Undocumented and DACAmented students educate their communities as they face uncertainty.
By Joan Hua
Part I. Mwewa Sumbwe discovers intersectionality in college at UndocuBlack
Part II. Paula dedicates her last year in college to being an UndocuAlly trainer
Part III. ‘If you like me as an individual, you like my family, too’
Robert W. Fernandez was a teenager who grew up in Elizabeth, a New Jersey city neighboring Newark. One day in 2006, during his senior year of high school, Fernandez began filling out an application for Rutgers University and asked his mother for his social security number.
His mother told him he didn’t have one. He was 16 years old.
That day, for the first time, Fernandez saw himself as an undocumented immigrant. Suddenly it made sense why he couldn’t get a part-time job or a driver’s license like his peers.
Fernandez, now 27, came to the United States from Peru at age 4 with his family. His parents intended to immigrate and join a relative who was an American citizen, but things did not go as planned. Once in the United States, he said a lawyer who was hired to prepare the family’s immigration documents swindled them out of their savings without delivering. His family stayed in the country and stayed in the shadows.
Fernandez’s coming of age echoed the experiences of many undocumented youth. Like him, most arrived in this country at a young age. The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 1.9 million unauthorized youth ages 15 and older in the United States as of 2016.
“Socially and culturally, they were largely indistinguishable from their American-born friends,” Harvard professor Roberto G. Gonzalez wrote in his 2016 book, “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.” “They thought of themselves as Americans.”
As they grow into adults, their journey becomes increasingly difficult and unpredictable. While they may be able to move through K-12 education regardless of immigration status, they face serious challenges to succeed in adulthood — starting with the lack of opportunities for tuition funds, college admissions and work permits.
A temporary solution sought to address this. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, currently offers work permits and grants two-year deportation relief to qualified youth. There are now approximately 750,000 DACA recipients in the United States, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research. Following the 2016 presidential election, more than 600 university presidents have signed a petition supporting DACA, which President Donald Trump could cancel immediately or phase out overtime. Calls for sanctuary campuses, legal support, counseling services and even a “faculty resistance” to protect DACA students compelled people in higher education to take a hard look at this population.
Fernandez believed his lack of a social security number meant he was unable to complete an application to Rutgers, but he didn’t let that stop him. He knew he was college-bound.
He submitted an application for Union County College, leaving the social security field blank. And the local community college accepted him.
A community college was hardly a dream school for a high-achieving student like Fernandez. But he said, “That was my choice, though that was my only choice.”
Fernandez later transferred and finished his bachelor’s degree at York College, a CUNY school. Ineligible for federal financial aid due to his undocumented status, he paid for college by working part time and getting help from his mother, who worked for 20 years in a factory embossing letters on glass bottles.
Fernandez is now a Ph.D. student studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. He and his family obtained their green cards only recently after their second attempt, thanks to a relative who is a U.S. citizen petitioning for them. Unlike an unauthorized or DACA status, a green card is a path to citizenship and legality.
He and his family can finally walk out of the shadows.
He said this transition gave him a “mini identity crisis.” Being undocumented had become both a restraining burden and an identity.
The undocumented youth are also commonly known as Dreamers. What is not commonly known is that the federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which was introduced in 2001, was never approved by Congress, despite the big push in 2010. Thus, the Dreamers’ chance to obtain citizenship is perpetually deferred, if not denied.
While some undocumented students were able to navigate the obstacles in pursuing their education and their dreams, others were not. With or without degrees in hand, they wake up every day facing an unpredictable future that hinges on changing immigration policy. Will they be able to stay? Will they be eligible for financial aid? Will they be able to work after they graduate? What about in five years? How will they build their careers, families and lives on shifting ground? The current policy has no answers.
Some undocumented students became “DACAmented” after 2012 with President Barack Obama’s executive action. However, the DACA program’s effectiveness has been rattled under the new Trump administration. Concerns rose that information disclosed in DACA applications may be shared with immigration enforcement. Even the shielding power of DACA was punctured — when, in early March, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) published messages on Twitter saying that “DACA is not a protected legal status.” News broke that recipients were being arrested, such as 23-year-old Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez, who was deported early this year despite having valid protective status.
I. Mwewa Sumbwe discovers intersectionality in college at UndocuBlack
“We were already vulnerable, and now we’re even more vulnerable,” said Mwewa Sumbwe, reflecting on the growing anxiety in immigrant communities. She has asked that her photo not be used because she is worried about personal security.
In 2014, Sumbwe was a senior at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Maryland. On the day of her senior banquet, she received 10 rejection letters in response to her college applications.
Not all of them were particularly selective schools. She said she should have gotten into them. “I was being treated as an international student, and I had to prove I would be able to pay all four years before I could even get accepted into the schools,” she said. That was one of the moments when the reality of her undocumented immigration status really sank in.
“All this time I’ve been told this is what it looks like to be a particular student, to be an American,” Sumbwe said. “I’ve done it. I abide by it. So why is it that just one paper decides whether or not I am?”
Sumbwe, 21, now studies public health at University of Maryland, College Park. She leads the local chapter of the UndocuBlack Network, which aims to bring resources to the black undocumented population. She is also the president of the UMd. chapter of Define American, a student-led initiative charged to spark conversations and mutual understanding on campus.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m American,” she said. “It’s just a number and a piece of paper that keeps me from being defined as that.”
No one in Zambia — the country where her family is from — would see her as Zambian, she said.
Sumbwe defined an American student as someone who embraces the idea that “we’re all humans, that everyone should have their rights.” She said an American student values “choosing to live — not just surviving — but actually living your life to the fullest.”
She is a self-described introvert and was never fond of politics or activism. But since college, she has pushed herself to connect with people. Hoping to find solidarity with others like her, she took a class called “Immigrant Communities, Leadership, and Organizing,” a special topic course offered at University of Maryland. Now she is making an effort to recruit members for UndocuBlack and Define American, organize events, conduct community outreach and form alliances.
Getting the local chapters of these organizations off the ground has been a slow, difficult process.
“Everyone is at a different stage in their story, in whether or not they want to expose their stories and be out there,” she said. She encourages peers to choose to do what they are comfortable with. She explained it’s about coalition building among the underrepresented groups — not exclusively immigrants.
Sumbwe organized an event called Empowerment Circle on a recent Monday. It was an hour past the start time, and she was in the room all by herself. The vice president of the Define American UMd. chapter already left. More than a dozen empty chairs formed an untouched circle. An agenda listing ice-breaker and action-planning activities were still on the whiteboard. The lights were off.
No one showed up.
She sat down in one of the chairs. She appeared to have dressed up for the event; her burgundy jumpsuit showed under the floral kimono she was wearing. Her subtle eyeshadow in purple and cinnamon matched the colors of her outfit. She had gotten her hair braided just a few weeks ago.
Attempting to explain the lack of turnout, Sumbwe said she thought her peers were not motivated to get involved because the issues didn’t necessarily affect them directly. Students may also be turned off by the time commitment.
The immigration status of some of her peers may be another deterrent, she said. Deportation of former DACA recipients have surged in just the first two months of Trump’s presidency, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Nobody here is going to ask about their status. I wish people would see that,” she said.
She also mentioned that a recent victory perhaps slowed down the urgency to push further. In mid-March, University of Maryland appointed its first coordinator to serve its undocumented student population. According to The Diamondback, the student newspaper, the university had 113 students with DACA status as of fall 2016.
This progress is a result of the efforts of ProtectUMD, a student coalition that made 64 demands in November 2016, urging University of Maryland administrators to take direct actions to support minority students.
“All this time I’ve been told this is what it looks like to be a particular student, to be an American. I’ve done it. I abide by it. So why is it that just one paper decides whether or not I am?” — Mwewa Sumbwe
According to Sumbwe, so far, the new undocumented student coordinator position is only one of the few listed items that received a response. She said that’s not enough.
That evening she had a last-minute phone call scheduled with the UndocuBlack Network to coordinate another upcoming event — this time to bring a “Caravan” of immigrant children and young activists traveling from Miami to Washington, D.C., to form a “Unity Circle” outside the White House.
Sumbwe bought a tray of sandwiches for the Empowerment Circle event. She paid for them herself as the organization didn’t have a budget — she said they couldn’t afford to do a fundraiser yet. She will probably bring the sandwiches home for her little sisters to eat for the rest of the week.
“Are you sure you don’t want one?” she asked the reporter.
II. Paula dedicates her last year in college to being an UndocuAlly trainer
The first thing Paula did when she received DACA status, in 2014, was to get her driver’s license so she could finally join travel soccer.
“I know this is very silly,” Paula said. But it mattered a great deal to her. “All my life I have played soccer. And one thing I was never allowed to do was to play travel soccer.”
Doing so required a state-issued ID.
Paula’s family moved from Peru when she was 6. She has lived in Virginia Beach for most of her life. In high school, it seemed to her, “I was basically the only person who spoke Spanish. I was the only Hispanic that I had seen.” Paula asked that only her first name be used for this story to protect her family.
Paula, now 21, received DACA status in her last year in high school. It finally allowed her to play soccer in different states nationwide, something she had wanted to do since she was 10 years old. In addition, it ensured her chance of attending college in her home state.
In 2014, when Paula began attending George Mason University, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring allowed DACA-protected students to qualify for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities. He issued this opinion despite controversy. In George Mason’s case, the difference between in- and out-of-state tuition rates is more than $21,000 a year, an estimated difference between $32,000 and $11,000.
This was the Attorney General’s 2014 interpretation of the law, which doesn’t explicitly state whether DACA-protected students are eligible for in-state tuition in Virginia. Mark Herring is running for re-election this November.
Other states are making decisions on the same issue. In Florida, a bill introduced this year can undo the state’s 2014 provision allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. On the other hand, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill this March that could make undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2015, 16 states have state legislation extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. On the other hand, six states explicitly bar those students from qualifying.
Despite Paula’s eligibility for in-state tuition at George Mason, the cost is still a serious challenge without financial aid. Paula now aims to finish her curriculum early and graduate this summer after her third year. She said she hopes this will ease her parents’ financial burden and allow her brother — who had to drop out because of the overwhelming expense — to return to school.
As Paula accelerated her studies, she decided to dedicate her last year in college to something she believed to be truly meaningful. She gave up playing soccer and devoted her time to advocating for undocumented students with the student-led organization Mason DREAMers.
“This is something that needs our attention now,” she said.
She is now an UndocuAlly trainer, helping attendees — university staff, financial aid officers, resident assistants, faculty members, fellow students — gain a better grasp of the experiences and needs of undocumented students.
At UndocuAlly training sessions, members of Mason DREAMers volunteer to share their stories about how they came to the United States and how that has impacted their lives.
“For me, it gets really personal,” Paula said. “It’s something I’m still afraid of doing — sharing my life with everyone. But I feel like it’s a necessity. … If that can motivate someone else to take a stance, to become an ally, then it’s important to have that conversation and share that story.”
Recently, in a checkout line at a Target store in Virginia Beach, a woman told her and her little sister they shouldn’t be in line, that they didn’t speak English.
“That’s sad to hear, because I’ve lived here for the most part of my life,” Paula said, careful to point out this may be an isolated incident. “And I probably know English better than I know Spanish, which is my native language. It’s heartbreaking to hear … just because of my appearance, someone assumes I don’t speak English,” she said, narrowing the “know” with her subtle Virginian accent.
III. ‘If you like me as an individual, you like my family, too’
Every undocumented student has a story about the first time she publicly stated her immigration status.
For Danna Chavez Calvi, 24, it was sort of an accident. She was featured in a freshman convocation video at George Mason University. During an interview shoot, she was asked to say things about herself. She started listing random facts, and one of them was that she was undocumented.
The edited video came out, and Chavez Calvi’s statement about her undocumented status was mixed in among other students’ statements about their countries of origin. She was surprised.
“At first it made me very uncomfortable,” she said. “For one, the attention was brought to my migratory status, not to Bolivia, where I’m proudly from.”
Her mother was watching the video with her. She was stunned, too, and fell silent. That moment, Chavez Calvi said, was a stark reminder that what she disclosed about herself may have serious impacts on her family.
“You can’t honestly tell me that you support me as a Dreamer if you don’t necessarily support or are questioning my family because, last I checked, they are the ones that raised me, and thanks to them, I’m where I am now. So if you like me as an individual, you like my family, too.” — Danna Chavez Calvi
She noted that her exposure has also had a small effect on how others around her perceive undocumented immigrants.
“Even some of my friends or classmates who I knew were very conservative from the very beginning … they found out I was undocumented, and they’re sort of looking at things differently,” she said.
These students tried to find out more, she said. Coming from conservative backgrounds, several chose school projects dealing with immigration issues. They reached out to Mason DREAMers and asked about the UndocuAlly training.
That was a positive result from last semester, she said. And it gave her reasons to keep going.
Chavez Calvi is the external president of Mason DREAMers at George Mason University. She introduced the organization as one that helps undocumented students pursue higher education at their choosing, advocating for their rights to do so.
“An immigration status essentially should not determine their future,” she said.
At a Know Your Rights workshop organized jointly by Mason DREAMers, ACLU Virginia and the AAUP Foundation in March, Chavez Calvi appeared on a panel with immigration lawyers and experts. Audience members had burning questions about what to do in different scenarios. And while the experts offered their advice, Chavez Calvi sat quietly on stage, vigorously taking notes. She was not asked to speak until 30 minutes in.
But when she was put on the spot, she firmly asserted her presence.
In her opinion, she said, DACA-protected individuals are actually privileged. They have generally more support than the older undocumented immigrants. She argued for support for her family, her “pillars.”
“It’s not only about looking out for Dreamers,” she said. “I appreciate you all being here, but if you’re only here because you only support Dreamers, then I would ask you to reevaluate to what degree your commitment is to Dreamers. Because you can’t honestly tell me that you support me as a Dreamer if you don’t necessarily support or are questioning my family because, last I checked, they are the ones that raised me, and thanks to them, I’m where I am now. So if you like me as an individual, you like my family, too.”
The last words were drowned out by audience applause.
Noting increased detentions and raids conducted by ICE in February, ACLU Virginia has been regularly hosting workshops similar to this one and offering resources to residents in the local area.
Immigration enforcement intensified soon after Trump took office. His executive order expanded the pool of unauthorized immigrants that could be prioritized for removal. New numbers reported in April by the Washington Post showed ICE immigration arrests of non-criminals more than doubled. Raids occurred even near sensitive locations and in cities like Los Angeles. and Phoenix. News like these have created unease.
Chavez Calvi said this situation frustrated her. She noted a time when her mother recently chose not to meet family members at the airport because she wanted to avoid such places, where ICE agents were known to be present. Seeing her mother struggling to contain her emotions and worries was not easy.
Chavez Calvi graduated in December 2016 but continues her involvement with Mason DREAMers as the external president. She also works full time at Manassas City Public Schools.
She has inspired fellow Dreamers like Paula.
“Danna is amazing,” Paula said. “She has a full-time job, and she still finds the time to come back here and continue working with us. That just shows you how dedicated each member gets. We invest ourselves into this … because what we’re fighting for doesn’t just end after college. You know, it’s part of our identity.”
For Chavez Calvi, there is no guarantee that she will eventually be able to work as a citizen in the country in which she has lived for over 16 years. This is the uncertainty that undocumented or DACAmented students face. Not knowing what the future holds, Chavez Calvi looks ahead. She will likely continue her work in the classroom by joining Teach for America this summer, and she is considering eventually pursuing a master’s degree in international education.
“I do adopt a lot of the American values,” she said. “I do very much love this country. … But we’ve all lived in this limbo for so long that I think some of us are like, ‘well, what are we?’”
That is a question students like her will have to keep grappling with as they move past graduation, even as they chart their paths to legality.
Featured photo by Joan Hua