With the end of DACA looming, students and administrators at the University of Minnesota have found there isn’t much they can do.
Keila, like a lot of college freshmen, is in the process of planning out her future.
She’s leaning toward majoring in mechanical engineering. She currently works at a dining hall on campus, but she’s already looking at summer internships a few years down the road. An avid nordic skier, Keila is still trying to balance nordic practice, volunteering at a nonprofit near her home, and, of course, school.
But in the back of her mind, Keila knows she can only plan ahead so far. Keila is a “Dreamer,” one of nearly 600,000 young immigrants who received protections under the now-rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA.
The program protects undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors from deportation and grants them a work permit.
With stalled action from Congress and the program set to expire, all Keila can do is wait and see. When it comes to applying for internships, pursuing her passions, or even finishing her degree, Keila’s future is simply out of her control. There’s a chance that she might not even be in the United States in a few years, much less at the U of M.
Keila lives with her older brother, Isaac, in an apartment in Minneapolis. Isaac, also a DACA recipient, recently graduated from the U with a degree in computer science. He now works at a small app company in the Twin Cities. Like Keila, Isaac has no idea what the future has in store.
It’s an unpredictable fate they’ve come to accept.
“This whole DACA thing, it’s very stressful, but I can’t do much about it,” Keila said. “I try not to worry about it too much because worrying about it isn’t going to do much.”
The deadline that wasn’t
When President Trump ended DACA this past September, he gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a solution.
DACA recipients are required to renew their protections every two years. Isaac has already renewed his protections twice. His DACA protections expire next August. Keila’s first renewal would be in 2019, if the program is still around.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) stopped accepting new applications for DACA when it was rescinded. However, under the Trump plan, existing DACA recipients were allowed to renew protections so long as their protections expired before March 5. At that point, USCIS would stop accepting all renewals.
Ultimately the future of DACA rests in Congress’ hands.
The deadline turned out to be less than binding, delayed by ongoing legal battles making their way through federal court and the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Trump administration’s request to expedite the cases.
Major parts of the program remain in place; most importantly, recipients are still able re-apply for DACA, for the time being.
The complicated legal process may have extended the program, but it also added to an environment of confusion and uncertainty. People don’t know when the renewal deadline is, or if there even is a deadline. Isaac and Keila have no idea if they will be able to renew.
The timeline for the end of DACA protections is unknown, according to Marissa Hill-Dongre, an immigration lawyer and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Immigration Response Team.
“Who knows if USCIS will keep doing renewals,” Hill Dongre said. “No one knows how long this window will be open for.”
For Linus Chan, an immigration lawyer at the U of M’s Center for New Americans and Detainee Rights clinic, the legal battles provide little hope for Dreamers. After all, DACA was technically ended by Trump, even if some of its recipients still receive protections.
“[USCIS] is supposed to take [applications], but that does not mean the program is fully in existence,” Chan said.
Chan explained the government is currently sitting on thousands of renewals. As reported by Vox, “At least 20,000 immigrants who applied for the program before the September announcement are still awaiting approval for their applications.”
“The [March] deadline is a meaningless one in that people have already lost the ability to renew DACA,” Chan said. “People who have DACA, people who used to have DACA, people who were eligible for DACA, are being removed from the U.S. right now, currently, weeks ago, months ago.”
What can the University do?
University of Minnesota administrators are facing increased urgency to protect DACA students like Keila. But there are significant limits to what the U of M can offer. Like undocumented students themselves, there isn’t much the University can do.
A petition last year signed by thousands of students, staff, faculty, and administrators urged the University to become a “sanctuary campus.” The petition included a series of concrete steps to help DACA students, including providing legal counsel, protecting student data, and preventing the U of M Police Department (UMPD) from coordinating efforts with ICE agents.
Although the University did not explicitly designate itself as a sanctuary campus, it did follow through with several of the requests. In response to the petition, University President Eric Kaler created the Immigration Response Team (IRT), which is tasked with ensuring “all who are affected by immigration policy changes have access to resources and support.”
The University is also working to clarify UMPD policy. In an email to The Wake, the University provided this statement: “UMPD has not worked with ICE on immigration enforcement. While UMPD does deal with immigration status from time to time when it is pertinent to an investigation – for example, the need to notify an embassy in regards to a foreign national – the UMPD does not contact, detain or arrest based on immigration status.”
The University did not make administrators from University Services or members of the UMPD available for an interview.
Not much to be done
Students without DACA protection, like other undocumented immigrants, are still at risk of being deported.
With or without a sanctuary campus designation, ICE cannot be barred from public spaces on campus or prevent an arrest if ICE agents have a warrant for someone’s arrest, according to Hill-Dongre.
“I think a lot of people hoped that the sanctuary concept would provide a lot of protection and I think what people have learned is that it doesn’t have a legal definition and it doesn’t have a lot of enforceability,” Hill-Dongre said.
With significant limitations, many activists switched their focus from stopping ICE to providing resources and support to students who may be targeted.
The IRT, for example, started the Dream Fund, which would provide financial support for undocumented students.
The undergraduate student government and faculty members have also called on the University to create long-distance learning that would allow students to complete their degree if they are deported. Additionally, students asked the University to amend the leave of absence policy for DACA students to ensure students would be reimbursed if they cannot complete their degree.
However, some people, including Chan, would like to see the University be more vocal on the issue.
“The University is a very powerful voice in the larger community and the state of Minnesota,” Chan said. “The fact of the matter is I think the University has been quiet on these issues.”
“ICE is really operating under a different mindset.”
Guillermo Pérez wants the University to take a stronger advocacy role. Pérez is the president of Sigma Lambda Beta International Fraternity (Alpha Beta Chapter), a historically Latino fraternity,
“I do think the University could be doing more, given its political capital,” Pérez said.
One of the problems is that the University doesn’t want to overpromise and underdeliver, according to Hill-Dongre. “[There’s] lot of support for doing everything the University can do to support students, but it’s hard to make a blanket promise,” Hill-Dongre said. “Administration is rightfully leery to make a promise that they are not sure that they can comply with.”
It’s further complicated by the University’s reliance on federal funding. The Trump administration has been increasingly hostile toward advocates for undocumented immigrants, even threatening to withhold funds from cities and campuses that declare themselves sanctuaries.
“Universities are concerned with what the implications of declaring oneself to be sanctuary campus might be from a federal funding perspective,” Hill-Dongre said.
Speaking out on DACA could also draw increased attention from federal immigration officials. Reports indicate that raids have increased in sanctuary cities, with ICE targeting those who are the loudest in opposition.
“Some of the people who are cautious about sanctuary declarations are cautious out of a desire to protect undocumented students rather than out of a desire to not think about them,” Hill-Dongre said.
‘A different mindset’
The future for Dreamers is particularly concerning because of the federal government’s increasingly aggressive stance on undocumented immigrants.
“Anxiety is heightened because immigration enforcement is different than it used to be,” said Hill-Dongre. “ICE is really operating under a different mindset.”
Under the Obama administration, ICE mostly focused on undocumented immigrants with criminal records. But under Trump, ICE has begun going after people with no criminal history. In a widely publicized case in Minnesota, an Augsburg professor, who has been in the states for nearly 30 years without a criminal record, is now facing possible deportation.
“There sort of are no priorities any more. Everyone who is undocumented is fair game for removal,” Hill-Dongre said.
For Dreamers, many of whom have lived their entire adult lives without fear of deportation, ICE’s aggressive operation makes for an even more troubling reality.
With a college education, without the ability to work
A more pressing concern for Dreamers may have to do with finances.
DACA provides recipients with an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which allows undocumented immigrants to lawfully work in the U.S. When DACA ends, so do the EAD protections.
“The real difficulties students are going to have is continuing with their degrees because of [financial] pressures. That will be the immediate thing that affects everyone,” Hill-Dongre said.
Keila relies on her campus job to pay for a portion of school. Isaac mainly worked his way through school — installing roofs in the summer and, like Keila, working at a dining hall on campus.
Although the Minnesota Dream Act allows undocumented students to receive in-state tuition and apply for state financial aid, students would not be able to do work-study or hold part-time jobs on campus without DACA.
Without an EAD, Isaac and Keila will have trouble finding work in the U.S., despite their college educations. For Keila, it means finding some other way to pay for school. For Isaac, it means he would likely have to leave the country to find work.
Holding on to hope
Isaac doesn’t want it to come to that.
“All of us who are in this current state, America is our home. We want to be full members of this society,” Isaac said.
He hasn’t started preparing to leave just yet, although he’s started saving a little more money. If he can’t renew DACA, Isaac says he’ll probably live in Mexico with his grandmother, whom he hasn’t seen in close to 20 years.
He’s not sure what will happen.
“It’s kind of scary. Not being sure about anything,” Isaac said. “I can plan all I want, but ultimately a few things are out of my control. The best I can do is hope.”
Ultimately the future of DACA rests in Congress’ hands. But, there isn’t much optimism that lawmakers will find a solution soon.
“It’s hard to undersell how dysfunctional Congress is right now,” Chan said. “This is a program that has over 80 percent approval from the general public … and we still can’t get passed the Senate, much less the House.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a leading Democratic negotiator on immigration, said he doesn’t think the issue will be resolved until after the midterms. But many Dreamers, including Isaac, can’t wait until the midterm elections; their protections will have expired by then.
As for his sister, Isaac hopes Keila can finish out her degree before protections are taken away: “The best we can do for now is have her focus on studying.”
Keila tries not to think about her immigration status too much. Her mind is busy on studying for her courses. She talks about DACA’s expiration almost as a hypothetical, something that is farther down the road than it is in reality.
But every now and then she can’t help thinking about what a future without DACA would look like. It would likely mean finishing her degree in another country. She hopes she would only be separated from her family for a little while.
Keila tries to think about making the best of such a situation, maybe traveling to Europe for the first time. But she added, “Obviously that’s not what I plan.”
For now, Keila is planning for her future as an American, despite the uncertainty.
“I’m established here. Having my four-year plan of school for four years and then finding a job. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I’ve had in my mind. That’s what pushed me through high school and hard classes to get through college, to get a good job and a good career,” Keila said.
“[The end of DACA] would mess all that up. But I would figure it out.”