Dreams and Difficulties: Being Undocumented at John Jay
By Sam Anderson
Of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, nearly 10 percent live in New York State. Many of these immigrants live, work, and go to school in New York City. At John Jay College, 220 students self-report that they are undocumented, and another 280 have missing or unclear citizenship status, according to CUNYfirst, the database of student management. Calculating the exact number of undocumented students at John Jay is intrinsically difficult, and, according to Professor Isabel Martinez, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that most undocumented immigrants underreport, and that many live in mixed-status families. Still, a realistic estimate of the number of undocumented students at John Jay puts it between 500 and 1,000, or roughly 3 to 6 percent of the student body.
Some of these aspiring lawyers, criminologists, forensic scientists, cybersecurity specialists, police officers, and fierce advocates for justice refer to themselves as “Dreamers.” Many came to the United States as children or infants. Some have never seen their country of origin. To the Dreamers, the U.S. is the place they call home.
Some of these students have their legal status protected under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy put in place under President Obama. Yet even for them, college life is fraught with difficulty. Most are ineligible for state or federal financial aid. They often work full-time jobs to pay for tuition, and it is not uncommon for students to drop out for a semester, save money, and return. Still, they persevere, motivated by the thought of achieving their degrees and moving ahead to jobs, graduate schools, or other opportunities. For them as well as for their families, this is the American dream.
In general, students and families without criminal records have not been among those targeted for deportation by the federal government. That changed when President Trump announced an executive order that significantly broadened the power of Customs and Border Protection to deport undocumented immigrants. For the most vulnerable student population at John Jay, things just got a lot more uncertain.
“We all know someone who’s undocumented, whether we know it or not,” said Sofia (not her real name), a junior Sociology major at John Jay. “DACA gives me a privilege, and I need to remember that even though I’m less likely to be deported, it does not mean that the fight for the undocumented community is over.” Sofia’s sister is also DACA-protected, which means that for now, they are not at risk of deportation. But the same can’t be said for their parents, who moved here in 2004 when their home country of Peru underwent a sharp economic downturn. Now, Sofia
worries about her father leaving the house to get groceries.
Such fear is common among undocumented students. The challenge of paying college tuition, previously their greatest source of anxiety, pales in comparison to the thought of losing a family member to deportation.“
As a professor, my main goal is to teach my students,” said Martinez, an assistant professor of sociology. “That means helping them develop research skills, writing skills, reading skills, and a body of knowledge. I can’t do that if my students are terrified and can’t concentrate.”
Martinez also serves as Director of U-LAMP, the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project, which provides support to young immigrants in removal proceedings. She is one of the John Jay faculty members who sprang into action after Election Day, reaching out to students she knew were undocumented to offer support. Martinez has been coordinating with John Jay’s DREAMers Club to organize “Know Your Rights” workshops, where students learn practical skills that can help them and their families avoid deportation.
Some of the tips that have been shared with students include teaching them how to spot the difference between a judge’s warrant and a warrant from the Department of Homeland Security, which doesn’t hold up in court. “They have the right to not open the door if ICE agents come to their homes without a warrant from a judge,” Martinez said, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Martinez has also been distributing cards that contain the person’s name and the words “
I invoke my right to remain silent.” She explained: “Trouble happens when conversations with Customs officers give people the opportunity to say something that might have bad consequences. With this notecard, you can invoke your rights without saying anything.” Immigrants without documentation are also gearing up for an increase in expedited removals. To protect themselves, Martinez recommends that all immigrants carry proof that they’ve been in the country for more than two years. Sofia says she always knew she was undocumented, but adds: “It didn’t impact me until I graduated from high school. Filling out college applications, I realized that I was not eligible for financial aid, and that I needed to work in order to continue my education.”
She’s no stranger to work, having had off-the-books jobs since she was 15. One experience stuck with her: “My first job was cleaning a high school on Long Island. The supervisor saw how tired I was after working from eight in the morning to seven at night. He said to me, ‘Why are you tired? This is going to be your future.’ I still remember that today, because this is how society looks at undocumented people and Latinos in general.”
That supervisor might be surprised to learn that Sofia will soon complete her bachelor’s degree and plans to go to law school.
“There’s an assumption in America that everyone here has an equal opportunity,” said Robbi (not her real name), an undocumented John Jay student from Pakistan. “Everyone assumes you’re on the same page, that you qualify for the same things, but it’s not true. We have to go through so many different hoops to finance our education.”
The freshman Economics major said she feels an additional level of anxiety as a Muslim. She was 3 or 4 when her family emigrated from Pakistan, and now she feels unable to leave. “I would like to see where I was born and visit my family, but now I don’t plan to leave whatsoever,” she said.
Sofia, too, experienced being unable to leave the United States when she had to turn down a study-abroad trip to Mexico. She had been accepted into a program to study indigenous Mayan communities, but because the group was set to return on Jan. 22, two days after Trump took office, she was advised to decline the opportunity. Sofia said that she will likely avoid all plane travel in the foreseeable future to avoid being detained at the airport.
Far from being isolated cases, these incidents are representative of the experiences of other undocumented students in the CUNY system and at colleges and universities nationwide. Many undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children and have lived their entire lives as Americans are now realizing the limitations of their status in applying for jobs, financial aid, and other programs. And, since the presidential election, they have the added worry of being separated from their families, and the possibility of being sent back to a country they do not remember.
At John Jay, organizations like the DREAMers Club provide a safe space to talk about these issues and raise questions about what to do next. Olivia Ramirez, the president of the DREAMers Club, is a child of immigrants, a native-born citizen, and recently she has become acutely aware of just how much privilege her legal status confers.
“I’ve worked with students who aren’t DREAMers and who don’t have DACA, they are just undocumented students without support,” she said. “Having no financial aid and working 40-plus hours per week seriously affects their academics. There’s not enough time to do homework, and many of them are also supporting their families. They have to decide, do they eat and sleep, or work on homework. These are hard decisions to make.”
Ramirez says she was reluctant to run for president of the DREAMers Club because she hadn’t experienced firsthand what it is to be undocumented. But she decided to run in order to leverage her connections with other organizations on and off campus, like Legal Aid, Single Stop, CUNY Citizenship Now!, Make the Road, and U-LAMP. In addition to coordinating events, panels, and workshops, a big part of the DREAMers Club is simply providing a space to talk, connect, and share a common experience.
“The Dreamers are in a sense trying to become more empowered to tell people they’re here and unapologetically undocumented,” Ramirez said. “There are some who want to stay in the shadows, and others who want to raise their voices and say ‘we’re here and we’re going to fight to stay here.’”
The diversity of opinion on whether or not undocumented students should be outspoken about their status is reflective of the political climate—people simply do not know how severe the risk of deportation will become, or what the future holds for DACA. “We’re in a whole new ball game,” Martinez said.
For now, Martinez and her colleague Nancy Yang, the Associate Director for Student Success Initiatives, are focused on raising student awareness and taking actions to protect students. Said Martinez, “One of the things we’re trying to develop is a rapid response team at John Jay in case one of our kids is picked up.” Yang also helped develop a John Jay resource web page for undocumented students and organized a CUNY-wide “resource day” on March 3, hosting 22 citywide entities that support and offer various services to immigrants.
The College is instituting measures to prevent ICE agents and others seeking immigration-related information from entering campus and accessing records unless they have a subpoena, warrant, or court order. These measures, to be implemented by Public Safety with the help of the Office of Legal Counsel, are consistent with CUNY’s commitment to take no action to assist in the enforcement of immigration laws, except as required by law. JM
John Jay College and the City University stand firmly committed to protecting and supporting students, regardless of immigration status. In several recent public statements, President Jeremy Travis and Chancellor James B. Milliken underscored this commitment and outlined steps that have been or will be taken to protect immigrant students and their personal records. These steps, along with resources available to CUNY students, include:
* A statement in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, signed in November by President Travis along with hundreds of college and university presidents nationwide, including Chancellor Milliken and six CUNY campus presidents. The statement and list of signers is available online at https://www.pomona.edu/news/2016/11/21- college-university-presidents-call-us-uphold- and-continue-daca
* The CUNY Immigrant Education Initiative, one of the priorities of which is to increase the number of available CUNY seats so that all 16,000 potentially DACA-eligible New Yorkers can enroll in an appropriate educational program.• A comprehensive page on the CUNY website that provides a wealth of information for CUNY students, faculty, and staff about recent changes in federal immigration policies. Visit http://www2.cuny.edu/academics/international- education/isss/policy-changes
* CUNY Citizenship Now! offers a full array of information and legal services on immigration, citizenship, and related subjects. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 212-650-6620.
* Inquiries about personal immigration-related matters can also be addressed to a Legal Aid attorney through the John Jay Wellness Center. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu/wellness-center
* The CUNY Law School clinic CUNY CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) aims to address the unmet legal needs, Muslim, Arab, African, Asian and other communities in New York City, including questions about travel, national security, and counterterrorism policies. Visit http://www.law.cuny. edu/academics/clinics/immigration/clear.html
* A thorough battery of useful resources for immigrant students, undocumented or otherwise, is available online at www.jjay.cuny.edu/undocumentedstudents