What some colleges are quietly doing to help undocumented students

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A protester holds a sign in support of undocumented students at a "ICE Out of Oregon" rally co-organized by Milenio.org and Voz HIspana Cambio Comunitario at the ICE offices in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Diego G Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

A protester holds a sign in support of undocumented students at a “ICE Out of Oregon” rally co-organized by Milenio.org and Voz HIspana Cambio Comunitario at the ICE offices in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Diego G Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

As on other campuses, students at the University of Utah have been calling for the school to declare itself a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, including those enrolled there.

There have been marches, a walkout and a rally at the administration building, where protesters taped copies of their demands to the president’s door. One was that the university refuse to work with, or provide students’ immigration status to, government authorities.

So far, administrators — as on some other campuses — have said no.

“They were concerned about losing federal money,” said Marisol Perez Gonzalez, a senior sociology major who along with other students took part in meetings with administrators about these issues, and who herself has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status after being brought by her family from Mexico to Salt Lake City when she was 10.

But while the fate of undocumented students is still up in the air, and the effectiveness of promises at other universities to provide them sanctuary still untested, the attention to the issue in Utah and elsewhere has resulted in something much less widely noticed that could also have a big impact: Long-sought additional support is finally being added on campuses to help these students succeed in college.

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The University of Utah has quietly agreed to create a resource center for undocumented students, and has hired a coordinator to run it. Similar supports have been put in place by Georgetown, Harvard, Western Washington University, San Diego State, San Francisco State and the California Polytechnic campuses at San Luis Obispo and Pomona.

Some critics of DACA protection object to undocumented immigrants taking seats at public universities that could go to legal residents, and — while they are ineligible for federal financial aid — getting financial aid in some states or institutional financial aid from some universities and colleges.

Some 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate high school in the U.S. each year. Ten percent go on to college.

But Meng So, director of the undocumented-student resource center at UC Berkeley since it became the first in the nation in 2012, said he’s gotten dozens of how-to inquiries from other schools. “We’ve seen a surge in the number of universities reaching out to us,” So said.

Observers of the protests, and of the new support services for undocumented students, say pressure and attention from the first have led to the second.

“It’s only because of the … student push that institutions have responded,” said Nancy Jodaitis, director of higher education initiatives at Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works with undocumented students. “Institutions have responded to the search for student safety — and the need for centers has followed.”

The goal of such resource centers and undocumented-student coordinators is to help tens of thousands of undocumented students stay in school and graduate.

There are an estimated 750,000-plus people with DACA status. About 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high schools in the United States each year, and as many as 10 percent of those enroll in college, according to some estimates.

Having a place to go and trained counselors to talk with helps provide a “consistent pathway to getting through” school, So said — particularly since undocumented students face unique challenges, including being ineligible for federal financial aid and, increasingly, living with the risk of federal agents deporting them or their families. Trained staff can help these students find jobs and private scholarships, said Jodaitis.

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Perez Gonzalez lobbied for these resources because she knew that many of her high school classmates who were undocumented or had DACA status either didn’t go to college at all or opted for community college and dropped out. She thought it would make a difference if her university created a program and hired staff to focus on students like them.

Unsurprisingly, the work of the growing number of undocumented-student coordinators has been affected by the political climate. Students are showing up at their offices concerned about news of mothers, fathers, students and others being deported. At Berkeley, So said, “we’re seeing a 40 percent increase in students seeking out mental health services, and a 60 percent increase in those seeking out legal services.”

More than 500 college and university presidents this month asked the Trump administration to “lift this cloud of fear” and let DACA students continue to study and work until Congress comes up with a permanent immigration reform.

In the short time that Alonso Reyna Rivarola has worked with undocumented students at the University of Utah, he has seen “a heightened sense of fear,” he said. “Students come to me and ask, ‘Is everything going to end?’ ”

Some students are even afraid to apply for scholarships, not wanting to risk entering their personal information in databases they fear may fall into the hands of the federal government.

“I reassure them,” said Reyna Rivarola. “I tell them to keep going to class and so on, until it’s taken away.”

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Trever Bruhn, who worked with Reyna Rivarola at the school’s Office of Engagement, said that creating a resource center is “powerful” for undocumented students. Bruhn said 86 percent of the first-generation students his office helped during the last four years have graduated or are still enrolled — a fact he attributes, at least in part, to helping students meet not just their academic, but also their psychological, emotional and financial needs. He said he hopes the new undocumented-student center will achieve similar results.

Meanwhile, at Berkeley, after receiving inquiries from 169 schools since 2013, the undocumented-student resource center in February launched the beta version of a website offering guidelines on what services similar offices should offer, and how. Thirty-four colleges and universities have already signed on, So said.

The Berkeley center provides academic, mental health and legal assistance. Although graduation data has not been collected on the students who have used these services, undocumented students who have visited achieved an average grade-point average of 3.11.

The resource center “changed my experience as a student,” said Priscilla Muñoz, who graduated from Berkeley in 2015 with a degree in molecular and cell biology. “It’s not just academics. It’s also what you’re doing outside academics that could affect your performance … They ask, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Are you eating?’ ”

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Muñoz, who wants to continue her studies and go into immunology research, spent years chipping away at community college credits until President Barack Obama introduced DACA in 2012. Obtaining DACA status allowed her to find better-paying jobs, save money and “do what I really wanted to do: study cell biology.” She got her degree two years later.

She said she also met other students like herself at the center, which helped her feel less isolated.

Emelyn dela Peña, who coordinated undocumented-student programs as assistant dean for equity, diversity and inclusion at Harvard College before becoming dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Washington University this semester, said creating centers and dedicating staff “makes students feel welcome who may not feel welcome” otherwise.

“What gets covered is what’s most dramatic. But advocates are pushing on multiple fronts, widening what gets accomplished.”

“A sense of belonging is very important to student success,” dela Peña said.

Harvard has now hired its first fellow for undocumented students, to help them find information about everything from academics to immigration law.

At San Diego State, undocumented students get help with services such as financial aid, food and housing, said Tony Chung, associate vice president for student affairs. He said that, despite the odds against them, 69 percent of such students and other “underserved populations” receiving these services graduate in six years — only slightly lower than the university-wide average of 74 percent. San Diego State, too, is adding an undocumented-student coordinator.

More students may wind up benefitting from such services in the months to come, as the political churn leading to marches and media coverage continues, experts said.

“What gets covered is what’s most dramatic,” said Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, a Washington, D.C. research organization focused on Latinos, referring to the protests. “But advocates are pushing on multiple fronts, widening what gets accomplished.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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