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DREAMers: The case for matriculating undocumented students to U.Va.

All students, regardless of immigration status, should be allowed to matriculate and access support networks at the University

After years of advocacy by undocumented students and allies on the national, statewide and University level — including the founding of DREAMers on Grounds in 2015 — University President Jim Ryan has expressed his verbal commitment to matriculating, providing financial aid and supporting undocu+ students.
After years of advocacy by undocumented students and allies on the national, statewide and University level — including the founding of DREAMers on Grounds in 2015 — University President Jim Ryan has expressed his verbal commitment to matriculating, providing financial aid and supporting undocu+ students.

2020 marks fifty years since women were accepted into the undergraduate schools and 70 years since Gregory Swanson was admitted to the Law school as the first Black student at U.Va. As we celebrate these milestones, our administration and community must critically address who continues to be excluded from attending and thriving at U.Va. Currently, the University of Virginia does not enroll undocumented students even after they are accepted. A student can attend K-12 education in Virginia, apply to the University, be accepted and pay the deposit — but if they are unable to provide proof of immigration status, they are blocked from enrolling. 

After years of advocacy by undocumented students and allies on the national, statewide and University level — including the founding of DREAMers on Grounds in 2015 — University President Jim Ryan has expressed his verbal commitment to matriculating, providing financial aid and supporting undocu+ students. The term undocu+ includes undocumented students and others with precarious statuses, such as Temporary Protected Status. All students, regardless of immigration status, should be allowed to matriculate, receive financial aid and access the support networks at U.Va. after their acceptance. 

While immigration is considered the responsibility of the federal government, there is no clear federal policy regarding undocumented students and higher education. As a result, such policies are left at the discretion of the state. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, once the state outlines its policy, discretion is then conducted at the institutional level — thus each institution of higher education decides admission and enrollment policies for undocumented students.

Over the past years, the University has been embroiled in lawsuits regarding the enrollment of undocu+ students. Prior to 2012, students from mixed status families who had lived in Virginia their whole lives were denied in-state tuition based on the University’s domicile policy and their parents’ statuses. The University only reconsidered when the ACLU became involved. Past university presidents have infantalized undocumented students, but criminalized their parents for having brought them as children. Further, during one of the most hostile presidential administrations for undocumented people, the University allowed an Immigration & Customs Enforcement Director to speak in 2012 at the School of Law. 

For several decades the University has maintained admissions policies and practices rooted in xenophobia, racism and nativism. In 2002, Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore released a memorandum that urged Virginia institutes of higher education to “reject undocumented students and report them to the authorities.” In the wake of this opinion, the University, which had the power and discretion to ignore such opinion, adopted the malicious and calculated plan to not outrightly reject undocumented students but make their admission an International Studies Office matter. In doing so the University circumvented the need to reject undocumented students and instead constructed a profitable system in which undocumented students could pay application fees, receive an acceptance letter, pay their deposit, and only then be asked to provide proof of immigration status. The University thus created and maintained a scenario of willfull ignorance to the importance and need for undocumented students to access higher education. U.Va. maintains plausible deniability for their commitment to gatekeeping based on status and subsequently capitalizes on this process. 

In 2004, University spokespeople strategically stated that the University does not discriminate on the basis of status, yet Dean of Admissions John Blackburn said “we do not admit undocumented aliens,” “undocumented aliens will not be permitted,” and “if the University finds such students, it presumably will have to terminate their enrollment.” Unfortunately, John Blackburn passed away in January of 2009 and was unable to witness the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Aug. 12, 2012. DACA would later provide a liminal status for undocumented immigrants to work and attend public universities, as well as force institutions such as the University of Virginia to open its doors to undocumented students.

Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of Homeland Security and graduate of the School of Law, released a memo in June of 2012 entitled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children.” This memo eventually became DACA, providing temporary legal status to between 700,000 and 800,000 people in the U.S., according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service in 2018. The requirements for DACA include being currently enrolled in or graduated from high school, having entered the United States prior to age 16, not committed a felony or significant misdemeanor, or been honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces, among several others. With the rescinding of DACA by the Trump administration Sept. 5th, 2017, those who enrolled in the program prior to this date can still renew their status but no new applications are being accepted. Thus, as students graduate from college and undocumented students continue to graduate from high schools, making higher education accessible for all regardless of immigration status must be prioritized. The University of Virginia’s rhetoric surrounding undocumented students has centered around those with DACA status — a temporary status that does not pose long term stability or a pathway to citizenship. As less and less students have access to DACA, the University must push its rhetoric to align with all undocumented students.

As of Fall 2019, in-state undergraduate undocumented students with DACA status are eligible for financial aid from the University — excluding out-of-state or non-undergraduate students. Prior to this, between the creation of DACA in 2012 and 2014, there was no institutional, federal or state aid available. While the federal government allowed for their enrollment, DACA students were forced to bear the brunt of the cost of full out-of-state tuition. DACA students were only eligible for in-state tuition rates after a 2014 memorandum by Attorney General Mark Herring. 

The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill this past Feb. granting in-state tuition to all Virginians regardless of immigration status. Senate Bill 935 and House Bill 1547 require that a student provide proof of filed taxes and attend a Virginia high school for at least two years or receive a GED in Virginia or equivalent. 

Last week, Governor Ralph Northam officially signed the bill into law. However, this would not have happened if it weren’t for undocumented students fighting on the frontlines for over a decade. The importance of this law and University matriculation is that hundreds of thousands of qualified students are graduating from high schools around the nation without access to higher education. Students who have been admitted to U.Va. and other universities and colleges around the state have not been able to attend due to the excessive barriers in their path. Documentation status affects people of all nationalities, all races, all genders, all ages, all sexualities, all education levels, all abilities and all financial backgrounds. It is important to recognize that the language used to identify undocumented people is critical to having a conversation about University matriculation. The use of the term “illegal immigrants” is dehumanizing and leads to xenophobic rhetoric around immigrants. People who migrate to this country without sufficient documentation are undocumented, not “illegal.” The case for matriculating undocumented students to the University of Virginia is one that must include active steps to making the student body and administration more holistically supportive, empathetic and inclusive.

According to Sybil C. Halloran, Senior Associate Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Management at Virginia Commonwealth University, opponents of undocumented matriculation to insitutions of higher education argue that providing access to higher education incentivizes and rewards people for breaking the law by entering the U.S. “illegally.” She cites a 1982 Texas Court Case, Plyler v. Doe, in which the Texas Supreme Court articulated that blocking undocumented students from enrolling in public K-12 education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court argued that the phrase “within its jurisdiction” includes anyone, citizen or non-citizen, who is present within the state’s boundaries and subject to its laws. Therefore, discrimination to public K-12 education would only be allowed if it “furthered substantial state goals.” Not only did the Supreme Court agree that it would not further state goals but also that undocumented migration would not be curbed if undocumented students were not matriculated. Bringing this case to the university level, matriculating undocumented students not only supports but furthers the University’s purpose to educate students, engage in high quality research, provide world-class medical care and most importantly, serve the public good. 

Other opponents to undocumented matriculation argue that undocumented people should not have access to any publicly funded benefits, including higher education. The majority of undocumented people pay taxes using an Individual Tax Identification Number as opposed to a Social Security number. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that in 2015, undocumented workers paid a minimum of $23.6 billion in income tax and $9 billion in payroll tax using the ITIN. The same estimates say that in 2013, undocumented folks paid $13 billion to the Social Security Retirement Trust Fund, a fund from which undocumented people do not and cannot benefit. Undocumented people pay tens of billions of tax dollars every year and receive no Pell Grants or federal student loans, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security benefits, no child tax credits — unless there is a citizen child in the household — no federal provision of child healthcare, no supplementary security income and no food assistance. While many undocumented people do pay taxes, paying taxes must not be looked to as any sort of qualifier for access to higher education. The numbers and statistics are here to show that the vast majority of opposing views on undocumented matriculation have little to no base and are rooted in xenophobia, classism, and elitism. Furthermore, education, especially at a public university, should not be privatized and restricted only for the lucky few with status and resources.

Even if students themselves are not undocumented, they know family, friends and community members who are. While the University has lacked in providing institutional resources for undocumented students, students have performed uncompensated labor such that is often the role of administrators and/or paid positions at other universities. Members from DREAMers executive board among other Admissions Office interns translated tens of financial aid documents for free when the market rate for doing so can be up to thousands of dollars for only a few pages. Students have supported, advised and fundraised for their peers when the University neglected their most basic needs (food, housing, etc.). DREAMers on Grounds has provided free two-hour long trainings to the University Guide Service, the University Judiciary Committee, the Honor Committee, Class Councils, countless CIOs, Albemarle High School, Charlottesville City schools and planned a Student Council training prior to being moved off Grounds due to COVID-19. The resources are available and must be distributed accordingly.

Should the University matriculate all students regardless of immigration status, it should continue to ensure that all students have both the resources to thrive and the opportunity to advocate for missing resources without retaliation. Resources include a contact person in Student Financial Services who is up to date on immgration and education policies that impact access to U.Va. They include having clear information on Admissions pages that lay out matriculation and application policies for students of different documentation statuses — undocumented, Temporary Protection Status, DACA, etc.. They include promoting institutional support such as an Undocumented Student Coordinator to advocate for, advise, represent and protect undocumented and DACA students. Matriculating undocumented students means creating a student body culture of support, empathy and mutual aid. Not only should the Vice President of Student Affairs and of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion be UndocuAlly trained, but Resident Advisors, Senior Residents, Orientation Leaders and Fraternity and Sorority leaders must be as well. 

Enrolling undocumented students moves the University from a position that is both “great and good” to one that actively furthers U.Va.’s ethical commitment to serving the public good and providing higher education to those who are accepted into its programs. Public universities around the nation from the University of California schools, George Mason University, University of Washington and University of Maryland, to private schools like Brown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Chicago are all matriculating and providing aid for undocumented students. A plethora of professional schools are matriculating and providing resources for students regardless of immigration status and an increasing majority of work-places are employing in the same way. With the goal to be the best public university in America by 2030, the University of Virginia should be another example of a top-tier institution of higher education that not only matriculates all students regardless of immigration status but provides financial and social infrastructure to their students. The University must take action to align itself with its goals of supporting first generation students and finding talent wherever it may exist. It can do this by fulfilling equitable matriculation practices for all. 

In the past four weeks, schools across the globe have moved online, exposing systemic inequities in our public and higher education systems. This pandemic poses a critical opportunity to reevaluate the intersections of education policy and immigration policy and address our most deeply rooted assumptions about who has access to education and why in relation to supposedly democratic institutions like the University. We cannot accept the argument that undocumented students are taking other students’ spaces in higher education. All academically competitive high school students in Virginia should have access to higher education. Undocumented students are being admitted into the University without administration knowing of their status, yet that status is what stands in their way and their access to a world-class education. Our responsibility as a University community is to conjure up new ways of imagining inclusivity, solidarity and infrastructural systems of support for all of its students, staff and faculty, particularly those who are marginalized and face daily struggles because of it. Inclusivity does not mean higher yield rates for marginalized students. It does not mean more marginalized people living on the Lawn. It does not mean more queer or transgender or low-income or first-generation students. Inclusivity does not even mean matriculating undocumented students. Inclusivity, or in the words of the University, inclusive excellence, means providing resources for these students and setting an institutional example of what it means to both listen and respond proactively to the needs of all the students who walk these grounds from the day they arrive.  

DREAMers on Grounds’ mission “is to create a more inclusive environment and an overall safe space for undocumented students through education and advocacy.” DREAMers provides free UndocuALLY training and partners with migrant’s rights organizations from around the city, state and country. This op-ed was authored by Caro Campos and Steven Radilla with help from Nicole Leal, Johanna Moncada Sosa, Marcella Mollo, Jacquelyn Kim, Lauren Prince and Natalie Solaja.