Foon Rhee

Why ‘Dreamers’ at UC should feel very lucky

Students Fidel Gomez, center, and Esveiri Conchas, right, from La Verne University chat while they wait to board a plane to Mexico City at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana on Dec. 22. Concerned their DACA status could be ended by Donald Trump, they are returning before he becomes president.
Students Fidel Gomez, center, and Esveiri Conchas, right, from La Verne University chat while they wait to board a plane to Mexico City at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana on Dec. 22. Concerned their DACA status could be ended by Donald Trump, they are returning before he becomes president. The Orange County Register

When María Blanco took a new job at the end of 2014, no one knew that a billionaire reality TV star would launch a long-shot presidential bid by disparaging Mexican Americans and would demonize immigrants all the way to the White House.

Now, if President-elect Donald Trump takes his own campaign promises literally and deports many more undocumented immigrants, Blanco will be on the front lines trying to shield University of California students.

“I don’t know if I believe in fate, but I’m pretty close to it when I ended up right here, right now,” says Blanco, executive director of the UC Center for Undocumented Student Legal Services.

Because of the center, housed at the UC Davis law school, UC students are probably the most legally protected of any undocumented young people in America – far more so than those working on farms in the Central Valley or fast-food joints across the state. California State University and California Community Colleges don’t have a statewide system to offer similar legal aid.

UC President Janet Napolitano, who now looks like a genius for founding the center, declares that the university won’t be part of any deportation machine. Campus police won’t help authorities, and UC won’t give out any student information, such as addresses. UC estimates it has 4,000 undocumented students, the vast majority undergrads.

There are at least twice as many at CSU; it counts about 8,000 undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition. Chancellor Timothy White has also pledged that CSU won’t help federal immigration officials.

Trump has vowed to end President Barack Obama’s executive order known as DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – that covers young people, often called “Dreamers,” who were brought here illegally as infants and children. As of last year, more than 750,000 had been approved for DACA nationwide, including about 216,000 in California.

In November, Napolitano, White and California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley sent a joint letter to Trump urging him to keep DACA, which Napolitano drafted while Homeland Security secretary. On Saturday, immigrant rights activists plan to march in nearly 70 cities against mass deportation and in support of DACA.

Trump has also threatened to cut off federal funding to “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities, but hasn’t said whether that applies to universities. Napolitano says while she believes existing law prevents a funding cutoff, UC will go to court if necessary.

But as on so many issues, we don’t know what Trump will really do after he’s sworn in on Friday. He has said he would first deport criminals, but it’s not clear who that covers.

So immigration enforcement was a key issue at confirmation hearings last week for Sen. Jeff Sessions, his nominee for attorney general, and John Kelly, his nominee for Homeland Security secretary. Sessions said he would be open to doing away with DACA, which he called “constitutionally questionable.” Kelly said that enforcement priorities would need to be set and that law-abiding Dreamers would “probably not be at the top of the list.” House Speaker Paul Ryan told a Dreamer at a CNN town hall Thursday night that there’s no “deportation force” and that he wants a “humane solution.”

Blanco said she’s telling her lawyers to be realistic with students, but not scare them too much. After talking to her and reading through questions submitted at a UCLA town hall soon after the November election, I completely get why.

Some of the inquiries are downright chilling: Could having a sick child who is a citizen help? If the police knock on the door, do you have to open it? And: “My parents both suffer physical/mental disabilities. They’re undocumented but my sister and I are under DACA. We have limited financial assistance. What should we do?”

Until it’s clear what Trump will do, the legal center is advising students not to file new DACA applications to avoid putting their information into the federal database, and not to seek renewals if they have changed addresses. “We really have reached that stage,” she told me.

DACA status, which lasts for two years, also allows travel out of the country for study, academic conferences and family emergencies. The center is advising students not to start study abroad programs after Trump’s inauguration because they may not be able to re-enter the U.S.

Students at UC San Diego are in more jeopardy. Because the campus is within 100 miles of the Mexican border, constitutional safeguards on search and seizure don’t fully apply and immigration agents have broader powers. The center has told students that their undocumented parents shouldn’t come to campus for graduation or other events, just in case.

Also, DACA status grants a work permit. Though they receive state grants for tuition, many need the jobs to cover housing and other expenses. Graduate students need the permit to work as teaching and dorm assistants.

Without work permits, “we’ll lose students,” says Blanco, who got her law degree at UC Berkeley and has been a civil rights litigator for more than 20 years, including five at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

She oversees seven lawyers, including ones who work at UCLA and UC Riverside. This month, the center starts services at a ninth campus, UC Irvine. (UC Berkeley has its own program.) The center is getting $900,000 a year from Napolitano’s office, which also gave startup funding of $578,000 in both 2015 and 2016. Blanco is seeking private foundation funding to add an eighth attorney who is an expert in defending against deportations.

The center also offers free legal aid to students’ families, checking if parents or siblings might be eligible for visas or even a green card. It handled 237 cases in 2015-16 and opened 283 cases last fall. In 2015-16, its clients came from 18 countries, 72 percent from Mexico.

When Blanco started in December 2014, UC campuses already had centers for undocumented students, so she worked with them on outreach and scheduling to get a running start. After two years, the center is in even better shape. “If we were getting off the ground now, we’d be pulled in so many directions,” she says.

The importance of foresight, preparation and hard work – that’s a good lesson for Dreamers, and for all of us.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee