At the University of Nevada, Reno students who are undocumented or on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals expressed how the university needs more visible support for them.
DACA refers to an executive order placed in 2012 by the Obama-Biden administration to provide temporary protection status for individuals who immigrated to the United States before the age of 17. It allows students to work and pursue higher education.
Maria Villasenor-Magana is one of more than 700 thousand students who rely on DACA to attend universities. Although she uses DACA, she said her journey in higher education is not easy.
Villasenor-Magana started off by attending the College of Southern Nevada in 2013, and didn’t have any support from councilors, advisors or faculty.
“It made me feel very insignificant,” said Villasenor-Magana. “I would go up to people and be like ‘Hey do you know anything that can help me out financially, I’m on DACA.’ No one knew what DACA was. No one knew what DACA meant.”
According to Federal Student Aid, students under DACA are required to pay yearly taxes, but are not eligible for federal aid—including pell grants. DACA students can potentially qualify for external scholarships or state/institution funding.
Even though Villasenor-Magana has a social security number, advisors would just tell her to apply for federal aid even after she tried to explain to them what DACA means. For her “they would just assume things.”
“I feel they should have given professors and faculty a training in [DACA], and they didn’t,” she said. “It made me feel very outcasted.”
When Villasenor-Magana had saved enough money to transfer to the university in 2018, she said she was disappointed because no one told her about the resources she had on campus.
“It was scary, ” Villasenor-Magana said. “It felt kind of the same [as CSN]. It’s been years. We need more awareness on this, we need more exposure on this because I know I’m not the only DACA student on campus. For UNR to be such a huge school and not have that exposure on a matter that’s happening today, it’s just crazy to me. It’s just; why? It doesn’t make sense.”
Although Villasenor-Magana is set to graduate next fall, she constantly fears for her status.
“It can literally [be] from one day to another, you don’t have a status,” she said. “That’s what makes it very nerve wracking, and the uncertainty is just awful.”
In 2017, President Donald Trump announced he would end the program. However, several federal court lawsuits have blocked the action.
In reponse, the university issued a statement in September 2017, along with the Nevada System of Higher Education, stating their support for undocumented students.
“Since the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was started in 2012, we have witnessed the critical benefits of this program for our students, and the highly positive impacts on our institution and community,” the university statement read. “We are proud of all of our DACA students. We want to protect the opportunity for anyone who comes to our University to pursue their dreams through education. We will continue to embrace our mission and support the members of our diverse groups, who are a valued and critical part of our campus community. With reports indicating that DACA may be rescinded, we are affirming our stance that all students who are ready to pursue a higher education are welcome here at the University of Nevada, Reno.”
Although a statement was issued, DACA recipient Dulce Medina said she doesn’t feel supported on campus.
“The university has shown that it treats students of color much different than their white peers,” Medina said. “We are already at a disadvantage and the school does not do a lot to even the playing field and much less push to surpass others. There are resources that are great, like The Center, but still the university as a whole doesn’t take a strong stance against people who are being discriminated against for anything—including immigration status.”
Medina immigrated to the United States when she was just 2-years-old and says if it wasn’t for DACA, she wouldn’t be able to support herself.
“I grew up my entire life in Nevada, in Incline village, a small town on the north shore of Tahoe,” Medina said. “I grew up supported by friends and family but there were obvious barriers when I started getting older and started looking at higher education, all combined with Trump going into presidency and threatening my status. DACA has given me the opportunity to go to school in general. I’m also first generation so if it weren’t for DACA then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to college at all. It also has given me the chance to work legally, and if I couldn’t work I also wouldn’t be able to afford school or life in general so I couldn’t imagine not having it.”
For Villasenor-Magana and Medina, their biggest fear is “What if DACA is taken away?”
In fall 2019, the Supreme Court began hearing testimony on if DACA is legal. The court is expected to give a response by spring.
Although the hearings pertain to Villasenor-Magana and her potential status, she chooses not to listen.
“Honestly I don’t even know what’s going on in the Supreme Court,” Villasenor-Magana said. “I don’t like to keep up with the news, it’s too depressing.”
For Social Service Coordinator Jahahi Mazariego, she explained how this response is normal.
“What I find is there are some students who choose not to actively listen to what the policy changes are on immigration and are not up to date with the supreme court,” Mazariego said. “They do that mostly out of their own self care and protection of their mental health, physical health. I have some other students who are eager to learn more about what’s going to happen with DACA, and so they are up to date. But in these two different feelings there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of depression and social isolation.”
Mazariego began working at the university in 2016 as a way to provide support and advocate for these students. She said she worries for these students and their status.
“If they lose it, they might have to adjust about how [they] think about what [their] future is,” she said. “This is a community that can’t always plan ahead. They go day by day. DACA has never been a permanent program, it’s always been temporary. I’ve been thinking about this, honestly, since 2012.”
Mazariego said she began advocating for DACA and undocumented students when her sister-in-law was deported, and tells her experience often.
“If a student in an underrepresented group feels support here on campus, they’re more likely to graduate college. The same [applies] when it comes to students who are undocumented,” Mazariego said. “ I feel I tell [it] often to humanize the discussion on immigration. I think oftentimes a lot of the work I do is justifying the humanity of immigrants. I would rather use the story of my family to do that instead of having other students do that.”
Since then, Mazarego has tried to bring visibility to the issues affecting this community.
“The fear is legitimate. It’s extremely legitimate, and I can never take the fear away from other people,” Mazariego said. “I just want students to know I am here to support you in any way I can. Every feeling you have is completely valid. I hope you feel supported here on campus, but if not reach out to me. I want to create that opportunity to feel supported and seen.”
Mazariego added she is actively researching for resources in the event DACA is taken away by the Supreme Court Decision.
The university has held events like UNDOCU Week to show support for this community.
Students who are DACA recipients or undocumented and need support/resources are advised to reach out to Mazariego: email@example.com.
Andrew Mendez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AMendez2000.