An Oasis of Support: DACA, AB 540, and Undocumented Students
Recent changes to federal policies regarding undocumented individuals in the U.S. have created challenges for community college leaders who wish to support the vulnerable population of DACA, AB 540, and other undocumented students in their colleges. These students may be undocumented due to outstaying a visa, having incomplete applications or delayed renewal processes, having come to the U.S. at a young age without official residency status, or other complications of the immigration process. Regardless of how they arrived at the status they now hold, the job of a community college is to serve its community, and that task necessitates some solid practices. Because many colleges are leading the way in offering support to this population, many models are available for interested colleges to follow.
UNDERSTANDING THE COMPLEXITIES OF STATUS
Many who work or study at community colleges are unfamiliar with the nuances of undocumented status and may misconstrue the terms AB 540, DACA, Dream Act or Dreamer, TPS, and undocumented. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a federal status providing work authorization and temporary relief from deportation for undocumented children. The current administration has said that DACA will be phased out, so its future status is unknown. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is also a federal status; it allows temporary residence and work in the United States to eligible nationals of designated countries due to situations such as armed conflict or natural disaster. Both AB 540 and the California Dream Act are California state initiatives. AB 540 refers to California legislation, passed in 2001 and updated in 2014, allowing qualified students who are considered non-residents for tuition purposes to pay resident fees for higher education. These students must meet certain requirements such as attending a California institution of public learning for three years; SB 68 (2017) expanded eligible institutions to include California adult schools. The California Dream Act is an application process that allows AB 540 students, TPS students, and some visa holders to apply for state financial aid. Undocumented refers to any individual residing in the United States without legal documentation to do so; this category can include the aforementioned as well as additional types of status and circumstances. Commonly, a single family may have members with different statuses; such families or households are called mixed status. All of these different status holders require unique and often personalized levels of support and attention.
PROVISION OF UP-TO-DATE INFORMATION
First and foremost, a college that wishes to support undocumented students needs to provide up-to-date information at all times. This support often comes in the form of an online presence where students may find information related to their status, ways to obtain support or assistance, links to detailed legal information, and latest news. A good website will provide clear, updated information about deadlines, AB 540 affidavit completion processes, DACA renewal assistance and related forms, information sessions, and personal referrals to outside services such as legal representation and mental health. Such information can be bolstered by a regular newsletter to the community via email and the internet filled with information on deadlines, scholarships, events, and services relevant to a variety of different status holders. Dedicating internet resources is an easy thing for colleges to do; what makes the resource vital is the dedication of personnel who can update the information as it changes. Because each subpopulation has such unique needs, internet resources need to clearly delineate specific information for DACA, AB 540, and other undocumented students to help them find what they need quickly and efficiently.
When policies change, prompt action is needed. Some colleges have created Rapid Response Teams tasked with providing direct services via information and supportive policies and practices. The campus community also needs to be alerted as to when changes occur that affect students. The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) published a Rostrum article in April 2018, “Updates on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Efforts,” that details changes up to that date ; sharing this information in the form of newsletters, forums, panels, and academic senate reports can help to keep the campus from circulating outdated information.
DREAM CENTERS/DACA CENTERS
A physical space staffed with knowledgeable individuals is paramount to the adequate support of DACA, AB 540, and other undocumented students. Staffing should include dedicated personnel; volunteers or even faculty with partial reassigned time are far less effective and supportive than an institutional commitment to a full-time expert who can address the needs of these very marginalized students. Such staff must be fully empowered to hold trainings and provide direct services such as admissions assistance including how to apply without a social security number, personal counseling and services, assistance with paperwork, and know-your-rights trainings. Additionally, a truly supportive center can provide referrals to immigration attorneys, the ACLU, or even psychological services for a population that frequently lives under fear of deportation or family separation. In particular, mixed-status families—one or more members having different status from others—find themselves in an excruciating circumstance that requires attentive and broad-reaching guidance. For example, California’s SB 68 (2017) law provided an expansion to AB 540 status-holders, but many students are unaware of its breadth and how to access it. Assistance with AB 540 affidavits is critical; a misfiled form can jeopardize status and have devastating effects.
Community college campuses need not be alone in their efforts to support undocumented students. Successful partnerships between a community college and a local CSU or UC exist whereby the institutions work together to support not only services on each campus but also transitions of students between campuses. Colleges are encouraged to connect with institutions in their various pipelines to expand support all along a student’s educational pathway.
A supportive campus can make its support known through intentional public statements to the undocumented community. Colleges can investigate “Become an UnDocuAlly” trainings where faculty, staff, and students can become knowledgeable about the issues that undocumented students face.  Forming a campus student club can develop a group identity and support, and hosting UnDocuWeek activities can provide campuses with an entire week long dialogue about undocumented issues and can educate members of the community whose understanding may be informed by competing and inaccurate narratives. The Community College League of California has taken great steps by creating a toolkit  that colleges can use to increase their campus support. Critical skills to address in supporting undocumented students include the following:
- Listening: Each individual is a human being with a story. Allowing students to tell their stories gives them agency.
- Administrative statements: Messages of “you are supported” and “diversity is strength” throughout campus publications can buoy students who are feeling voiceless.
- Statements from campus police: The job of campus police is to protect students, and a statement from a proactive public safety department can go a long way in alleviating anxiety and fear.
- Resolutions: Senates hold a position of great power in campus messaging, as do Boards of Trustees.
Myths about immigration, undocumented status, asylum, and other issues will abound without efforts to educate the campus community. A truly proactive, community-focused campus can take aggressive steps to educate faculty, staff, and students on the issues undocumented students face. Such measures can include the creation of FAQ and “myth-busting” pages detailing questions about everything from definitions of terms to sanctuary campuses to trainings on what to do if ICE comes to campus. Provocatively-titled discussions can raise fears and concerns among campus members who worry about their legality, and the college should clarify that it is not interested in actively violating federal law but may certainly resist inappropriate federal overreach, as supported by California’s sanctuary laws passed in 2018. Colleges thus have an opportunity to shine as educators and enable the community to move beyond any political associations and into intentional and authentic student advocacy.
IN THE END, COMMUNITY COLLEGES ARE ABOUT COMMUNITY
Regardless of political contexts and overtones, campuses have an obligation to serve all students. On the first day of class, faculty do not know what has brought their students into the classroom; they only know that it is their honor and privilege to provide the education that will help the students realize their futures. The framework of guided pathways encourages campuses to do more to make students feel welcome and supported in their educational journeys, and this obligation extends to the most vulnerable students colleges serve. Every student is a human with a story, a dream, and an unlimited capacity to turn the investment of education into direct benefits to their communities.
1 The article is available at https://www.asccc.org/content/updates-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals....
2 See https://www.thedream.us/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Pre-Work-Packet.pdf for more information on this program.
3 The toolkit is available at https://www.ccleague.org/advocacy/federal-advocacy/supporting-undocument....
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