United States: Against a backdrop of growing hostility, undocumented migrants in Oregon are taking a stand

Since taking office in January 2017, following a protracted political campaign that exploited and promoted anti-immigrant sentiment among sections of the American public, US President Donald Trump has passed a series of measures targeting the undocumented population. However, the country’s undocumented migrants are now challenging this climate of hostility with narratives of their own – and in the process reclaiming their stories from the hateful misrepresentations of the far-right.

On 5 September 2017, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced during a press conference that the US federal government, under President Donald Trump, would be ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. Implemented under an Executive Order in 2012 by former President Barack Obama, DACA never provided recipients with a legal immigration status but was created as an intermediary form of relief to individuals who came to the US as children (prior to turning 16) with their parents without documentation. Those who received DACA, in theory, would be protected from deportation until a formal path to citizenship was codified into law through the passage of the DREAM Act (short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), legislation originally introduced in Congress in 2001 but yet to be passed. At the time it was implemented, however, bipartisan support for the DREAM Act and immigration reform to provide amnesty to those temporarily protected under DACA proved impossible. Though DACA received a mixed response from across the political spectrum, hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients were nevertheless able to access work permits and higher education in the interim. As of the date that the Trump administration rescinded the programme, almost 800,000 young people in the US were active DACA recipients, including current high school and university students.

Long before his election, Donald Trump had vehemently opposed DACA, making its termination a pillar of his political platform. Throughout a campaign characterized by incendiary and discriminatory language targeting minorities, he frequently misrepresented the effect of immigration on communities in the US and stoked the deep-seated racist sentiments of some segments of the population. In the weeks and months after his inauguration, Trump appeared to somewhat shift his position on immigration, expressing tentative interest in providing permanent legal relief for DACA recipients. Nevertheless, he continued his divisive rhetoric related to immigrants by casting some of them as a threat, stating that while there may be DACA recipients who are ‘incredible kids’, others are ‘gang members’ and ‘drug dealers’. In describing them in such binary terms, Trump’s words reflected a problematic narrative underlying public discussions of immigration for years – the dichotomy of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ migrants.

The DACA programme, with its valorisation of a small section of the country’s undocumented migrant population, has itself been criticized for contributing to this perception and effectively cleaving communities, and even families, by distinguishing between those who are supported in their path to residency or citizenship and those targeted for deportation and public vilification as ‘illegals’. As Trump continued to oscillate on their fate, migrant rights activists, including those receiving DACA, spoke out. While those who have participated in this programme were benevolently titled ‘DREAMers’, a play on the DREAM Act and to highlight their dreams of US citizenship, some identified as such have rejected this moniker. Members of the Undocumented and Unafraid movement in particular have raised concerns about the ‘DREAMer’ narrative, arguing that they have become a political pawn and are being used to sow divisions within their own communities. These tensions have only intensified since DACA was rescinded as politicians from across the spectrum have been leveraging deals to extend DACA as part of larger immigration reform or stricter border patrols, pitting one group of migrants against another. At the time of writing, due to legal challenges, the DACA programme has been extended and the government has been required to continue processing renewal applications.

While the narrative around DACA recipients has frequently focused on their academic achievements, it rarely delves into the ongoing barriers many undocumented youth face in accessing higher education. By law all students in the United States are able to attend school through grade 12, regardless of immigration status; however, no provisions around tertiary education are in place. Indeed, those not receiving DACA and who lack any permanent or temporary immigration relief are often considered international students when enrolling in colleges or universities. As a result, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition, amounting to at least double the tuition rate of their resident counterparts. In some states, such as Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, students are forced to pay three to seven times the amount of their documented peers and are often banned from applying for admissions to public state universities. Currently, it is estimated that less than 10 per cent of undocumented students are able to secure funding to cover their tuition and living costs. While some states have adopted policies to help promote tuition equity to undocumented students – in-state resident tuition (ISRT), for example, ensures that undocumented migrants do not have to pay an out-of-state surplus and is in place in over 20 states – the majority of migrants, without additional federal grants or easy access to private loans, are still unable to shoulder the costs of a university education.

These barriers to accessing higher education, coupled with the personal, familial and community stress caused by the Trump administration’s targeting of people without formal immigration status, particularly people of colour, can create an agonizing situation for young people in the US who are undocumented or who have temporary relief through DACA. In response, some colleges and universities throughout the US have taken on a ‘sanctuary’ status, part of a broader movement that has seen churches, schools, cities and even some states declare themselves as safe spaces for people without documentation. In the case of schools, administrators, teachers and students are usually advised that immigration enforcement efforts will be forbidden on campus and the documentation status of students will not be shared with government agencies. At some colleges and universities, as part of their sanctuary model, resource centres have been opened for undocumented students to access information on topics ranging from financial aid to mental health and wellness.

In Oregon, former and current students from Portland Community College (PCC) established the first resource centre for undocumented students in the state in 2017. The DREAMers Resource Center, as it is titled, was officially opened at the PCC Rock Creek campus in January 2018. The initiative to create such a resource for students was spearheaded by Liliana Luna, the PCC Rock Creek Campus Multicultural Center coordinator, and the DREAMers Resource Center’s current coordinator Jhoana Monroy, alongside PCC undocumented students. As explained by Jhoana, the efforts to create a resource centre for undocumented or DACA students began three years ago in 2015 by holding a public DREAMers Gala, now a yearly event, that provided the opportunity to build community and bring together students from different backgrounds. The gala also offered the parents and family members of students a chance to learn about the burgeoning DREAM Project, established in the years prior to the Center. In addition, the event served as a fundraiser to support students with scholarships. The DREAM Project is ongoing and includes a mentorship component that pairs undocumented or DACA-registered students with mentors in the same situation.

For this year’s DREAMers Gala, organizers prepared a video titled ‘The Original Dreamers’ that highlighted the stories of PCC students active with the DREAM Project and their parents. ‘We wanted’, says Monroy, ‘to in some way honour the parents’, who, as the first generation of immigrants, were the original dreamers. During the video, students discuss their future ambitions and the roles their parents have played in supporting them and encouraging them in fulfilling their goals. The parents themselves describe the dreams they had in coming to the US and their hopes for their children’s futures. As one father described, ‘My greatest dream was that my children could have a better life here.’ This sentiment was echoed by other parents, along with a mixture of pride and sorrow for all that their children have had to overcome in accessing education and establishing themselves in the US.

Both the parents and students also discussed the important role the DREAM Project and its related centre have played in encouraging them and providing a source of comfort as they face the unique demands of student life with an ever-present uncertainty related to their immigration status. In the words of one student, ‘I finally have a support system that actually understands me and knows what it’s like to achieve our dreams in this country.’ Providing a platform for their voices to be heard is a key goal of the DREAMers Resource Center and its related initiatives, including an empowerment retreat for students prior to the DREAMers Gala. Before the retreat, Monroy noted that students were fearful: ‘They didn’t want to expose themselves, they didn’t want to tell anyone about their status.’ But after the retreat, ‘most of them were willing to tell their status’.

For Monroy’s part, she is able to empathize with the students served through the resource centre, as she too is ‘DACAmented or undocumented’, a description she uses because even those with DACA ‘are still living in limbo: we still don’t really have a status, permanent status. We could be removed at any time.’ She also not only encourages the students she works with to be vocal advocates for themselves and their families but also has publicly challenged the narrative around immigration herself. She emphasizes the importance of standing up for people’s rights on a range of issues, from reproductive justice to the negative effects of gentrification, and has cultivated extensive collaboration with LGBTQI organizations.

Their work is part of a broader backdrop of activism that has sought to change public perceptions around immigration, with other initiatives, such as ‘The Immigrant Story is the American Story’, seeking to showcase the experiences of the country’s immigrant populations. The initiative was launched by Sankar Raman, an immigrant from India who moved to the US in the 1980s and is now based in Oregon, as a means to ‘enhance empathy and create a shared community’. Profiling a range of immigrants and their stories, the project was established in response to hate crimes and bias incidents that occurred shortly after Trump’s election. These incidents included the murder of an Indian immigrant, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, in Olathe, Kansas in February 2017 by a man who shot him after yelling, ‘Get out of my country.’ In addition, girls and women wearing various forms of traditional Islamic clothing were increasingly targeted with verbal and physical attacks. During one such attack in May 2017, a man verbally harassed and intimidated two teenage girls, one wearing a hijab, on a MAX train in Portland, Oregon before stabbing to death two bystanders, reported to have intervened.

The power of these initiatives is that, at a time when undocumented migrants are under more pressure than ever to fall silent, they provide a platform where they can instead publicly express themselves. When hate speech is on the rise and anti-migrant slurs have become commonplace, actively encouraged by the current President, the voices of tolerance, inclusion and empathy are more important than ever to counter the narrow narrative of nationalists and extremists. In this context, the courageous actions of the students at the DREAMers Resource Center, and thousands of others like them, represent a vital form of resistance and the hope of a better future.

Araceli Cruz and Mariah Grant