Undocumented and DACA students: Reaffirming the value of diversity and inclusion

Established in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was introduced as a form of administrative relief that protects immigrant youths who came to the United States as children from deportation. In 2017, the Trump administration announced that DACA would be rescinded, causing great uncertainty for immigrant families. Several states are legally challenging the policy change, and dozens of universities, including Cornell, have written to the administration reaffirming that diversity and inclusion are cornerstones of any college community, and that DACA and undocumented students are not only an integral part of that community, but also deserve an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

To better assist these students, Cornell has strengthened its resources, including the creation of the Office of Undocumented/DACA Student Support. As assistant director of the new office, Kevin Graham works closely with various offices to strengthen campus connections for undocumented/DACA students, lead campus awareness workshops for faculty, staff and students and, most importantly, work closely with students from mixed-status families and undocumented/DACA students to support student needs, programming and initiatives.

A first-generation college student and native of Guyana, Graham holds degrees from Nazareth College. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Warner School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester, where his research explores how academic institutions serve undocumented/DACA students. He most recently served as the undocumented/DACA students graduate assistant in the Office of Global Engagement at the University of Rochester. Additionally, Graham was a doctoral intern with the Undocumented Student Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

What are the biggest challenges facing undocumented and DACA students?

The biggest challenge facing undocumented and DACA students right now is the national dialogue and rhetoric on immigration and, to be quite candid, the confusion around immigration reform and policies, specifically DACA. There is a sense of uncertainty for most practitioners doing this work of supporting undocumented students, because no one knows what will happen. These students are working hard and are academic achievers, but simultaneously they’re looking over their shoulders because at any moment, depending on their immigrant status, they can be deported. I wish I had some sort of a sweeping solution, but Cornell has a great community of faculty, staff and students committed to supporting the undocumented and DACA student population. Several faculty and staff have graciously dedicated their time, knowledge, and expertise to make this campus friendly to undocumented students.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about undocumented students?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that all undocumented students are from Latin American countries when in reality nationally the undocumented student population reflects many racial and ethnic backgrounds. The same is true for the undocumented student population at Cornell. Another common misconception is that undocumented immigrants in general don’t pay taxes and that undocumented students receive federal education aid — grants and loans — that are funded through taxes. The reality is that many undocumented families pay taxes, yet undocumented students are ineligible to apply for federal financial aid and thus do not have access to federal grants, loans or work-study. Undocumented students, however, are eligible and receive Cornell-based financial support. Additionally, many might believe that undocumented students at Cornell have access to the full Cornell experience, however undocumented status can limit student participation in certain college experiences. Undocumented students are ineligible to work on campus, are unable to participate in study abroad programs, and/or have limited or are ineligible for internship or research opportunities.

What types of programs or resources are you providing in this new role?

My role serves as a connector to many resources on campus to help undocumented and DACA students more easily navigate Cornell. I serve as the adviser to the Cornell DREAM Team, a group of undocumented, DACA and documented students from mixed-status families offering support for their educational initiatives on and off campus. As a designated resource, I offer undocumented students a safe place to discuss their worries, frustrations or triumphs as it relates to their status. As an advocate, I provide UndocuAlly trainings around campus to break down misconceptions and foster greater understanding of the undocumented student college experience. Also, I work closely with staff and faculty to make policies and processes more visible for undocumented students, particularly with Cornell Law School faculty to better connect students with the pro bono services offered.

“As a designated resource, I offer undocumented students a safe place to discuss their worries, frustrations or triumphs as it relates to their status.”

Being new to Cornell, has anything surprised you about the campus community?

That there are so many individuals at Cornell who are willing to learn and willing to create a culture that’s friendly to undocumented or DACA students has been a pleasant surprise, especially given the national temperament. I’ve been invited to a number of departments just to have dialogue. Cornell students have access to volunteer programs affiliated with migrant workers, so there are many opportunities for the average Cornell student to interact with immigrants and what’s happening at the national level. I think that makes the Cornell experience incredibly unique, and that’s why we continue to have to have this dialogue.

What is your greatest hope for this role?

I hope that our office can become a staple for undocumented and DACA students, students from mixed-status families and the average student who’s looking to learn more. I’m hoping that it serves students, faculty and staff correctly, but also serves as a beacon of knowledge and evidence-based practices around engaging, supporting and graduating the undocumented and DACA student population.

As a new resource, what does success look like a year or more from now?

Success in a year will look like not only surviving what’s happening nationally, with regard to how ambiguous and uncertain things are, but thriving. That means continuing along the path of being an institution that is friendly to undocumented and DACA students and having policies and practices that support incoming and current students, graduating students and alumni.


Undocumented/DACA Support is located at 626 Thurston Ave, Room G08. For support navigating various circumstances, contact Kevin Graham at kevin.graham@cornell.edu.