With the presidential transition in full swing, one Obama-era immigration policy under threat has students at the College of William and Mary worrying about whether they will be able to return to campus next semester.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, known as DACA, delays deportation action for those who came to the United States as minors. Through the program, which was initiated by President Barack Obama in 2012, previously undocumented students receive Social Security numbers and are eligible for work permits and in-state tuition.
While President-elect Donald Trump said during the campaign that he would do away with the program, in a recent interview for Time magazine he pledged that his administration would “work something out.” The magazine noted, however, that he did not back away from his promise to eliminate the policy altogether.
Law professor Angela Banks, an expert in immigration law and policy, said that it was uncertain whether eliminating DACA would be a priority for the Trump administration. She added that if Trump makes good on his promise to curtail the policy, there are a number of ways that he could go about it.
“One is to say that immediately, now everyone that has [DACA’s protection] no longer has it, and it’s just gone,” Banks said. “The other is to say that whenever people’s current expiration dates are up, that it will be valid until that date.”
For the 20 students at the College who are beneficiaries of the program, the uncertainty looms large. The DACA renewal period lasts for two years, and many here under the program are freshmen or sophomores. If they are unable to renew, they will immediately be prevented from working, and it is unclear whether they will retain any financial aid eligibility or the in-state tuition status they may have, which is set by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Because of their ambiguous immigration status, many beneficiaries of DACA are reluctant to speak publicly about the program. The Flat Hat spoke to five of these students, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy.
One student, a sophomore from Ghana who has lived in Virginia since she arrived in second grade, said that the uncertainty over whether she’d be able to return in the spring has made studying for finals seem futile.
“I don’t know if I can continue to go to this school,” she said. “I definitely can’t have a job anymore. My Social Security number is going to go away. [Trump] puts me in this state of being illegal, which then makes it easier, okay for him to deport me, even though I’ve done nothing wrong. I had a legal presence before. That’s a crazy experience to have.”
Another student, a freshman from El Salvador, said that ever since she received DACA, she has felt protected. The uncertainty that now exists, she said, has hit her family particularly hard.
“It’s really hard not knowing what’s going to happen to your family, what’s going to happen to you, what’s going to happen to your academics — it’s just a whole bunch of factors that come together from that one thing,” she said. “DACA is just a concept for some people; ‘Oh, they have DACA.’ But the actual impact it has on us is very life-changing.”
While many students under DACA had no way of knowing the others on campus under the program, after the election, some students became more public about their status, enabling them to organize a group.
One student, a Resident Assistant who was not public about being a DACA student before the election, wrote a Facebook post on election night — after it was clear that Trump would win — in which she disclosed her status. The post was widely shared, and other students in the program began contacting her to share and receive support.
With support from English, linguistics, education, Africana Studies and community studies professor Anne Charity Hudley and from the College, the student formed a group for DACA students.
On Nov. 28, the group met with immigration attorneys in the Reves Center for International Studies. The attorneys came from McCandlish Holton, a law firm based in Richmond that has provided its services to the students pro bono.
The student who helped to organize the meeting, who is from Peru, said that she was told that the College would have to fire her from her position as an RA and that she would also lose her student housing. She was planning to take a gap year before applying to law school, but now having that option is uncertain, she said.
“I don’t have a backup plan,” she said. “I just wish people would be more empathetic to our cause. The fact that we are childhood arrivals, I came when I was six years old … I thought I was going to Disney World, and I got here, and we stayed.”
She said she’s working on bringing the lawyers back to campus to talk more about possible funding options for students in the program.
The College’s admissions and financial aid offices both have said that they have not made any changes to their procedures in anticipation of any new policies. Director of Admissions Tim Wolfe ’95, M. Ed ’01 and Director of Financial Aid Ed Irish have said that they will continue to monitor the situation.
Breaking from its usual behavior, the president’s office, which does not typically seek to influence federal law outside of research funding, has taken a stand on the DACA program. College President Taylor Reveley has spoken in defense of the DACA program, signing a letter along with more than 500 other college and university presidents asking the Trump administration to maintain the policy.
“‘These kids are already here. They’re pursuing their education. Doing well. Good citizens of the campus community,” Reveley said, speaking about the letter. “I think the objective from my standpoint is, from a non-inflammatory, non-confrontational way, persuade this administration: Leave these kids alone. Let them finish.”
Correction (12/29 at 2:45 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said that if DACA were eliminated, one student beneficiary was told she would be fired from her position as an RA because she would no longer have a Social Security number. In fact, the reason the student would likely be fired is that she would no longer have a valid work permit. She would retain her Social Security number.