My Journey as an Undocumented Undergraduate Student

This post was anonymously written by a fellow student at UMBC and posted by the Women’s Center.

Content Disclaimer: This blog post will discuss immigration policies along with my personal experience as an undocumented/DACA student. The content and images shared may be triggering to those that have or are currently being affected by these immigration policies. 

I first learned about my residency status when I was in high school completing the SAT registration form. One of the questions that stood out to me was “Are you a U.S. citizen?” I thought to myself, “well I was not born here, but I live in the U.S now. This is my home…so yes! I am a U.S. citizen.” I remember looking over my shoulder to see what my friends had selected and confirmed that my answer was “correct.” I quickly found out that same year, that I was indeed NOT a U.S. citizen. As a matter of fact, I did not belong under any of the available citizen “options.” As I reflect on my high school senior year, it was one of the most heartbreaking seasons of my life. I was not able to get a part-time job, my driver’s license and the most devastating of all was not being able to afford to go to college.

[Image Description: A GIF with a purple background with moving lettering going up and down that changes color from white to orange and pink to green. The text reads “NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL”.]

Growing up in a low-income household, I have always had to work twice as hard to “get ahead”. However, I had no idea of these other limitations and restrictions that were placed on me. As an undocumented student, I did not qualify for any financial aid or any scholarships that require a U.S Citizenship or permanent residency status as most do. It seemed as though all of my efforts and experiences over the years had all been in vain as there were no signs of a secure future for me in sight. 


It wasn’t until June 15th, 2012 that the Obama Administration announced the initiation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. This program gave undocumented individuals who came to the United States at a young age deferment from deportation. The age qualification is under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and came to the U.S before turning 16th years of age. This would give a “lawful present” status in the United States while under this program. This program also granted those who were approved an employment authorization to work in the United States. However, a person’s acceptance is not permanent as eligible applicants must apply every two years to remain in the program. There is also the financial barrier of paying $495 and sending all documentation at least 3 months in advance of the expiration date. Not to mention the lawyer fees and any additional cost to send the applications.

[Image Description: illustration by Julio Salgado. Text at the top reads “MY PARENTS ARE COURAGEOUS AND RESPONSIBLE. THAT’S WHY I AM HERE!”. The illustration shows two parents with their two young children.]

The implications of this program changed everything for me. This meant that I could finally work a job, which also meant I could provide for myself, my family, and attend college! However, this was still a very faint light at the end of the tunnel as this program has constantly been under attack since its inception. There also lay many other struggles and barriers ahead in my educational journey. As I began, I was a part-time student for many years while working full-time to provide for my own needs, as well as for my family. 


In addition, I have had to submit multiple documents throughout the years to be approved for in-state tuition while at community college and even until this day at UMBC ($12,028 in-state vs. $27,662 for out-of-state tuition). In total, it took a little over six years for me to complete my associate’s degree. After graduating in 2018, I had no idea how I was going to attend a four-year university. This initially meant working more hours to pay double the tuition and the expenses of attending a university. Luckily, I have benefited from multiple scholarships at UMBC that have enabled me to go to school without having to worry so much about making full tuition payments. Now as a senior, I reflect on my years as an undergraduate student at UMBC and cannot forget about those who have paved the way for me to get here.

[Imagine Description: Illustration with bold white lettering that reads: “No Longer Interested in Convincing YOU OF MY HUMANITY”. There is a blue graduation cap at the bottom of the illustration. Illustration by Julio Salgado.]

Dreamers

Before any policy was ever passed, many before me advocated on behalf of the roughly 454,000 undocumented students in America today. For instance, In 2013 nine young undocumented activists known as The Dream 9 “self-deported” themselves to bring attention to the struggles of undocumented students. As a form of protest, they walked with their graduation caps and gowns to the U.S. border to seek out asylum. In doing this, they risked never being able to return to the U.S., the country they had called home since childhood. They were then apprehended at the border and placed in an immigration detention facility. This led to the arrest of many other young immigrant activists at the U.S. Capitol while in their caps and gowns during the first Dream Act hearings, which failed to pass through the Senate in 2010. Their activism and bravery would continue the immigration movement across the nation for many years to come.

[Image Description:  Two young immigrant activists, one wearing a blue graduation cap and gown and the other wearing a black graduation cap and gown, being arrested by Capitol Police officers At the U.S. Capitol during the Dream Act hearings.]

Now with the passing of the Dream Act, what was once a “dream” is a reality for many undocumented students because of their sacrifice. However, there is much that still needs to be done through congress and much that can be done within universities to better assist undocumented students today.

Supporting Undocumented and DACA Students

There are more than 450,000 undocumented students in higher education institutions across the country and 216,000 DACA recipient students pursuing post-secondary education. Undocumented students are diverse, coming from different countries, cultures, and nationalities. In the state of Maryland, there are about 16,000 undocumented college students, placing the state as the 7th highest undocumented student population in the country. There are many concerns among undocumented and DACA students due to the unclear and unstable policies at the federal, state, and local levels. The lack of resources, the constant fear of potential deportation, and the safety of oneself and their family contribute to a constant concern for safety, mental and physical health. The following are recommendations to continue to improve a more inclusive campus environment for undocumented and DACA students. While UMBC may be already following some of these recommendations, these recommendations are opportunities for higher education institutions at large to do and be better:

  • Opening more financial assistance to undocumented and DACA students through direct financial support in opportunities for on-campus employment and scholarships. Identify and intentionally advertise financial opportunities that are inclusive of undocumented and DACA students.
  • Evaluate admission application language or other official institution documents that use racist and dehumanizing terminology such as “illegal” or “alien” students. This applies in the classrooms and student organizations as well. These terms are often used in federal and state policy and can be found on different government documents. This is something simple that can and should be changed as referring to a student as an alien is hurtful and unwelcoming. 
  • Stopping the misclassification of undocumented and DACA students as international students. When I first enrolled in college, I was misguided and placed as an international student. I was required by the institution to submit the wrong documentation which ultimately delayed my entry into school. 
  • Publicly denying the presence of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents on campus and refusing to share any personal information about undocumented students. Many states and federal government institutions have broken the trust of the immigrant community by sharing their addresses and immigration statuses with ICE. 
  • Create best practices for outreach to undocumented/DACA students at recruitment events (virtually/person). Do not expect students to share their immigration statuses, especially in a public facility or forum. Create financial aid workshops or recruitment events for these students that discuss FAFSA as well as the MSFAA (Maryland State Financial Aid Application). Undocumented and DACA students have the opportunity to apply for some state financial assistance.
  • Invest in providing a welcoming and inclusive campus environment through administrative trainings and hiring diverse staff/faculty members who hold different social identities and immigration statuses with experience working with undocumented and DACA students. In addition, institutions can partner with local organizations for off-campus support (legal assistance or housing assistance).
  • When engaging with stakeholders at federal, state, and local levels, advocate for the implementation of policies that will protect undocumented and DACA students. Review current campus policies that directly impact immigrants students on campus. Are these policies excluding undocumented and DACA students? Do these policies directly place undocumented and DACA students at-risk? Is all programming available to all students including undocumented and DACA students? 
  • Be mindful that undocumented and DACA students have experienced many traumatic situations since childhood such as poverty and homelessness. Many have been separated from parents, siblings, and other family members. Many also live in constant fear for their safety as well as their family’s safety. All have had to assimilate to a completely new environment and have experienced discrimination at school and other public places. Lastly, many have and continue to endure bullying and microaggressions from peers, colleagues, and other students.
[Image Description: Illustration of five individuals with different ethnicities and races. The text at the top reads “Despite the pain, tears, criminalization, erasure, and heartache, WE EXIST!”. They are standing tall over a small border wall with a text that reads “Bigger than any BORDER ”. Illustration by Julio Salgado.]

The Fight Continues 

I am expected to graduate this upcoming May of 2021. It will officially be an eight-year-long academic journey in pursuing a bachelor’s degree. As a first-generation college student, Latinx Womxn, adult learner, and DACA recipient, I can’t help but feel so much joy and fear all at the same time. I am currently in the process of applying for a master’s degree and I am going through the same emotions I felt when I started my journey eight years ago. The uncertainty of paying for higher learning and the fear of the unknown is all too real for me and as well as many other undocumented students. Nevertheless, I believe in the spirit of each undocumented/DACA student to persevere, just as we always have, as our fight for social justice and inclusivity continues.

[Image Description: A GIF with a black background. There is a big red location pin that pops up with writing on it that reads “HERE TO STAY” as the pin inflates from the bottom of the graphic.]

To the Dream 9-Luis León, Claudia Amaro, Ceferino Santiago, Lizbeth Mateo, Lulu Martínez, María Inés Peniche, Marco Saavedra, Adriana Díaz, Mario Félix–Thank you for your sacrifice and for advocating on behalf of many undocumented immigrants in this country. And thank you to the many more allies and activist around the nation supporting the protection of immigrant rights in the U.S. I see you, I believe, and you are not alone.

Resources Available at UMBC and The Universities at Shady Grove

Undocumented Artists to Follow

References

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