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State of Emergency

News & Features | September 30, 2019

The immigration crisis that floods the news every day is heartbreaking and bleak—from mothers, like Yazmin Juárez, filing wrongful death claims after their babies die in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody to immigrants, like Maria Isabel Bueso, stating that if they are sent back, they will die.

For most people, it all feels relatively and terrifyingly new. But ICE is not a new creation. “I think that ICE has quote, unquote been ‘less active’ in previous years,” Daniela Pozos, president of Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ), commented. “I’ve personally seen a spike in recent activity.”

But over the past few years, issues involving immigrants and students with undocumented status have gained more attention, both on the national level and on the Tufts campus. UIJ was founded in September, 2013 and has worked on both filling the gap of support for immigrant students at Tufts, as well as fighting for students with undocumented status’ rights. The student group has recently seen a spike in interest from Tufts students. At a meeting on Sept. 18, which was centered around the history of ICE and the recent call for its abolishment, UIJ recorded a greater number of people in attendance than ever before.

Hours after the meeting, a Facebook user commented on Pozos’ post in the Tufts Class of 2020 page, where she had advertised the meeting. The user’s comment tagged another Tufts student and read, “how will i cool my drinks.” UIJ and Pozos reported the comment to the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO).

To understand how the US is currently handling immigration—from increased border control to a regulation by the Trump administration looking to increase the cost of deportation appeals from $110 to nearly $1,000—and how it impacts immigrants and students with undocumented status, it’s important to understand the start of the US’s current crisis.

“One of the things I teach every student in my immigration course [Sociology 70] is that 1996 is probably the most formative year in contemporary immigration policy beyond 1965,” explained Helen Marrow, a Tufts associate professor of sociology. The year 1965 saw the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished discriminatory national-origin quotas that plagued the US’s immigration system for over 40 years. However, legislation in 1996 is largely responsible for setting the stage for the current crisis. 

“President Bill Clinton signed three major reform bills,” Marrow explained. “A welfare reform bill, an immigration reform bill, and an anti-terrorism bill. Together, those three bills were so restrictive, so awful, just terrible across the board.” She said that the legacy of those three bills is still felt strongly today, specifically in immigration law. 

“In the early 1990s, President Clinton starts all of his campaigns to target and beef up the border in El Paso and San Diego, to try to cut off flows of undocumented people entering across the border at those two points,” explained Marrow. She concluded that this set the stage for the current crisis. “We, by not understanding how migration flows work beyond just a simple neoclassical economic model which dominates everything, unfortunately, have made the problem worse. In fact, a lot of research shows we’ve created the very problem we feared.” 

But what is taught at universities like Tufts about our country’s immigration system is not common knowledge. Immigrants with undocumented status often don’t know their history, nor their rights. Cristina Rodriguez, a professor at Yale Law School, explained to PBS NewsHour that while the US Constitution applies to immigrants with undocumented status, many of those rights operate slightly differently or only apply in certain situations. 

For example, most deportation proceedings are civil cases, so the right to legal counsel (being assigned a lawyer) under the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply. Citizens and people from a background of privilege should also learn this history—it’s vital to being an ally. This type of education comes largely from activist groups, like the Massachusetts-based Student Immigration Movement. 

“We’re a community and a network at the same time,” said Valeria Do Vale, the lead coordinator for SIM. Founded in 2005, the organization focuses on supporting youth who have undocumented status; specifically, on ensuring they feel safe and mentored while advocating for their education rights.

The work Do Vale does is rooted in personal experience. She got involved with SIM when she was a sophomore in high school. “I was really facing an identity crisis, and at the time, I was fully undocumented,” she said. “I think we always mention how the struggle is the lack of papers, but it goes much more beyond that. It’s both a struggle of money, work, and being taken advantage of.” For Do Vale, there was a fear that there wasn’t a way out—especially since a lack of papers presents a barrier for entry into college. 

Stories like Do Vale’s are not new. Marrow noted that the current situation is not a problem unique to the Trump administration.

“Under Trump, the numbers of deportations are not actually higher. They were higher under Obama,” Marrow explained. Obama’s controversial nickname, “Deporter-in-Chief,” derives from the dramatic spike in deportation rates under the first term of his presidency. “In fact, we deported more people in the first decade of the 2000s alone than we did over the entirety of the 20th century,” Marrow said. Some of the detention facilities currently housing immigrants with undocumented status—especially children—were even established during the Obama era. 

During Obama’s second term, “in response to a lot of political pressure, the federal government tried to at least make corrections and go after quote, unquote ‘the most violent offenders’ as a priority category—meaning for offenses other than simply being undocumented,” explained Marrow. This had given some feeling of safety to many immigrants with undocumented status who did not have felonies or criminal records, sending them the message that the government was not after them. Under Trump, those priorities have been removed and more categories of undocumented immigrants have become targets. This has sewn fear and anxiety into communities nationwide. 

And Massachusetts is no stranger to this. Despite having a number of sanctuary cities—cities that limit their cooperation with the federal government in enforcing immigration law—ICE and US Customs and Border Protection threaten raids in Boston. There were reports of ICE on the Orange Line this summer, according to a Facebook post from the Mayor of Cambridge Marc McGovern. 

It’s a panic that feels immediate. “Especially now under Trump, Massachusetts has very high levels of collaboration with federal agencies, such as CBP and ICE,” Do Vale explained. “The sanctuary city policies are really just a memo, just like ICE still has memos about not going near hospitals or churches. But we’ve seen them do that, because a memo is still not a law, just an outline or proposal of something that could be.”

But not everyone understands the differences between what ICE says they will do and what ICE actually does. Do Vale, like many, learned more through activist organizations like SIM, such as her eligibility for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “Now, my role and the organization’s role are to see folks go through that journey of empowerment and leadership development,” she said. That role is especially important today, as SIM and more students with undocumented status seek to build a strong community.

But it’s difficult to cultivate community in this country’s current environment. “Increasingly, we’ve definitely seen people going back to this place of wanting to be more hidden,” explained Do Vale. She also pointed to the large numbers of deportations under Obama, but said that the Trump administration is “bringing about a new era of fear and cultural and social change,” as well as a new rise in hate crimes.

Noncitizens also face numerous societal barriers, especially when it comes to education. “Undocumented immigrants are driven to drop out of high school, and that’s something we deal with,” Do Vale said. “There’s not enough English as a second language classes, or resources, or you need to work to support your family.” 

It’s still a small percentage of undocumented students who pursue higher education, about 5–10 percent, according to 2015 statistics from the US Department of Education. For SIM, it can be difficult to know how to assist students with undocumented status in their pursuit of higher education—students with undocumented status are not usually given federal aid, and some schools simply won’t admit them. 

And the Trump administration isn’t making it easier. Do Vale explains that many youth with undocumented status, students in particular, are DACA recipients—the current legal battle over DACA was sparked by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ desire to repeal the program in 2017. 

The fight to open the doors of higher education to students with undocumented status plays out at the national, state-wide, and institutional levels. At Tufts, UIJ began because of an administrative policy. Students with undocumented or DACA status were required to apply as international students, and were not eligible to receive financial aid from the university.

UIJ’s efforts to repeal this policy were bolstered by a 2014 Tufts Community Union Senate resolution that voted to eliminate it. The administration later repealed the policy at the university level. Tufts now accepts students with undocumented status and students with DACA as domestic students, and gives full need-based financial aid. “Not a lot of schools do that,” Pozos explained. 

There are other forms of support on campus. The recently established FIRST Resource Center has developed a network and support system on campus to first-generation, low-income, and students with undocumented status.

Now, UIJ works to educate the greater Tufts community as well to advocate for students on campus with undocumented status. Despite significant turnout at their most recent meeting, there still is not enough engagement from the greater Tufts community. 

“I don’t think there’s enough interest,” Pozos said. “The students that show up are the students that we engage in that conversation with.” UIJ is also connected to other colleges’ immigrant and undocumented students’ rights groups. “We also have our side projects, such as,trying to work with the Career Center to try to get the Customs and Border Patrol job posting removed from Handshake. We definitely do a lot of the work of getting things started, bringing things to people’s attention.”

There’s much more work to be done. Pozos mentioned that faculty and staff are generally not trained on how to support and be an ally to students with undocumented status. “Sometimes, undocumented students have to out themselves to professors and faculty. They [professors and faculty] often out that person and their status to another faculty.” Pozos said the faculty try their best to support the student, but by outing a student with undocumented status (by mentioning their name and their status to another person without the student’s consent), they put that student in danger and reveal very sensitive, confidential information.

Beyond Tufts, Do Vale says the crisis will continue. After all, the current President of the United States called immigrants with undocumented status “animals.” 

But there is still action that people can take. From Never Again Action, a group of Jewish organizers who are rallying to shut down ICE, to college and university immigration activist groups, like Tufts’ own, people are exhibiting increased awareness and urgency towards the immigration crisis. And there is more to be done, especially for those who are allies. Tufts students can get involved through UIJ, being aware of protests and events, and showing up for local Boston area demonstrations.