UC Davis opens campus office for undocumented students

As UC Davis began its school year Thursday with the most undocumented students in its history, the university introduced an unprecedented campus office designed to assist them with everything from graduation requirements to legal filings.

The concept behind the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center is simple: provide a safe space and a one-stop shop for university services such as financial aid and academic counseling.

The new resource is a recognition of the growing influence and population of undocumented students at UC Davis, which expects to enroll about 200 such students this year. The California Dream Act in 2011 allowed undocumented students to receive state financial aid and has spurred increased enrollment in the UC system – once thought to be unaffordable for undocumented immigrant families.

AB 540 refers to the 2001 state law that gives undocumented students in-state tuition, provided they meet certain requirements such as attending a California high school.

Students and their families can seek free legal advice at the center, which will be staffed by a recent graduate from the UC Davis School of Law in addition to other advisers.

“A student is not going to excel at UC Davis if their head is wrapped around what’s going on at home,” said Andrea Gaytan, the center’s director, referring to legal troubles like deportation that undocumented families commonly face.

“There’s physiological and social stress from being vulnerable to deportation.”

The center is fairly unprecedented for a college campus. UC Davis is the only school in the UC system that has a stand-alone department to benefit undocumented students, according to Gaytan.

In the past, undocumented students were concerned they often had to disclose their status to more than one campus department in order to fully use the university’s services. Ana Maciel, a junior majoring in Chicana/Chicano studies, noted that many were hesitant to reveal their status. Last year, she spearheaded a push to establish a safe place for undocumented students.

“People were bouncing around different departments. They felt unimportant,” said Maciel, 20, who was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico when she was 11/2 years old.

The AB540 and Undocumented Student Center is similar to other retention and counseling resources already on campus, including the Cross Cultural Center and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex Asexual Resource Center.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group that supports tighter immigration controls, said the idea of a resource center dedicated to undocumented students was appalling.

“To actually acknowledge illegal aliens are a group like gay students and warrant their own institution is almost comical but not surprising.” he said. “It’s the logical outgrowth of this idea that illegal immigrants are a protected class.”

University officials hope the undocumented center will foster campus discussion of immigration issues and eventually pursue research.

In May, a Mexican-themed drinking party, dubbed “Cinco de Drinko” and promoted by employees of the student-run Coffee House at UC Davis, drew sharp condemnation from campus leaders. The Facebook event page for the off-campus party used images of sombrero-wearing students trying to hop a chain-link fence while students in Border Patrol attire smiled.

About 100 UC Davis students staged a sit-in at the Coffee House and urged a boycott of the cafeteria. At the time, university Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi said the episode was “an unfortunate way to remind us that we have a lot of work to do” and vowed to implement a mandatory diversity course.

The state’s changing demographics also have been reflected in the UC system, with Latino students this year surpassing white students to become the second-largest ethnic group behind Asian Americans. At UC Davis, 21.2 percent of freshmen admitted for 2014 are classified as Latino, up from 17.8 percent in 2012.

Gaytan said the majority of undocumented UC Davis students identify as Latino. Systemwide, however, undocumented students are predominantly Asian.

During an open house event for the undocumented center on Wednesday, freshman Ana Oregel said she was relieved to see such a resource on campus.

“Thank God they’re having this,” said Oregel, 18, an undocumented student from Los Angeles.

Oregel said navigating federal and state immigration rules such as President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum in 2012 has been a nightmare. DACA, as it is known, allows certain undocumented residents brought into the country as children to apply for deportation relief and a temporary two-year work permit.

While Maciel hailed the new center as a step in the right direction, she noted that without immigration reform, the undocumented students who benefit from this resource wouldn’t be able work legally after graduation.

“Give us legal status so we can actually practice our degrees,” she said.