UC Santa Cruz junior Lalo Mendez has felt a swirl of emotions since the election of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president.
He fears that Trump will seek to deport undocumented immigrants like him and end his college education and hopes for a career as a lawyer. At the same time, he’s grateful that California colleges are promising to continue the financial aid and emotional and legal support for thousands of undocumented students no matter what Trump does next year.
That blend of anxiety, defiance and uncertainty has taken hold among undocumented students at California colleges as well as administrators who run the campuses and award financial aid for so-called Dreamers – young people brought into the United States as children or young teens. Many of them are temporarily protected from deportation by the 2012 executive order issued by President Barack Obama known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The next president can reverse the order without Congressional approval.
Given the unclear path ahead, no one knows whether California’s higher education hospitable admissions and financial aid policies for the undocumented will soon conflict with new federal policy and what steps schools here might take to help their students if Trump as president revokes DACA. During his campaign, Trump said he would get rid of DACA, which has protected about 750,000 young people nationwide so far.
As a result, across many California campuses, “there is definitely a heightened sense of anxiety and there is definitely a sense of not knowing what is going to happen,” said Rafael Topete, director of Long Beach State’s Dream Success Center, which aims to help the estimated 1,000 undocumented students at that campus.
Katharine Gin, executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, said that DACA has been “essential to people feeling there is going to be a payoff to the investment they put in their education.”
At UC Santa Cruz, Mendez, 26, a pre-law politics major who was approved for DACA, said he knows he is “very, very lucky” to be in California, which provides undocumented immigrants in-state tuition discounts, state-funded grants and the ability to obtain a driver’s license – unthinkable in some more conservative states.
Yet, he said he worries that information he provided on his application for temporary protection now can be used against him and family members if large-scale deportations start. At the university’s advice, he has abandoned plans to study abroad next year, in case he is refused re-entry into the United States.
After the election, Mendez thought briefly about dropping out of school, but now feels a “re-energized focus on education” and pledges to remain politically active during Trump’s presidency.
University and college leaders and faculty in California say they face a challenge: encouraging students like Mendez to continue their education while preparing them for possible harsh changes. About 74,000 undocumented students attend California’s public campuses, according to estimates from the University of California, California State University and community colleges.
At Long Beach State, administrators and faculty are trying to “ease the anxiety as much as we can,” Topete said. Since the election, his Dream Success Center has sponsored discussion circles for students and families, he said, adding: “We are assuring them that the level of services and aid we provide will remain the same” and possibly increase “as much as we can.”
Nonetheless, he said, some students may drop out if they lose their right to work legally during school and after graduation. “I think some students will find the challenges too hard to overcome,” he said. Most, however, “will be resilient” and want to graduate, he said.
Katharine Gin, executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco-based organization that helps undocumented students, said she is concerned that some high school students may be so worried about possible deportation and paying for school that that they won’t attend college, particularly schools far from families.
Current college students may drop out if they think career paths are blocked, she said, explaining that DACA has been “essential to people feeling there is going to be a payoff to the investment they put in their education.” Her organization has been holding seminars with students on California aid and possible paths to lawful immigration status other than DACA.
The leaders at UC, CSU, community colleges and independent campuses have told students that state-funded and private scholarships and other benefits will not be reduced and they insist campuses will remain welcoming. While undocumented students are not eligible for federal grants, loans or work-study programs, schools are considering steps that could soften the impact of a DACA revocation, such as increased aid to compensate for lost jobs.
But schools are stopping short of saying that California campuses can become full “sanctuary” spaces, exempt from immigration arrests.
California colleges are warning students to cancel future study trips abroad and, if they are overseas already, to return to the United States before Trump’s inauguration. Some campuses, such as UC Berkeley, are working on ways to help pay for any airfare and program deposits that students might lose.
UC system President Janet Napolitano, who helped craft DACA when she served as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, has formed a task force to help UC’s estimated 3,700 undocumented students with counseling, legal advice and replacing work income if DACA is killed. At the same time, UC officials are advising students to renew DACA if they have it but not to start new applications, a nod to suspicions about federal authorities gaining information.
CSU system Chancellor Timothy White assured students that the university will not enter into agreements with federal or state authorities to enforce immigration law changes and that campus police would not detain anyone solely for immigration issues. But White conceded that he had no power to fully declare CSU campuses “sanctuaries.”
At the California Student Aid Commission, which administers the Dream Act Cal grants for the undocumented, Executive Director Lupita Cortez Alcalá said she is concerned that some high school seniors might be too scared to fill out the award application even though the commission promises not to share information with federal authorities and DACA status is not required.
The California Dream aid application is separate from the widely-used federal form for other financial aid. In urging students to apply for the Dream grants, Alcalá said she wants to spread the message that “nothing has changed or will change in the near future” for the aid program.
To help students deal with their stress, some campuses are increasing mental health services.
At UC Berkeley, Dreamer’s Resource Center psychologist Diana Peña estimated that calls and visits are up about 40 percent since the election. She said students are worried about their own safety and their families’ safety. Some students, she said, are examining their education and asking, “Will all this be worth it?” Many more are having trouble concentrating on school work.
Hector Jimenez Carreño, a Santa Rosa Junior College student, said he and other undocumented students are “in a limbo state now,” awaiting Trump’s decisions.
Jimenez, who was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was a baby, knows he is fortunate to be in California, where he said, “at least I still have a chance at my education.” Jimenez, who works at the campus Dream Center, tells other students he understands their panic but counsels them to continue with school.
“The most important thing for the community is not to make any rash decisions,” he said.