleagues] ask these questions like, 'What do we do about DACA now?' And I have to say: 'In reality, it does not change what we were doing five years ago. We're in the same place.'"

As with presidential advocacy, training is taking place in pockets. Blesso praised the work of local non-profit Connecticut Students for a Dream (C4D), and the work it's doing to bring faculty, staff, and administrators across the state up to speed on how to support DACA students. Comprised of undocumented youth volunteers, the organization regularly hosts rallies and sponsors clinics for undocumented students.

There's some irony in the fact that support for DACA students often has to come from within their own ranks, Blesso says. Of the C4D session she organized for her department, she noticed that the majority of the individuals completing the training were undocumented students.

"If it wasn't for these individuals, there wouldn't have been this training, you and I wouldn't have been having this conversation, other departments wouldn't be having these conversations. We rely on individuals making themselves vulnerable in order for progress to move forward," Blesso says.

Professionals in these areas know the extent to which a dedicated team can have a positive impact on undocumented students. First-year academic adviser Leonor Wangensteen is the University of Notre Dame's point person for its undocumented population. The school employs a "task force" model to ensure a seamless experience for undocumented students. Wangensteen works closely with the Office of Student Enrichment to ensure that basic needs, otherwise overlooked or unknown, can be addressed for these students, many of whom face disproportionate financial burdens. They also help with services like laptop rental, winter clothing, legal assistance, and emergency travel funds (for students or families). Such programs can also benefit other low-income students on campus who may need the help, regardless of their immigration status, thus refuting the common narrative that undocumented students require or demand special treatment.

But schools like the University of Notre Dame and Pomona College are in the extreme minority in their comprehensive approach to DACA aid. Countless departments, institutions, and states simply don't equip their employees to work with undocumented students.

While colleges are working to adapt to DACA's uncertain future, for students, navigating the already-choppy waters of DACA aid is proving to be largely a solo mission.