GW’s Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute convened the forum to share information and discuss the impact of immigration policies on higher education.
By B.L. Wilson
Luis Otero-Baca often thinks about what his life might have been like had his mother stayed in Guanajuato, Mexico, including what he believes would have been a daily struggle between life and death.
But his mother immigrated to the United States to join her husband and take on the demands of working two or three jobs to support their family.
Mr. Otero, who is now in his second year at the George Washington University as a Posse Scholar, for years feared that same struggle might become his life as well. Even while attending school before GW, he said, he worked 40 hours a week to help at home.
“I felt I was reliving my parents’ experience,” he said.
DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program enacted during the administration of President Barack Obama, grants work permits and deportation protection for about 800,000 immigrants like Mr. Otero who came to the country as children. President Donald Trump rescinded that policy then challenged Congress to come up with a legislative solution for Dreamers, as such young people are called, before their protections begin to phase out early next year.
“I related my parents’ experience to mine,” Mr. Otero said. “College had always been in the back of my mind, a matter of paying it forward to my parents who had been deprived of an education.”
Mr. Otero said his father told him he wouldn’t be able to attend college because he did not have documentation.
“I share my story to show that 11 million undocumented immigrants are not just numbers but people trying to make their world a better place,” Mr. Otero said. “The greatest act of resistance that I can do is be here at GW getting my education."
He spoke before a room full of college and university presidents, researchers, advocates and representatives from nonprofits Tuesday at the Forum on Higher Education and Immigration sponsored by GW’s Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute. The forum provided a platform for discussing the impact of new immigration policies on higher education.
Opening the forum, Louis Caldera, a senior fellow at the Cisneros Institute, said, “Talented young people who were raised as Americans and call no other country home are suffering uncertainty and anxiety over whether Congress will pass a legislative solution that will protect them from deportation and allow them to work, study or serve in the military and build lives of purpose here.”
Keynote speaker Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, reminded the audience of the rich immigrant history of the United States.
“Our communities and educational systems are made up of generations of opportunity seekers who traveled here sometimes fleeing trouble at home and at other times simply looking for a better life,” she said.
She said it would be difficult to imagine the technical and social innovations that have defined the nation’s greatest moments without the contributions of the diverse talent pool of immigrants.
She told the story of Rutgers University-Newark’s loss of an eminent Syrian legal scholar to a Canadian university because of U.S. immigration policies that kept him from being united with his family in this country.
A panel of academic, business and legal experts, moderated by President Emeritus of Pomona College David Oxtoby, discussed the challenges of the new restrictive immigration policies and travel bans. Panelist Ximena Hartsock, the president of Phone2Action, a technology company, said those policies make it harder to fill STEM jobs because of fewer students from overseas. And recent changes in immigration policies in the United States, according to Elizabeth Vaquera, the director of the Cisneros Institute and professor of sociology, public policy and public administration, have increased anxiety and fear among undocumented students and their families around the country.
Emma Violand-Sanchez, the founder of the Dream Project, which assists students whose immigration status is a barrier to education, said organizations now have responsibilities that go beyond advocacy to funding for scholarships and legal assistance.
In September, Mr. Trump announced that he was ending the DACA program, but that those enrolled would not begin to lose their benefits for six months, on March 5, 2018. What this means for the legal status of this population is that enrolled DACA recipients can retain their deferred action status and employment authorization documents until they expire or are otherwise terminated or revoked. All pending initial applications and renewals accepted as of Oct. 5, 2017, would continue to be processed, but no new initial applications would be accepted.
Still, Mr. Caldera said, immigration policies are not exclusively federal issues.
“Many immigration issues are also state-level issues from whether [an institution] can offer in-state tuition rates, whether that is based in law or is contingent on having a DACA program, or whether students are able to get driver’s licenses which they need to be able to attend school and to work,” he said.
GW joined 19 other universities in signing an amicus brief that challenges the administration’s rescission of DACA, and the university’s president and provost have issued letters in support of undocumented students.
Following the panel discussion, the university and college presidents convened in a private session to consider other ways they can take action to urge Congress to pass legislation that preserves DACA.