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Undocumented Students at Tufts

Campus | February 22, 2016

Every April 7, United We Dream, America’s largest nonpartisan youth-led immigration organization, hosts National Institutions Coming Out Day. According to their website, the event “encourage[s] educators to publicly come out and be proud about supporting and working alongside undocumented students.”

This day became significant in Tufts University history last year, as the college officially changed its admissions policy to include undocumented applicants within the domestic pool. These individuals were previously grouped within the international pool, which does not qualify for federal financial aid. Even as domestic applicants, undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid. For this reason, Tufts has pledged to provide equivalent aid. The several undocumented students admitted into the class of 2019 were successfully able to receive financial aid through the university as a direct result of this change in policy, which was largely guided by the student group Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ).

UIJ President Liz Palma explained that the group’s main focus when communicating with the university had to do with a United States immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Established in 2012, DACA grants temporary protection to undocumented peoples who entered the US prior to June 2007 and before their 16th birthday. However, the policy is limited in the amount of minors it can help because of strict age requirements and biannual fees. Palma explained that “having undocumented students, with and without DACA, apply to the university with domestic status is important as it is true to their lived experiences since the majority grew up in the United States.”

Several undocumented students now attend Tufts, a result of UIJ’s work with the university in the past year.  But turning Tufts into an accepting environment for undocumented people has required much more than simply rewriting admissions documents and legal processes. Such an undertaking involves educating university faculty, staff, and the student populace themselves. That’s where the transformation continues today. At the beginning of this school year, Tufts’ administration formed working groups meant to address specific issues related to students yet to be naturalized in the US. Groups range from “Communications” to “Education and Training” and will meet continually throughout the spring semester.

The university has requested that members of UIJ be incorporated into the working group process. Ana Manriquez, a freshman, is a member of UIJ working with the administration’s task force.  “I am in the Student Experience working group, and our main goal is to improve the daily and overall experiences of undocumented students on campus as well as other students who are affected by similar issues. This includes low income, first generation, and minority cases,” she said. Each task force aims to consider many aspects of student life at Tufts, so Manriquez’s group includes members ranging from mental health services staff to the admissions officers who handle undocumented students’ applications.

Whitney Lea Sullivan, an International Student & Scholar Advisor at Tufts, explained a specific project within her working group where a UIJ student is also involved. “We are working on an anonymous survey, which will be sent to the undocumented student community at Tufts. Our hope is that it will allow us to gather valuable information regarding the student experience (i.e. challenges, needs, support services, etc.) and hopefully result in focus groups where we can extract even more valuable, in-depth information,” she stated. Sullivan stated that working with UIJ and sitting in on their meetings with her colleague Chris Rossi had been beneficial in gaining student perspectives and incorporating their narratives into working groups. Still, she foresees possible problems in recruiting individuals who took the survey to become active participants in the focus groups.

Some restrictions do remain even after Tufts came out in support of undocumented students. The new amendments to university policy only ended up applying to first-year applicants, leaving out transfer and graduate students. “A lot of transfer students are coming from community colleges, not just people already attending other four-year universities,” Palma explained. These restrictions have encouraged UIJ to remain alert regarding the university’s actions moving forward—for instance, will Tufts follow through with agreed-upon positions in upcoming working group meetings?

Despite a lot of productive work within the groups, some signs point towards organizational problems. One UIJ member reported that his working group did not meet until at least a month after the initially planned date for the first meeting, and that certain members of the faculty assigned within other groups have yet to show up at any meetings. Palma also noted that the working groups have no set time frame or ending goal date, which could allow the project to stagnate from lack of urgency. “It’s not that there is an inherent distrust between our group and the university, as we have come this far. We just want to make sure Tufts doesn’t co-opt our work or any work done by students,” Palma added.

The composition and small size of the groups also means that they do not yet fully represent student life at Tufts. “I would love to have more students involved in the process so that there can be more natural input and involvement. UIJ has done a lot of positive work on this project and so students should continue to be the ones spearheading this movement, with the support of staff and administrators, but still be at the forefront. After all, it is students whom we are trying to help,” said Manriquez.

Despite these roadblocks, work towards these issues continues to move forward. Coordinators have made efforts to increase transparency within working groups and student organizations. Recently, all members of UIJ have been welcomed to attend working group meetings. UIJ has also created small support groups within its own organization in order to support each of the three students directly involved with each working group.

Manriquez explained, “I feel that the faculty whom I am working with are there to try and help undocumented students, and for that I am very grateful. I think that at times it is easy for administrators and staff to clash with students, but I also think that it is important to remember that many people do have the same goals for undocumented students—to better their overall college experience.” And as more undocumented youth become aware of Tufts’ policy, the university must continue to adapt in order to accommodate this new sector of students.