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Maria Sotomayor, subdirectora de la Coalición de Pensilvania por la Inmigración y la Ciudadanía. Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News
Maria Sotomayor, deputy director at the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizenship Coalition. Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

How can higher education institutions support DACA students?

Local community organizers and university officials outline some of the steps colleges and universities can take to support undocumented students and DACA…

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With the fate of DACA recipients still up for congressional debate on Feb. 8, activists and university officials in the area are calling on higher education institutions to support DACA and all undocumented students. 

“I think that this is the time for education institutions to really stand with immigrant communities,” said Maria Sotomayor, deputy director for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC). Sotomayor and others at PICC have put together an Education Access Toolkit for Undocumented Students to help undocumented students navigate the college application process and know which institutions in the state have the best resources and support once they’re enrolled. 

Though the exact statistic is unclear, a 2014 Migrant Policy Institute report estimated that around 241,000 college students across the country are DACA recipients. Now, they are faced with the difficult decision of whether or not they should continue to put financial resources and time into a degree that they “might not be able to use,” said Sotomayor, if — barring congressional action — DACA ends on March 5. 

Colleges and universities play a vital role in providing legal, financial, and emotional support to undocumented students, said Sotomayor, who was herself undocumented while a student at Neumann University, where she graduated in 2013. 

She said that PICC’s advocacy around higher education calls for schools to be clearer in their public admissions policy, practice tuition equity, create and continue to foster financial aid options for undocumented students, train admissions and faculty about the immigration system, create welcoming campus policies, and build relationships with other immigrant advocacy organizations. 

The BUSCA program at La Salle University — an associate degree program tailored to the needs of Spanish-speaking English language learners — is an example of how some of the measures touted by Sotomayor are implemented on the ground. 

Designed to prepare students for eventual enrollment in a bachelor’s degree program, BUSCA offers at least two half-scholarships to students in each incoming class who are ineligible for state and federal funds. These scholarships help to remove some of the financial burden which, according to Sotomayor, is one of the biggest barriers for undocumented students seeking higher education. 

In addition to counseling support, the school also arms undocumented students with legal resources, including informal consultations with a lawyer who teaches in the BUSCA program and a fund for legal costs. 

But connecting students to those resources is a delicate process, Dr. Stephanie Brown, a writing teacher in the BUSCA program and the school’s DACA expert, said. 

“It’s by word of mouth because you have to allow them to divulge that,” said Brown, adding that often she tells classes about her work with the undocumented community — including volunteering with PICC and immigrants’ rights organization Juntos — and undocumented students will then find her after class and during her office hours. 

Brown connects students to the Facebook page and website “My Undocumented Life” — administered by a doctoral student and former DACA recipient at Harvard — which functions as an online forum and “a network of scholarships for undocumented students.” 

“We create safe spaces — one of them is my office,” Brown said. “We let students who are interested know that we are available.” 

BUSCA Director Joanne Woods said that this kind of personal connection is invaluable, citing the impact of a letter of support for DACA students that was published by the university and distributed by teachers in the days following the Trump administration’s announcement to end DACA. 

“It sounds like a small thing, but I think it meant the world to them,” Woods said. 

For Sotomayor, the most important legislative change to increase undocumented students’ access to higher education lies in establishing tuition equity in state schools for Pennsylvania residents who are undocumented — a move that would be especially significant for DACA recipients who might lose their work permits and income source with the end of the program. 

“The reality is all we want is to be seen as students from the same state. We’re not asking for a free education,” she said.

 

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