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Hundreds of colleges mobilize to defend immigrant students

UCLA students at a graduation ceremony for “dreamers” in Los Angeles in June 2012. That year, the Obama administration launched a program to protect undocumented students who arrived in the United States as children. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

Hundreds of college and university leaders have mobilized in recent days to defend students who immigrated to the United States as children, without legal permission, and now face a swirl of questions about their future under President-elect Donald Trump.

The Obama administration has aided these undocumented students since 2012, through a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, as it is known, shields immigrants temporarily from deportation if they came to United States before their 16th birthday and meet other requirements. Beneficiaries are able to obtain a work permit. Opponents denounce DACA as executive overreach.

The Trump campaign pledged to “immediately terminate” Obama’s “illegal executive amnesties.” Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller reiterated that position in an email.

“The President-elect has consistently pledged to rescind all illegal and unconstitutional executive orders from the current administration, and this is one of them,” Miller wrote Tuesday when asked about DACA.

What would happen next is a crucial question for students like Danna Chavez Calvi of Northern Virginia and thousands like her nationwide who felt thrown into sudden limbo after the Republican’s stunning victory in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

“The uncertainty has skyrocketed to an unimaginable level,” Chavez Calvi said.

Now 24, the senior at George Mason University came to the United States from Bolivia with her parents when she was 8 years old. They overstayed their tourist visas. “My family became undocumented,” she said.

Chavez Calvi followed a path familiar to a huge group of immigrant students many call “dreamers.” She graduated in 2011 from Falls Church High School in Fairfax County, Va., went to Northern Virginia Community College, then transferred to Mason. She plans to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in communication and a minor in Spanish.

Along the way, she applied for and received DACA status.

That status enabled her to obtain a driver’s license and qualify for Mason’s in-state tuition, which is about $20,000 a year lower than the out-of-state rate. She became a leader in Mason Dreamers, a group that supports undocumented immigrant students. She plans to join Teach for America for two years and then pursue a graduate degree in policy.

“Everything turned out great, until this point,” she said.

2014: Virginia attorney general declares “dreamers” eligible for in-state tuition

Trump, who campaigned on a promise to crack down against illegal immigration, said shortly after the election that he plans to focus first on rapidly deporting 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records. Under federal guidelines, immigrants who have been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor are ineligible for DACA.

Mason, Virginia’s largest public university, enrolls about 34,000 students. Officials estimate at least 300 have DACA status.

“The exact number is unclear because at least some DACA students are reluctant to make their status known,” Mason President Angel Cabrera said. “The Mason DACA community includes some of our most accomplished students. They have excelled both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Cabrera issued a plea to the president-elect.

“We hope that the new administration recognizes the value of these students to our community and to the nation,” he wrote. “They are filled with talent and promise and, if given the chance, will surely contribute significantly to the good of the United States, which is the only home that most of them have ever known.”

Cabrera also joined more than 200 college and university leaders in signing a statement this week that urges preserving and expanding DACA. The statement did not name Trump but appeared to be addressed to him.

“To our country’s leaders we say that DACA should be upheld, continued, and expanded,” the statement said. “We are prepared to meet with you to present our case.”

Organized by Pomona College in California, the statement was signed by leaders of most Ivy League schools and an array of other public and private institutions.

College leaders: Save program shielding students from deportation

Among the signers in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia were Presidents John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University, Steven Knapp of George Washington University, Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University, Teresa A. Sullivan of the University of Virginia, Ronald J. Daniels of Johns Hopkins University and Wallace Loh of the University of Maryland at College Park.

At U-Md., which has about 38,000 students, officials say 113 report having DACA status.

“I have a strong and unequivocal personal commitment to protect all of our students, including those who attend our university under the Dream Act and DACA,” Loh said. “The job of any president is to provide an education for every student, and I will be working with my colleagues, both in Maryland and across the country, on how we can best protect the legal standing of these outstanding students and let them continue with their transformative education.”

Opponents of DACA say rescinding a program that Congress did not authorize would send an important signal of support for lawful immigration and the integrity of the nation’s borders.

“The fundamental issue is fairness at every level,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “If universities want to form a coalition and lobby Congress to pass legislation to give immigration benefits to DACA recipients, they’re within their rights to do that.”

More than 700,000 undocumented immigrants have obtained DACA protection since 2012, federal officials say. But there is no national count of DACA students currently enrolled in college. Many DACA students are drawn to public universities in states that allow them to qualify for in-state tuition discounts. Some attend private colleges, like Pomona, that encourage them to apply and pledge to meet their financial need.

In the nation’s largest state, the University of California system counts more than 3,700 undocumented students. Many have DACA protection. The UC president, Janet Napolitano, signed the memorandum that established DACA when she served as Obama’s secretary of homeland security.

In the days since the election, demonstrators on many campuses have urged colleges to establish themselves as “sanctuaries” for those vulnerable to deportation.

Protesters demand that universities become sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants

On Monday, Columbia University’s provost, John H. Coatsworth, told the campus community that the Ivy League school in New York “will neither allow immigration officials on our campuses without a warrant, nor share information on the immigration status of undocumented students with those officials unless required by subpoena or court order, or authorized by a student.”

Chavez Calvi said she and others will continue a public push to support DACA students. Staying quiet is not an option, she said.

“There is a reason we all opted to stay in this country. We have strong ties here,” she said. “I can’t think of any friends I know who want to step back into the shadows.”