Updated: September 5, 2017 at 1:47 p.m.
Sophomore Luis Otero came to the United States from Mexico when he was just younger than two years old.
He grew up as one of the only people of color in his rural Georgia high school, leaving him feeling isolated from his peers. Otero awaited the moment when he could go off to college and pursue his dream of becoming an attorney – until the day he was told he couldn’t because he was undocumented.
“I remember, as I was transitioning from eighth grade to ninth grade, I talked to my parents and my dad about how excited I was to start my journey to college,” Otero, a business major, said. “My dad looked and me and said, ‘son, you won’t be able to attend college, because you don’t have papers.’”
But Otero did get to GW – in part thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, an Obama-era policy shielding undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children – also known as “Dreamers” – from deportation and making them eligible for legal work permits renewable for two-year periods.
Now, as reports emerge that President Donald Trump plans to end DACA protections, giving Congress six months to determine a replacement, experts say the move would be a blow to diversity efforts on campuses nationwide and undocumented students fear they will again face the threat of deportation.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said GW was a “better institution” because of DACA students on campus. Officials will bring in an outside immigration law firm to assist students as they weigh the impact of Trump’s decision on their own education, she said.
“We love the Dreamers,” Trump said from the White House Friday, but students like Otero are nervous.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t scared,” Otero said. “When I heard that they were threatening to take it away, for the first time in a long time, again, I was frightened that I could actually lose it.”
The program – which now protects about 800,000 undocumented immigrants – is championed by immigration advocates who say “Dreamers” have never known life outside the U.S. and deserve to come out of the shadows. But to some critics, DACA is an abuse of executive power that offers sweeping immigration protections without permission from Congress.
If the program were to be shut down, Otero said he would stay at GW to show that he and other DACA students belong at universities and as visible members of society.
It’s unclear how many students at GW receive DACA protections because officials have said the University does not know how many undocumented students it enrolls.
Trump’s reported decision contradicts a June announcement that he would keep the program intact but fulfills a campaign pledge to “immediately terminate” the policy. He will officially announce the program’s fate Tuesday, ahead of a deadline set by 10 Republican state attorneys general who pledged to file a lawsuit aimed at dismantling the program.
Claudette Monroy, a student in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the director of education at the D.C. non-profit The Family Place, is also an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient. She immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 15 years old.
She said in an email it’s “overwhelming” to think about what the termination of the program might mean for her and other young undocumented immigrants.
“A lot of us refuse to go back in the ‘shadows’ of being undocumented, but I’m not sure how that looks like,” Monroy said in an email. “I’m hoping that we DACA students don’t have to leave universities. I’m praying that even if Trump takes away our DACA, others will come together to help us, and that means faculty and staff at universities will need to figure out how to support their students to complete their degrees.”
In addition to bringing in outside legal help, Csellar said officials will continue supporting DACA and undocumented students through the law school’s immigration clinic and by offering merit scholarships for students ineligible for financial aid.
“DACA has allowed students to fully embrace their educational experience without fear of deportation,” she said in an email. “We will continue to offer resources and assistance, as permitted by law and as requested, to both undocumented students and students in the DACA program who opt to self identify themselves to the University.”
Csellar said the University will continue not to ask prospective students to reveal their immigration status when they apply.
“While the University is committed to helping all of its students, we recognize that the uncertainty about the program is inevitably an additional source of stress for many,” she said. “If any of our DACA students or undocumented students have questions or concerns, we hope they are comfortable reaching out for support and guidance.”
GW has openly supported the continuation and expansion of DACA as increasing student diversity on campus remains a University-wide goal. Former University President Steven Knapp signed a letter last year, along with 180 other university presidents, urging the Trump administration to keep the program. In June, officials also backed the Trump administration’s decision to allow DACA to stay intact.
Protecting undocumented students was one of the top concerns of student activists following Trump’s election in November as they pressed officials to designate GW a “sanctuary campus” to shield undocumented students within its boundaries. Officials didn’t adopt that label but pledged to continue welcoming those students, providing them legal aid and banning University police from taking part in immigration enforcement.
Evelyn Arredondo-Ramirez, the director of communications for the Mexican Students Association and community engagement specialist at the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, said her organization has been in communication with DACA students and that if the program is canceled, the group will look to hold events with free legal advice for undocumented students.
“We understand that we’re an association, but at the end of the day we want to be able to help them, since they are our members, family members, friends, or students or classmates,” she said.
Rachel Ray, the managing attorney for the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center, said that pulling the DACA program would deter undocumented students from applying to colleges and universities because they would no longer have temporary legal status.
“Taking undocumented individuals out of higher education would be an enormous step backward in terms of diversity and would function to further higher education institutions’ position as the ‘Ivory Tower’ and places to which only people of privilege have access,” Ray said in an email.
Lori Flores, an associate professor of history at Stony Brook University who specializes in Latino and immigration studies, said pulling DACA will prevent young undocumented immigrants from becoming full-fledged members of society and would potentially deport students “back to countries that they don’t see or feel as home anymore.”
“Depending on whether their institution is a ‘sanctuary campus’ and will protect them from unauthorized visits by immigration officials, DACA recipients may feel comfortable continuing their education and school routine,” Flores said in an email. “No doubt, though, many students will be scared to continue going to classes and being part of university life.”