News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

The Power Higher Ed Institutions Can Have in Supporting Undocumented Students

Wednesday, June 24, 2020  
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By Willian De Faria, Student at the University of Notre Dame and Member of the LEDA Policy Corps

As a full-time student at the University of Notre Dame, most of my time is dedicated to studying, researching, and working, and I often find myself tuning out the noise from the hassle on campus. However, in my third year here at this amazing school, I stopped in the student center. The Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy group was holding an event encouraging the community to write Christmas letters to kids in immigration detention centers at the border. Simultaneously, there was a whiteboard standing at the entrance of the dining hall asking students to answer the following question: “Should [the U.S. government] provide a pathway to citizenship for those with DACA or should they increase immigration enforcement?” As a DACA student, the question hurt me, but also came as no surprise.

Attending a predominantly White institution has led me to engage with those who think of immigrant policy as simply a topic of discussion. Microaggressions, like that of the dining hall whiteboard, are often irritating, but they become infuriating when they are dismissive of my experience. Immigration policy is not a talking point for me, it has been a constant antagonizing force for my family since we moved to this country. Quite often we have been able to bypass the struggles of the system, and our greatest victory thus far has been my matriculation to Notre Dame. Yet this does not change the status of my family.

At the same time that I was frustrated by the fact that my peers were debating the idea of immigration, I was living with the consequences of a broken immigration system. In that same year, a family member was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We believed that deportation was inevitable, and if this was the case the only option for me would have been to drop out of school and find a job to support my family. However, before that happened, I sought help from Notre Dame’s administration. I was given a free consultation with an immigration attorney who helped me write an affidavit. This was an incredibly important step because it was instrumental in my family member’s release. As a result, I was able to finish my semester with a clear conscience and a greater appreciation for the power that institutions have.

The faith that I had in Notre Dame’s administration was not baseless. From the moment that I received my admissions letter, I was welcomed by a support network from the first-year advisory board, the financial aid office, and the president’s office. Additionally, I formed a reliable community with a group of undocumented and DACA students. Because of the resources at Notre Dame, I was not only able to assist my family, I was also given reimbursement for my DACA renewal fees and I was provided transportation to the biometrics office in the middle of the school semester. It is difficult to overstate just how critical these services have been, because above everything else they have provided me with the confidence to make decisions without the label “undocumented” holding me back.

Unfortunately, others like me do not have access to this help. Many had to compromise their college experience to be close to their family, others were not able to graduate high school, and still others were never given the chance to receive DACA status. Furthermore, Notre Dame is a selective school with financial resources that other institutions do not have. It should not be just the DACA students at elite institutions who have access to support in navigating the immigration system.

The privileges that I was granted were institutional policies that other universities and colleges can adopt. Higher education institutions, from community colleges to medical schools, can start by making clear statements regarding the policies surrounding admissions, financial aid, and housing as it pertains to undocumented and DACA students specifically. Doing so will allow us to make informed decisions regarding our careers. Secondly, schools should provide guided mentorship with an effective support system for undocumented and DACA students. This can take the form of a dedicated adviser who directly engages with, and develops a community for, undocumented and DACA students. And finally, institutions should provide us with unique services such as legal representation and financial assistance with DACA renewals. This will ensure that we can continue our higher education journey without the burdens of being undocumented holding us back.

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