Despite Catholic campus support, DACA students fear deportation

Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University, poses with alumna Fanny Lopez, who was an undocumented student herself, during a convocation honoring Carroll’s advocacy for undocumented students in 2014. (Dominican University)

Adriana Espinoza and her family moved from Mexico to Chicago when she was just 2 years old. Twenty-five years later, Espinoza has never been back to her country of birth.

"Chicago is home to me," Espinoza said. "I was raised here."

Today, Espinoza, 27, is a junior at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb, majoring in psychology and hoping to pursue a terminal degree in the field after graduating.

"I was thinking about The Chicago School of Professional Psychology," Espinoza said. "I just want to help people."

Unfortunately, her dreams of working as a psychologist in the Chicago area may end because she has no immigration documents. After promising on the campaign trail to repeal certain executive orders on immigration, President Donald Trump's election victory germinated a major fear of mass deportations.

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Approximately 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants are living in the United States as of 2014, according to Pew Research Center. At least 1.7 million of these immigrants are in Espinoza's position — they arrived here as minors and the United States is the only home they know.

Nearly 750,000 of these undocumented immigrants have lived with some degree of security under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program President Barack Obama created in 2012. Now they face great uncertainty.

Commonly known by its acronym, DACA, the program allows people who entered the United States illegally as minors to remain in the country for school or work as long as they don't violate any other laws. People in the program can apply for renewal every two years, but the program does not provide permanent residency or a pathway to citizenship.

"I think this political climate has many of us feeling anxious," Espinoza said, not least because DACA recipients' names are in the federal database. "We're concerned for the future of our families and other DACA recipients, and things are only getting worse. The fear is so real."

Trump's views of DACA recipients seem ambivalent. In a press conference Feb. 16, he said DACA is "one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids, in many cases, not in all cases. And some of the cases, having DACA and they're gang members and they're drug dealers, too. But you have some absolutely, incredible kids, I would say mostly. They were brought here in such a way — it's a very — it's a very, very tough subject."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says Trump's new immigration policies will leave DACA alone for now, but the fear of possible arrest and deportation still lingers.

CNN reported Feb. 14 that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, detained Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old DACA recipient living in the Seattle area. ICE has alleged Medina is a gang member and a "risk to public safety," even though his attorneys denied all accusations. Medina, who doesn't have a criminal record, has a bond hearing Feb. 24.

Immigration rights groups say Medina might be the first DACA recipient who has been arrested without cause.

Catholic institutions of higher education across the country are also concerned about their undocumented students. After the presidential election in November, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities released a statement expressing support for undocumented students at its member institutions through "campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal."

More than 150 Catholic college presidents signed the document, including President Donna Carroll from Dominican University.

"I think Catholic higher education in the context of mission has an opportunity to take a strong leadership role in this conversation because we have a stance that is social justice oriented and longstanding," Carroll said. "And that gives us a distinctive voice."

Dominican University's approach to protecting its undocumented students includes declaring itself a sanctuary campus, meaning the school will do everything it can within the law to safeguard those students from deportation. For some colleges, this may mean limiting cooperation with the federal government to deport undocumented immigrants.

After Dominican announced its sanctuary campus resolution in December, Espinoza emailed Carroll to thank her.

"I am incredibly proud and grateful to be part of this learning institution because I feel welcomed and at this particular time in our country, this is crucial for me," Espinoza wrote. "Thank you for taking a firm stand in solidarity with us."

Carroll acknowledges that Dominican University's declaring itself a sanctuary campus doesn't come without risk. For one thing, the term "sanctuary" has no legal standing in civil or canon law.

In an issue brief dated Dec. 6 regarding DACA students, sanctuary campuses and institutional or community assistance, the American Council on Education stated that "while the word 'sanctuary' is commonly associated with either a sacred place or a refuge, the idea of a 'sanctuary campus' has no clear meaning; it is an extension of the 'sanctuary city' concept, another term with no consistent or agreed upon definition. Neither concept involves a legal status that is recognized under federal law."

On Jan. 25, five days after taking office, Trump signed an executive order pledging to withhold federal money from municipalities that call themselves "sanctuary" while promptly deporting "removable aliens."

Whether a university would be affected by such orders is unclear. A 1996 law forbids persons or agencies from withholding or restricting information on someone's immigration status from a federal, state or local government entity. However, Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University, argued recently in a Washington Post column "that the federal government may not impose conditions on grants to states and localities unless the conditions are 'unambiguously' stated in the text of the law 'so that the States can knowingly decide whether or not to accept those funds.' " But very few grants have such explicit conditions, Somin wrote, and any new conditions passed by Congress would "only apply to new grants, not ones that have already been appropriated."

Many Catholic college presidents told NCR they would do everything they can within the law to protect their DACA students, but all but Dominican have stopped short of calling their schools sanctuary campuses.

Arturo Chávez, president of Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, said "sanctuary" is a "trigger" word right now, especially in Texas. In 2014, then-Texas governor Rick Perry introduced a bill to ban sanctuary city policies in the state. The bill twice failed to pass, but Texas Monthly reported the current governor, Greg Abbott, plans to reintroduce it this year.

Jesuit Fr. Paul Fitzgerald, president of University of San Francisco, also said the sanctuary campus label wasn't worth students losing financial aid from public money. He said 25 percent of his school's students receive Pell Grants.

"The sanctuary movement has a very long history, and the university as a whole … we're not the social type of entity that engages in social disobedience," Fitzgerald said. As a charitable organization under the tax code, he said, "we need to work within the law for students to receive financial aid."

Fitzgerald said school administrators are being very clear with the University of San Francisco community about all proactive steps they are taking to safeguard DACA students. "We do want to be a refuge for students," he said.

Students, too, are getting involved. Courtney Huston, a freshman double majoring in English and peace and justice studies at Regis University in Denver, started a petition requesting her school designate itself a sanctuary campus when she noticed a lot of fellow students commented on feeling unsafe following the presidential election.

"It's scary right now with Trump," Huston said. "I would like to see the Regis community unafraid to stick up for DACA students and loving one another," Huston said. "It says a lot about an institution willing to take that step."

Huston gathered about 500 signatures from students and alumni in eight days and presented the petition to the university on Dec. 7. Regis president Jesuit Fr. John Fitzgibbons answered the petition in an email to students and faculty Jan. 25: Regis would not label itself a sanctuary campus.

Fitzgibbons wrote that the university needed to be "realistic" in how it should support its undocumented students. He cited the term's lack of a legal or standard definition and the threat of losing federal money that a majority of the school's students depend on, "without which Regis could not survive."

Still, Fitzgibbons continued, Regis would do everything within the law to protect its DACA students. The school would not volunteer information without a student's permission or unless required by law. It would train faculty and staff on how to handle requests from immigration officials and would direct such requests to Campus Safety and the university's legal counsel.

Fitzgibbons praised students who pushed the petition for acting in line with the university's Jesuit and Catholic values, and for speaking up for the marginalized in the community. He also commended the petitioners for maintaining an open dialogue on the subject.

"I think our way of communicating has been crucial to the wellbeing of everybody in our campus community," Fitzgibbons said in an interview with NCR. He noted that the subject of undocumented students has been a regular discussion with both elected officials and other college officials in the city, including Rebecca Chopp, chancellor of University of Denver.

Huston said she was disappointed with Fitzgibbons' decision, but wasn't surprised. "This is not even close to the end of our conversation with the administration on this issue," she said.

Crystal Ayala, a junior double majoring in psychology and Spanish at Regis, said a lot of fellow students were angry and frustrated, including one person who told her "Regis was just being a bystander."

"There was a giant cloud of tension on election night that was suffocating," said Ayala, president of Somos Regis, a student affinity group for people of color. "Lots of students didn't leave their dorms. I think there's still that tension but nobody really talks about it."

College presidents are aware of how worried their students are, and they're deeply concerned.

This year's theme for the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities' annual three-day meeting in Washington, D.C. was "Inclusion on Campus: Exploring Diversity as an Expression of God's Grandeur." Protecting and making undocumented students feel welcome was a major topic of discussion.

Fitzgibbons said the overall mood among the college presidents was "deeply earnest," but there was "enormous spiritual strength."

"We as a group strongly believe this is part of our Catholic identity: that we welcome the stranger," Fitzgibbons said. "I don't mean not have secure borders — we all believe in secure borders. But we also believe in a humane process."

Espinoza said she still worries about the possibility of deportation. Sometimes, panic attacks keep her from attending classes, but she tries her best to complete all of her school work.

"There's so much uncertainty … I'm overwhelmed and exhausted," Espinoza said. "I'm grateful my professors and peers provide me with so much needed support and love. That's what's getting me through this time."

[Shireen Korkzan is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

This story appeared in the March 24-April 6, 2017 print issue under the headline: DACA students fear deportation .

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