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Why the University of California is fighting for DACA

From a campus legal clinic all the way to the Supreme Court, UC stands up for Dreamers.

For most of her life, Stephanie Medina felt adrift. When her classmates in San Bernardino, California, were dreaming of college and careers, Medina hesitated to think about her future. Because she was undocumented, it was easier to forgo her dreams and ambitions, accepting her life as it was without the hope that anything would change.

But things did change. In 2012, when Medina was 12, President Barack Obama announced the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, or DACA, which provided temporary deportation relief and work authorization to undocumented young people who had come to the U.S. as children. To qualify, young immigrants had to meet certain requirements, including not having a serious criminal record and having earned (or be in the process of earning) an American high school diploma.

Medina begged her mother to let her apply, so she could work legally and make more money. Her mom, who was also undocumented, did not trust the program, but eventually relented and in 2016, Medina received DACA. For the first time in her life, Medina felt like she had options. She started thinking about college and chose UC Santa Cruz, in part because its leafy campus near the sea felt like a fresh start, far away from her life in the Mojave Desert.

A year after Medina got DACA, in September 2017, Jeff Sessions, who was then President Donald Trump’s attorney general, announced the end of the program, claiming that Obama had acted unlawfully and circumvented the country’s immigration laws by creating the program via executive order.

“The compassionate thing to do is end the lawlessness, enforce our laws,” said Sessions, defending the decision.

AS A UC STUDENT, Medina had access to an indispensable resource: the University of California’s Immigrant Legal Services Center. Headquartered at the UC Davis Law School, it was launched in 2015 by UC President Janet Napolitano to offer free immigration legal help for the estimated 3,700 undocumented students enrolled at UC campuses. As the Trump administration escalates its crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration, the center has become a lifeline for students trying to navigate the increasingly bewildering U.S. immigration system. A little over two years ago, when the Trump administration ended DACA, the University of California stepped up its efforts, not only supporting its undocumented students, but actively fighting the government on their behalf.

That fight has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court, with a lawsuit the university filed in 2017 challenging the government’s decision to end DACA — the first legal effort by a university to preserve the program that has helped tens of thousands of undocumented students access higher education. With a decision expected sometime in 2020, attorneys at the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center are doing what they can to keep the door open for undocumented students. Without DACA and the work authorization it provides, María Blanco, the center’s executive director, fears that undocumented students will struggle to pay for college or even see any point in finishing. “I’m really worried that we’ll lose students from this population,” she said.

ONE MORNING IN NOVEMBER, I met Blanco in her office at the UC Davis Law School. She had just finished interviewing a candidate for the staff attorney position and emerged wearing a navy blazer, earrings, and a whiff of perfume. In conversation, Blanco has a deep laugh that comes out often, despite the nature of her work. She had recently returned from Mexico City, where she met with deported families and discussed their legal options for returning to the U.S. “It was pretty heavy,” she admitted. “One of the things that was really disturbing is a lot of the kids haven’t been able to go to school because they don’t have a Mexican ID.”

For Blanco, who was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. with her family as a toddler, it was a reminder of what is at stake with her work at the Legal Services Center — and why it matters that the UC has taken such an aggressive role in the fight to preserve DACA.

During college, Blanco was involved in Chicano rights activism before attending law school at UC Berkeley. After graduating in 1984, she went to work as a civil rights lawyer defending low-income immigrant women, many of them undocumented. As she learned the particulars of the women’s situations, she realized how much their immigration status compounded their vulnerability to discrimination.

In 2001, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois authored the first DREAM Act, which would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship for many undocumented young people or “Dreamers.” But it died in Congress, as has every new version introduced since then.

For nearly 20 years, congressional efforts to reform America’s immigration laws have gone nowhere. But Blanco has continued to fight for immigrant rights in other ways. At the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Blanco convinced California legislators to pass AB 540, a 2001 state law that allowed undocumented students who are California residents to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.

Despite the success of AB 540, many undocumented students still struggled to afford college. Without work authorization, they could not get jobs on campus, and many had to drop out of school when they ran out of money. When Obama created DACA, not only did the number of undocumented students enrolled in the UC system jump; the number who graduated rose as well.

Read more: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.2/immigration-why-the-university-of-california-is-fighting-for-daca-dreamers



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High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.