Undocumented students in region find refuge, support at universities

Protestors gathered outside Trump Tower after DACA was rescinded. Courtesy of Harrie Van Veen via Creative Commons

After Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Rodrigo Velasquez, and other members of Mason DREAMers worked through the night, going without sleep, to plan what was next.

“We can’t just leave people in isolation,” Velasquez, a formerly undocumented immigrant, remembered thinking.

In six years, Mason DREAMers have evolved into one of the most visible support and advocacy organizations for undocumented students in the region. After the election of Trump, who as a candidate promised to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, family, friends and others called Velasquez and questioned what the election meant for them.

The student-led group at George Mason University is at the forefront of advocating on behalf of undocumented students. But universities throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia have voiced support and provided resources for these students. 

We can’t just leave people in isolation.”

Velasquez served as the group’s president and currently works as an advisory board member. He helped translate DACA legalese for the students and explained the rights afforded to them under the Obama-era executive order that spared people from deportation who were brought into the country illegally as minors.

He did the same after Trump ordered an end to the program, calling on Congress to pass a replacement. The president and other critics of DACA have criticized the program as an overreach of executive power by Obama.

Mason DREAMers members pose for a photo at an event they hosted after the federal government announced it rescinded DACA. Credit: Debbie Truong

“We weren’t just going to sit idly by and wait for the administration to uproot a lot of our lives,” said Velasquez, who graduated last year.

The organization has hosted a DACA renewal workshop, rolled out a “rapid response team” that informs people of legislation pertinent to undocumented immigrants and coordinates community storytelling events.

They’ve also lobbied lawmakers during the legislative session in Richmond in support of proposed laws that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license or afforded them in-state college tuition, Velasquez said.

They’ve also campaigned against bills that would have mandated Virginia universities comply with U.S. Immigration Enforcement and Customs officials as well as anti-sanctuary bills.

Officials at universities elsewhere in the region, including American University, the University of Maryland and Georgetown, have vowed continued support for undocumented immigrants.

After Trump rescinded DACA in early September, University of Maryland president Wallace D. Loh issued a statement calling on Congress to pass a replacement before the executive order expires in March.

He reiterated that the university would continue to identify resources for the estimated 100 undocumented students on campus.

“This decision is antithetical to the core values and missions of the University of Maryland and higher education generally,” Loh said in the statement. “Ending legal protection for these young people, before enacting a permanent legislative solution, would cause turmoil in their lives and contradicts our bedrock values as an immigrant nation.”

During remarks on the U.S. Senate floor in January pushing the Trump administration to uphold DACA, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Il.), highlighted the experience of Georgetown student Luis Gonzalez.

Holding an enlarged photo of Gonzalez posing in a Georgetown shirt in front of a building on campus, Durbin told Gonzalez’s story from a difficult upbringing to graduating in the top one percent of his high school class and becoming an involved member of the community.

“If DACA is eliminated, Luis could be forced back into the shadows,” said Durbin, who sponsored original DREAM Act legislation that eventually failed on the Senate floor.

His comments are highlighted in a YouTube video on the university’s website on a page that affirms Georgetown’s support of undocumented students.

“These young women and men demonstrate an extraordinary passion to make America, and our increasingly interconnected world, a better place,” university president John J. DeGioia said in a statement.

Velasquez, the former George Mason student, received a green card during his senior year at the college. He could have moved forward without thinking about the campus organization or the undocumented students at the school, he said.

Instead, he’s driven by memories of feeling uncertain and anxious over being undocumented. He remembers the all-consuming worry of not being able to afford college and being ineligible for federal financial aid, of having to find transportation to visit home from campus because he couldn’t apply for a driver’s license. 

He said, “I don’t want anyone to feel like I did.”

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