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Undocumented students fight for future in Trump’s America

There are nearly 200 undocumented immigrants at ASU covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA

ASU junior public policy student and DACA recipient Oscar Hernandez poses for a portrait in downtown Phoenix on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017

Undocumented students fight for future in Trump’s America

There are nearly 200 undocumented immigrants at ASU covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA

ASU junior public policy student and DACA recipient Oscar Hernandez poses for a portrait in downtown Phoenix on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017

ASU student Oscar Hernandez said he felt he didn't do enough to prevent the election of President Donald Trump, a president that could potentially change his life.

Hernandez, a public service and public policy junior, could not vote in the November 2016 election because he is an undocumented immigrant protected under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. 

“This was clearly going to impact my life directly, and I (couldn’t) even do anything about it,” Hernandez said about Trump’s election. “I just felt like I didn’t do enough. I could’ve knocked on more doors, I could’ve reached out to more people on social media and encouraged them to vote.”

The program was enacted through an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in 2012 that granted certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States before the age of 16 temporary protection from deportation. The program doesn't provide a pathway for recipients to become legal; applicants must reapply every two years to remain protected.  

“That (election) just showed me where things are at in the United States in general,” Hernandez said. “It also really opens your eyes to the hatred people have for certain things, one being immigrants.”

Journey across the border

Hernandez’s parents brought him across the border from Nogales into Arizona when he was 9 years old. 

His family was in search of a better life and obtained tourist visas to get into the country. They eventually overstayed the time permitted on their visas but continued to live in the country. 

“We stopped at McDonald's because we were hungry,” Hernandez said. “I think that was a very American way to come into the United States.”

Hernandez is one of nearly 200 DACA recipients attending ASU and one of 51,713 potential recipients in the state of Arizona as of September 2016, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS.

“My parents were in need of money,” he said. “They were in debt in Mexico. They needed to pay all that back. They heard about all these opportunities here, all the money that you can make, so they were influenced by some family members to come over.”

The family crossed the border together because they worried that going individually would separate them for a long period of time, Hernandez’s mother Claudia said smiling at her husband Jaime and son sitting next to her.

Claudia and Jaime's last names are not the same as Hernandez's, but are not being used to protect their identities due to their sensitive legal status. 

The three sat on a couch in their apartment, below a wall filled with photos of their family.

"We are a team," Claudia said in Spanish. "Apart from that, we don’t know how to be separated. We thought that if we were here together as a family then we wouldn’t have to suffer being separated."

Claudia said she and her husband wanted a higher quality of life than they had in Mexico. Claudia is a prep chef, and his father Jaime is a taxi driver.

"I decided to come to America because of the better living conditions," she said. "Better opportunities for our son and also ourselves."

Although his parents came to the U.S. to enhance their son’s life, Hernandez said he’s always felt different from his peers because of his citizenship status.

“You just go with this mentality that you are a second class citizen, that you don’t have all the rights that everybody else does,” Hernandez said. “You have to understand that and accept it because … you really don’t have any other option.”

With the threat of DACA being repealed by Trump, Hernandez said recipients and supporters in the state will continue to fight to stay in the country.

“Right now we’re trying to organize,” Hernandez said. “It’s really hard to know what we’re going to do when we don’t know what the president is going to do.”

Hernandez's parents echoed their son's worries.

"The situation of the United States scares us that it’ll rip Oscar’s dream," Claudia said in Spanish. "We are still so proud of him in all his goals — that he’s accomplished and the hard work he puts in."

SP Investigates: A look into the life of DACA student Oscar Hernandez from The State Press on Vimeo. Video by Andrea Neff.

ASU takes action

At the university level, ASU President Michael Crow has said he supports DACA and DREAMer students. The individuals who meet DACA requirements also meet requirements of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that failed to pass.

“If you are admitted to this university and you’re attending this university, then you’re one of our students and everyone’s treated the same,” Crow said in a March interview with The State Press. “And so we’re going to protect your interests. We’re going to advance you to graduation. We’re going to do everything we can to help you to be successful.”

Crow said if the legislation gets repealed and DACA students are forced into a “previous status where they were not legally present, it’s possible there could be a change in their tuition costs.”

He also said if this happens, the University will reach out to the community and fundraise for DACA and DREAMer-related scholarships.  

The University has also partnered with TheDream.Us Scholarship Program, which provides financial aid to motivated DREAMers attending college.

Through this partnership, the University created a center in 2012 called the DREAMZone, where student leaders, staff, faculty and community members can educate themselves "with knowledge, skills and resources necessary to effectively respond to the academic needs of undocumented students," according to the DREAMZone’s website.  

"If DACA is eliminated, we will rise to the challenge," Crow said in a November 2016 statement. "ASU is a convening force in the community for good and for change.  If students lose the status that makes them eligible for in-state tuition, ASU will convene and engage the community on this issue to seek financial support for the continued study of students at ASU who graduated from Arizona high schools and who are qualified to attend the state universities — regardless of their immigration status."

But legislation for undocumented immigrants in the Arizona has been a mixed bag.

Proposition 300, passed in 2006, pressed universities to charge undocumented students out-of-state tuition. But this proposition was overruled by the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) in May 2015 in its decision to give DACA recipients in-state tuition for the universities it oversees in the State of Arizona v. Maricopa County Community College District case.

“Maricopa County Superior Court has ruled that a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient who presents an Employment Authorization Document and who meets Arizona law residency requirements is eligible for resident tuition,” according to a 2015 ABOR statement.

This ruling made attending college more accessible for Hernandez and other DACA recipients in the state.

"There were very limited opportunities," Hernandez said. "I went into community college first at Maricopa Community Colleges because it granted in-state tuition."

But Hernandez had to work his way through community college and eventually, made his way to ASU with the help of DACA-related scholarships.

"I got some private scholarships, funded my way through community college and transferred here," he said.

Undocumented in President Trump’s America

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to repeal every “unconstitutional” executive order issued by Obama during his first 100 days in office, leaving thousands of DACA recipients protected under one of Obama’s executive orders fearful for their future.

“We’re gonna show great heart, DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you,” Trump said on Feb. 16 in a White House press conference. “To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids. In many cases, not in all cases. And some of the cases, having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers, too. But you have some absolutely, incredible kids …”

The president’s words, however, haven’t eased the minds of thousands of undocumented recipients in Arizona.

Just days after Trump's press conference on Feb. 20, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented measures to tighten immigration enforcement, abiding by a recently signed executive order by Trump.

The measures increase immigration enforcement and place a majority of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants at risk of removal from the country. The memo instructs all agents from Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify, capture and quickly deport every undocumented immigrant they encounter.

There is no reference to DACA recipients in the measures released.

“Remember, everyone who is here illegally is subject to removal at any time,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a Feb. 21 press conference.

Fighting for a future

As for Hernandez and many other DACA recipients at ASU and in Arizona, the future is uncertain.

“It’s not a time to give up, it’s a time to go stronger given all the attacks we’re facing,” said Belen Sisa, a junior political science student at ASU and a DACA recipient. “I can’t think of a more perfect time to come out of the shadows and say you’re undocumented and unafraid.”

Sisa recently gained national attention when a Facebook post that discussed her tax return and immigration status went viral online. 

Read more: DACA recipient's post about paying her taxes goes viral

Sisa was brought to the U.S. from Argentina when she was 6 years old.

She said she knew she was undocumented, but also saw herself as a leader within the community. In high school, Sisa was a varsity cheerleader and the homecoming queen.

“I was the last person anyone would have thought was undocumented,” Sisa said. “I lost friends when I decided to come out and say that I was undocumented. They didn’t like me being vocal and speaking out against the injustices that we were facing.”

Sisa is an aspiring lawyer and currently prepping for the LSAT exam.

“I think that I began to be really interested in the politics that controlled my life, even though I couldn’t participate or be part of it at all,” Sisa said.

Her dream career would be working for the American Civil Liberties Union, fighting for rights like health care and accessible education of immigrants.

“People have told me they think I should run for office in the future, but I feel like my heart is telling me to do something broader,” she laughed. “Immigration is not the only thing DREAMers care about.”

If the order is repealed, Sisa said her life will drastically change.

"Our lives would be completely altered," Sisa said. "We could no longer work legally, we could no longer drive ... we could no longer pay in-state tuition.”

Like Sisa, Hernandez said if DACA is repealed, students will be forced to give up their education that the legislation allows them to work toward.

“We really don’t want DACA to be taken away, because we really don’t want to start all over again,” he said.

Hernandez and Sisa are co-founders of Undocumented Students for Education Equity at ASU, a group for people to organize and learn more about DACA recipients.

“We think that something’s going to happen eventually, either if it’s good or bad,” Hernandez said. “We want to be prepared as DACA students because we don’t really feel like ASU will support us if things … go south.”

Hernandez said if it were easy to become a citizen, millions of undocumented immigrants wouldn't be facing what they are today.

“If it was really that easy to become a citizen, I think we all would have done that,” he added. “It’s in our own interest to not have to be discriminated and take abuse of work … we wouldn’t have to rally or protest if we could become citizens.”

The “pathway” to legalization

Emilia Banuelos, an immigration lawyer at the Banuelos Law Office in Phoenix, said undocumented immigrants don't have a pathway to legalization, like many may believe.

"Our laws are so restrictive about who becomes legal in the United States," Banuelos said. "There's a reason people come in from our border illegally ... because there's no legal way to come into the United States (for them)."

According to USCIS, in order to become a naturalized citizen you must be 18 years of age at the time you apply, a permanent resident in the country for at least five years, a person of good moral character and demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution, among other things.But for undocumented immigrants who enter the country and who have been living in the country illegally, becoming a permanent resident, or obtaining a green card, is the one of the hardest steps, Banuelos said.

"For example, I apply for a green card for my daughter, who is a 22-year-old woman," she said. "It's going to take 20 years to get that green card, and by then your educational opportunities are gone — you're 40."

This decade-long wait could also force the person to go back to his or her home country until they are granted a green card, Banuelos added.

“We’re working with a system that is not effective and really not realistic," Banuelos said.

While a green card can allow someone a permanent status into the country, visas allow forms of temporary access.

The executive order that Obama implemented in June 2012, allows millennial undocumented immigrants, who were brought into the country before they were 16 years old, to apply for deferred action.

Those who meet DACA requirements also meet requirements under the DREAM Act that failed to pass in Congress after it was introduced in 2001. 

Banuelos said back then she was hoping for immigration reform with the DREAM Act.

“We were hoping that Congress did something,” she said. “That fear that they would be deported and the lack of Congress doing anything, led to (Obama), in 2012, issuing an executive order saying, ‘This is the cream of the crop, this is the best we have.’”

While DACA and the DREAM Act have differences, both pieces of legislation prioritize millennial undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country by their parents.

DACA applicants are granted deferred action, which allows temporary protection from deportation. DACA gives young, undocumented people in this country opportunity, but not a pathway to legalization Banuelos said.

More than 700,000 undocumented immigrants are protected under DACA and working or going to school.  

According to a study by the Center for American Progress, deporting these recipients would cost the country's economy nearly $433 billion in lost growth over the next 10 years due to their contribution to communities.

The study analyzes what would happen to the country's Gross Domestic Product if all DACA recipients in the country were deported and left the workforce. 

"The economic and fiscal harm from mass deportation is severe," the report concluded

DACA before Trump

The fight for DACA came long before 2012 and long before the DREAM Act in the early 2000s, according to Abril Gallardo, the program coordinator for Living United for Change in Arizona, an organization that helps undocumented immigrants apply for deferred action.

“We have DACA not because President Obama said, ‘Oh, poor kids. We’re going to give you guys DACA,’” Gallardo said. “We have DACA because there was a community of young immigrants who fought for it.”

The checklist to be considered for deferred action is extensive, Gallardo said.

Applicants undergo a background check and can not have ever been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more misdemeanors or otherwise pose a threat.

Gallardo said Living United for Change in Arizona doesn't assist applicants who have been convicted of a felony.  

"We only have the capacity to help anyone who answers ‘no’ to those questions," Gallardo said. "Unless it's like a traffic violation, we can help with that."

Once the application is accepted — which can take several months — DACA recipients are permitted to work, get a driver’s license and receive a card similar to a U.S. citizen’s social security card, Gallardo said. What they are able to do or receive depends on what they apply for within the program, she said.

"In people's minds it's one process," Gallardo said. "But it's actually different things."

Some apply for solely a social security card and some apply for solely a work permit, she said.

But one thing is certain, Gallardo said, recipients do not receive any kind of federal funding or healthcare through the program. Aspiring students who are also DACA recipients can’t apply for traditional programs to help them get through college financially, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“The only thing you get back is if you pay too much on taxes,” Gallardo said. “You get nothing. Nada.”

“We are going to look for our dreams in the United States.”

ASU junior Hernandez said DACA allowed him to see his potential in the country.

“It really made me realize that I was undocumented and in some ways, that I was Mexican,” Hernandez said. “I just had this image that I was a bad person, that I shouldn’t be the person that I was, and DACA really opened my eyes.”

Hernandez’s parents said a common phrase for those who aspire to immigrate legally into the U.S. from Mexico is “we are going to look for our dreams in the United States.”

“I feel that we have always supported Oscar even if we don’t speak (English),” Hernandez’s mother Claudia said. “We supported him in school and everything. However, the question is we do have a plan. We don’t have a specific plan. I don’t know ... we would find a way to keep fighting.”

Looking at her son, Claudia smiled.

“We can’t leave because we would rip apart his dreams,” she said. “We would still keep fighting, and we know that he is a leader. He knows how to fight for what he wants.”

Hernandez said those who are undocumented get used to hearing insults and falsehoods about themselves. 

"It's second nature to accept it," Hernandez said. "So when Trump was saying those things, I thought 'Who's going to believe this?'" 

Reach the reporter at or follow @alliebice on Twitter.

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