Living in Silence

The anxiety of being a ‘model citizen’ under DACA

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Illustration by Anna McGrew

While other UC Santa Cruz seniors are anxious to find a job after graduation, Antonio’s* biggest concern is being able to live in the only home he has ever known — the U.S. He is one of 800,000 undocumented residents whose future in the next five months will be determined by the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump announced the rescindment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on Sept. 5, encouraging Congress to present an alternative that better conforms to conservative ideologies. On March 5, DACA will no longer be in effect, whether or not Congress implements a new program to replace it.

There are about 4,000 undocumented students in the UC system, a significant amount of whom receive DACA and, like Antonio, are afraid their lives will change completely in the next year.

Among these students are hundreds of DACA recipients at UCSC. However, no specific numbers are being released as Undocumented Student Services (USS) wants to protect the privacy of DACA students.

Without an alternative in place, DACA recipients will lose the services currently provided for them and face deportation. For Antonio, who came to the U.S. at the age of four with his parents and siblings, that may mean moving back to a country he has no recollection of.

“They are seeing all these human beings and people with dreams […] as statistics and they think they are just a burden to the economy in the U.S.,” Antonio said. “It’s really sad that this country is the land of opportunity and people come here to take advantage of those opportunities, but actions like these kind of show that they are not welcomed here.”

The DACA program allows those who immigrated to the U.S. as children to receive a two- year grace period of protection from deportation, as well as the opportunity to receive a work permit in the U.S. To be eligible for the DACA program, an undocumented individual must have no criminal record, be enrolled in a U.S. high school or have a high school degree or GED equivalent.

                                       The Daily Anxiety

In college, DACA recipients can receive support from state and UC aid, such as the Cal Grant under the California Dream Act, but not from the Pell Grant and non-Dream Act student loans. DACA students do not receive any federal financial aid.

In an email sent to the entire UC student body on Sept. 12, the UC Office of the President (UCOP) expressed its opposition to the repeal and outlined important dates for DACA recipients. Additionally, the email promised undocumented students continued legal support, in-state tuition, eligibility for Dream Act loans and support from resource centers. UCOP also barred university officials and administrators from cooperating with federal immigration officials.

Valeria Chavez-Ayala, a USS counselor, works with DACA students on campus to coordinate resources and help them graduate on time. One of the most important resources from the program is getting work permits for students.

“For many undocumented students, having access to a work permit means they are able to provide for themselves as they try to complete their undergraduate career,” Chavez- Ayala said.

Antonio didn’t know he was undocumented until he was graduating high school and applying to college. A USS group meeting was one of the very first events he attended on campus as a first year and it helped him understand what being undocumented meant.

“As a DACA student I was obviously taking advantage of the work permit,” Antonio said. “I couldn’t afford UC Santa Cruz without DACA […] That’s the main thing, just being able to provide for myself because my main goal was just not to ask for much money from my parents to fund my education.”

On top of financial and other college-related struggles, undocumented students, if deported, would also be uprooted and separated from their homes, schools, jobs, friends and family.

“It takes a mental toll on you and to be honest, it’s something that I know had high probability of happening since the night of the election,” Antonio said. “It’s just another mental struggle that undocumented students have to go through besides all of the stress a normal college student goes through.”

Currently, Antonio lives in a mixed-status family, one of 16.6 million in the U.S. One of his parents has citizenship and the other has legal residency and two of his four siblings were not born in the U.S. and have DACA. If deported, Antonio and his siblings would have to leave the rest of their family behind. In deportation situations such as this, it is likely many families would lose substantial sources of income for those left behind.

                                         ‘Model Citizen’

However, life was never easy before the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA as Antonio is aware that any violation of the law may potentially be reported to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This could resort in his deportation, as is the case with all undocumented individuals.

“Even before all of this, [my DACA status] was still in the back of my mind,” Antonio said. “I feel like I have to take extra precautions. Even when I am driving or something I have to make sure I’m not speeding or anything or give the police a reason to get pulled over […] There is this pressure of ‘I have to be perfect in order to be here.’”

While Antonio watches nationwide protesting of the Trump administration’s decision to repeal DACA, he feels pressured to remain silent out of concerns that joining protests could lead to his arrest or legal consequences and possibly the loss of his DACA status.

“I have to take a step back when I really want to be part of a movement,” Antonio said. “[…] Knowing that you are not alone goes a long way […] It would be great to walk with a little less pressure of ‘I have to be perfect and I can’t mess up.’”

Antonio said when he shares his status with others he’s told he must be better than other undocumented individuals. Although DACA recipients are required to have no criminal history, Antonio disagrees with the concept that DACA recipients are “good” immigrants or deserve citizenship more than anyone else. In one case, someone looked through his social media and told him that he “looked like one of the good ones,” making him question how undocumented people are viewed.

“Just because I had the opportunity to receive DACA and some people didn’t qualify for it doesn’t mean I am better than [other immigrants] or I have more of a right to be here than they do,” Antonio said.

                                Finding solidarity in uncertain times

The UCSC administration also expressed opposition to the repeal with possible plans to implement and improve current programs for DACA recipients, as well as other undocumented students, on campus. The UC is also suing the Trump administration over the repeal of DACA.

“Look at a generation of students who came here as children, many of whom didn’t even know that they weren’t American citizens until they went to college. […] I think the strength of our country depends on being able to give opportunities to those students,” said UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal.

Moving forward, Blumenthal said, committees will be assembled to discuss future programs with as much student input as possible.

USS counselor Valeria Chavez- Ayala, in coordination with the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center and Equal Opportunities Program (EOP), is offering DACA workshops this month to assist DACA students who are renewing their paperwork.

“We are trying to shape our services and programs that we have currently for the future,” Chavez- Ayala said, “so we want to collaborate with the university as a whole and see what we can actually do. It is not only EOP’s responsibility or USS’ but the entire university’s to assist students, these undocumented students and the issues that are coming up as DACA is phased out.”

Antonio was able to submit his DACA renewal paperwork before the Oct. 5 due date and will be able to continue work for the next couple of years. No matter the outcome of any new proposal, Antonio hopes there are positive changes to immigration that allow him and hundreds of thousands like him to finally feel secure in their own country.

“Obviously I am not the only DACA student that is working and going to university,” Antonio. “So I wouldn’t say my story is really unique […] but there is a lot of shared experiences and similar goals that DACA recipients and immigrants in general have — just being here and trying to look for a better life.”