AUSTIN, Texas – Martha Paz left Mexico with her family when she was 3 months old.
For most of her life, Paz lived in a small town outside of Dallas with her parents and younger siblings. She worked hard to get good grades in school, eventually graduating from high school as one of the top 10 students in her class.
When she was 16, Paz was among the more than 124,000 Texans to receive initial approval under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Under the designation, Paz was temporarily protected from deportation. She got a driver’s license and a work permit, and with her black belt in karate, she began teaching self-defense classes to young children.
Now a student at the University of Texas, Paz is working toward a degree in management information systems. But as early as this month, the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a decision that would mean the end of deferred action for Paz and hundreds of thousands of other young immigrants.
“It does scare me,” she said. “It’s scary that I won’t be able to use my degree for whatever I’m going to work for.”
Their lives are worlds apart: One sister has DACA status, the other doesn’t.
Dr. Octavio Martinez, director of Hogg Center for Mental Health at the University of Texas, has written about the need to support DACA students at universities in Texas. The disruptions from worrying about how they’ll be able to complete their studies if DACA is revoked can lead to severe distress, depression and anxiety.
“The threat of losing everything – imagine what that does to an individual person,” Martinez said. “And a lot of them internalize it and ask themselves, ‘What have I done wrong? What did I not do?’ And the environment is not looking very hospitable.”
A 2009 study found the threat of deportation or detention can cause long-term stress that seriously affects brain development. A 2017 study, published shortly after President Donald Trump announced he would end DACA, found the program actually alleviated many of the stressors young undocumented people were feeling.
At the time the Trump administration rescinded DACA, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the program was a unilateral executive action, taken by Obama only after Congress refused similar action multiple times. The program was “inconsistent with the Constitution’s separation of powers,” Sessions said.
“The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences,” Sessions said in his 2017 remarks. “It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
The Trump administration’s decision to end DACA has been put on hold by several courts across the country. But after hearing oral arguments in November, the nation’s highest court will issue the final ruling on DACA early this year. Terminating the program could trigger a “public health crisis,” the 2017 study said.
Martinez argues that college campuses have a responsibility to provide DACA recipients, often called “Dreamers,” with emotional support.
Deferred action: Who are the DACA DREAMers and how many are here?
When she first arrived at Texas, Paz said she attended an orientation with other international students, many of whom were undocumented. Through this, she joined the University Leadership Initiative, a group of undocumented students and allies that works to educate students about their rights and provides free forums and clinics.
Paz said she would like to see the university create a Dreamer resource center. The University of Texas-San Antonio has a one-stop resource center that provides mental health support, academic advising, legal assistance, career counseling and social connections.
“There are approaches that colleges and universities can do. They can definitely provide a safe environment,” Martinez said. “Let the DACA students know that they are welcome there, they’e accepted, and that these resources are there and available for them.”
Austin Community College offers an academic track, called Ascender, aimed at supporting Latino students and is developing a support group for DACA students.
“The name of our institution says ‘community,’ and we have to reflect our community,” said Alejandra Polcik, ACC’s supervisor of Hispanic outreach projects. “And whether some people like it or not, we live with DACA students and undocumented students, and they contribute to society.”
ACC enrolls about 40,000 students, roughly 1,200 of whom are Dreamers, Polcik said. One of them was 20-year-old Armando Sanchez, who just graduated with an associate degree and plans to continue his study of political science and communications at Texas State University in the spring.
Sanchez was brought to the U.S. when he was 6 months old. He’s seen other kids and his own family members get picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Receiving DACA designation offered some relief, but as a possible end nears, the stress is beginning to weigh on him.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of DACA recipients, and many of them are scared. They believe they don’t have the resources, or they don’t know what resources they have,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been doing a lot of great things these past few months. And to know that if it does overturn and my dream ends, just because of one person – for me, it brings me anger.”
If DACA ends, it would mean some students could lose employment needed to pay for college or living expenses. If they are able to graduate, they might not be able to find work in their fields, Polcik said.
“You might have attorneys and doctors working washing dishes and babysitting,” she said.
Still, advocates say immigrants are resilient, and even if DACA is repealed, they will find a way to be successful.
Montserrat Garibay, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, is a Mexican immigrant and University of Texas graduate who works to promote opportunities for students, especially those from immigrant families.
“It’s very devastating, without a doubt,” she said of the potential DACA shutdown. “But I think that’s just also one of the things about ‘Dreamers:’ They have this power; they don’t lose hope.”
Paz is on track to graduate in two years. She hopes to find a company willing to sponsor her for a work visa. But if she can’t get a job in the U.S., she said, she’ll probably try to get one in Mexico.
Until then, she’s working on helping other students like herself. She’s creating a network of undocumented students in Texas to provide advice to others navigating college.
“I believe undocumented students have been able to surpass a lot of challenges; that makes them good workers,” Paz said. “Helping people like that would help them in the future to advance in other ways.”
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