UC can do more for Dreamers and Undocumented Students

The character of America has sadly changed over the course of the last decade. Hate crimes are at an all-time high. There is a humanitarian crisis at our southern border. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has staged covert militant-like raids. The Trump administration formally ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And in 2019 the existing program application fee was raised to over $800. These conditions distress many Americans. More importantly, however, they intimately impact the emotional, financial, and academic wellbeing of University of California “Dreamers”, students who currently receive deferred action, other undocumented students, and their friends and family. 

When the Trump administration ended DACA in 2017, the UC Board of Regents put their money and values where their mouths were and took the Trump administration to Court to protect recipients. However, while the UC Regents fight for the program in Washington, D.C, many undocumented students on UC campuses continue to not receive mental health resources, feel isolated, and face physical barriers to accessing resources. The UC Regents, and UC San Diego should not only fight for “Dreamers” and other undocumented students’ ability to succeed in the Courts and on Capital Hill, but should do more to alleviate these obstacles students contend with on our campuses. 

Imagine that you are a DACA recipient or an otherwise undocumented student. You have the same academic, social, and professional obligations and goals of a typical student. Then there’s more: a constant barrage of uncertainty that comes with your immigration status. For example, if you contemplate the potential permanent ending of the administrative program, you must consider deportation to a country long foreign to you. You also may worry about the financial and professional implications of your immigration status, like affording DACA’s legal fees and worry about how to pay for college if you do not qualify. Then, on top of it all, campus mental health resources that might be able to help are booked for the rest of the quarter. These stressors are just the surface of the anxieties that sit on the shoulders of “Dreamers” and other undocumented students on UC campuses and beyond. The size of these stressors varies depending on a student’s immigration status and eligibility for deferrance programs , their economic class, and more. However, the impact of these statuses decisively adds anxiety to students’ lives. 

Being a DACA recipient or undocumented person inelgible for the program, especially now, often means having to cope with high levels of stress in addition to other taxing responsibilities. Such a chronic stressor in turn can wreak havoc on one’s mental health. Recent studies from UC Berkeley, for example, have shown that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to developing mental illness. Fear of discrimination based on status also has a negative impact on mental health. Whether or not this stress manifests in mental illness, the increased anxiety of being undocumented can make learning more difficult. As one “Dreamer” at UCSD expressed, it can be difficult to focus on school work when you’re constantly worried about how to pay for the legal fees the program entails, whether you’re going to be able to graduate, and how your family will fair if you are unable to work legally. 

Anxiety about DACA or undocumented status can also create a roadblock to a student’s ability to succeed professionally. Many “Dreamers” experience anxiety around being asked about their work status now or in the uncertain future. This stressor comes in addition to economic insecurities; as of right now many recipients must contend with the uncertainty of whether they will be able to work in the United States legally in three years. Simulataneously, undocumented students are unable to legally work and navigate that reality. 

With all that in mind, it is easy to understand how such chronic stressors can damage an undocumented student’s mental health. Yet, mental health resources for “Dreamers” and other undocumented students at UCSD and many other UC campuses fail to rise to the occasion. On UC campuses, students find mental health resources more strained than ever. UC reports demonstrate that the UC system recognizes this fact as well but have not been quick enough in remedying the problem. Tangibly, this strain means that undocumented students and dreamers may not get access to necessary mental health resources to combat the aforementioned obstacles. The burden on mental health resources is especially detrimental for undocumented students ineligble for DACA because they are more unlikely to qualify for health insurance. Thus, they are forced to rely on campus resources. If the UC Regents want to better support undocumented students and “Dreamers,” they should invest more in campus mental health resources. 

Another way that UCSD and other college campuses can better support dreamers and undocumented students is by providing them with increased campus resources to help build community. According to studies and DACA recipients and undocumented students themselves, another key challenge these students face is isolation. College age students in general report high levels of loneliness. Recipients and other undocumented students likely deal with this general feeling of loneliness that other college students undergo. However, they also feel isolated from peers and campus professionals because of the pressure to keep their status secret. As Professor Jean Calterone Williams of California State Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo describes “hiding the fact that they are unauthorized is an everyday reality and the substance of an enduring isolation for many students”. 

At UCSD specifically, the Raza Resource Centro and Undocumented Student Services both organize events to help undocumented students and families of undocumented people build community on campus. However, these few communal programs are almost always built around advocacy and social justice, something not all of these students may be passionate about. With greater funding, these resources centers could create different kinds of opportunities for undocumented students and recipients to meet similarly situated students. One way to do this could be for the Undocumented Student Services to model other resources centers’ use of weekly collectives. 

Coversely, some undocumented students may avoid campus resources, like legal assistance because they have to physically visit the location. At UCSD, for example, to meet with staff at the Undocumented Student Services Center you must visit the location, at least for your first meeting. It is unclear how ironclad this rule is. However, uncertainty about this requirement may bar students from utilizing undocumented student services. Undocumented students who have disclosed their status to me have not wanted their immigration status made public to others including friends, roommates, and significant others. Given that, it’s not hard to imagine why these students may hesitate to enter a building that marks them as undocumented to the rest of campus. Recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at workplaces known to hire undocumented people have only undergirded this fear. 

This is something that UC campuses can work quickly to remedy. Expanding online resources, for example, would offer a greater level of anonymity and comfortability to undocumented students nervous to enter the physical location. Skype appointments with an Undocumented Student Services Immigration Attorney are one possibility. Of course, a more immediate solution to this problem is the UC system, and all of us, continuing to work to create safer, more friendly campuses for undocumented students and recipients. But for now, Undocumented Student Services must meet students, and the political climate, where they are. 

The UC system has pioneered many of the policies and resources that support undocumented students and DACA recipients. But undocumented students and “Dreamers” are still struggling on our campuses. The UC system, and all of us, can do more.