Evelyn Lucio is getting ready for life after graduation, and like any senior, she’s uncertain about her future.
But Lucio’s uncertainty is more deep-seated than most, and while other soon-to-be graduates know their college degrees will set them apart in their job searches, Lucio can’t be sure if she’ll even be able to search for a job.
Lucio, a senior in American ethnic studies and pre-law, is one of approximately 50 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at Kansas State University, and while repealed changes to immigration law have allowed her to live a relatively normal life in the United States, a raging battle in Congress over homeland security has made Lucio and her fellow immigrant students less certain about the future.
“Most people, they might graduate, and they may not be able to find a job immediately, but they can find a temporary job, and they have the right to keep looking,” Lucio said. “For me, when I graduate, I might not be able to even look for a job, because I don’t have the documentation to even get a simple job, like at a retail store or something like that.”
Under the DACA program enacted by then-president Barack Obama in 2012, certain immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children are granted temporary immunity from deportation based on a renewable two-year registration in the program.
As a key component of the program, DACA also grants recipients eligibility for permits to work legally in the country. However, the program offers no legal path to permanent citizenship.
At the time of its announcement, the program was criticized by many states as an unconstitutional use of executive power by essentially granting protections for DACA recipients.
During the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration, plans were announced to gradually phase out the program by March 2018. When Lucio first heard about the program rollback, she said she felt destroyed.
“I tried taking it day by day, but we just didn’t know what would happen,” Lucio said. “I kept wondering if my work would be worth it, or if I would even be able to look for a job after college. I felt like I had committed myself to spending four years here [at K-State], and now I had to face the possibility that none of it would have mattered.”
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Soon after the decision to rescind DACA, several states challenged the decision and sued the Trump administration. Federal judges ordered the administration to resume the program, at least temporarily, while the matter is settled in court. The Supreme Court has yet to take up the case, and with a full court calendar for this year, a judicial decision is unlikely to come in 2019.
Recently, as Congress reached a record 35-day partial government shutdown over funding for Trump’s proposed expanded border wall, discussions over the contentious wall briefly floated the idea of extending the DACA program in exchange for wall funding. No concessions were made, however, and the government ultimately reopened, at least for three weeks, without any legislation on DACA.
Amid the intense debate on the shutdown, Lucio said she and other DACA recipients have felt like the wall debate has distracted from conversations about actual immigration reform for “Dreamers,” a term based on pro-DACA proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act.
“Dreamers get lost in the shadow of the wall, but we have to keep going,” Lucio said. “Especially for the people that come after us. We have to grab people’s attention.”
K-State: “The college for undocumented students”
In Manhattan, about 50 of these DACA recipients have found a home on K-State’s campus. Lucio said that in her time at K-State, she and other students in similar situations have found tremendous support from university administration.
When DACA was first repealed, Lucio said university officials did not hesitate to attend emergency meetings, listen to students’ concerns and bring in a lawyer to help answer any questions the students might have had.
Pat Bosco, vice president of student life and dean of students, and Madai Rivera, assistant director of student engagement with an emphasis on Hispanic and Latino students, both pointed to the university’s statements on K-State’s dedication to its DACA students.
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“We’re committed to being the number one choice among DACA students in the state and the region,” Bosco said. “I think it’s incredibly important that we continue a focused and unified effort that undocumented students are given the best chance to receive the best possible education at our university.”
Although the debate on immigration issues can be tense, Bosco said the university sees an opportunity to rise above politics and be a leader in higher education when it comes to DACA recipients. Bosco added that other institutions regularly ask K-State for examples on how to best support undocumented students.
“I think it’s critically important, more so today than ever, that we understand the economics of our state, the demographics of our region and be a leader,” Bosco said. “Even though there are some risks, [we strive] to provide that kind of opportunity for young people particularly, who have tremendous promise, have done nothing wrong and deserve an opportunity and university experience.”
Rivera said that while DACA students are ineligible for federal aid, there are still scholarships and grant opportunities available for them, and she has personally helped establish partnerships with a few organizations to provide scholarship opportunities for the students.
Rivera and Bosco said they think DACA students tend to be motivated, high-achieving leaders, making them outstanding candidates for scholarships.
But for all the administration’s attempts to support immigrant students, there have been some tense moments on campus. After the repeal of DACA, K-State’s chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens organized a rally at Bosco Plaza to show solidarity with campus DACA students.
Leslie Ramirez, junior in secondary education and then-president of LULAC, said some people passing by yelled “Go back to Mexico” as they walked by the rally of predominantly-Hispanic students, but she says such statements show mostly a lack of understanding.
“All that these people want is to get an education and get a job legally,” Ramirez said. “They’re misinformed at how little these students actually get.”
Finding an identity
For all intents and purposes, Lucio said she is a typical American college student. She goes to classes, helps out with her sorority, participates in campus clubs, and between all that and two majors, still somehow finds time to work as a tutor for students who speak English as a second language.
Even though Lucio has lived in Kansas her whole life (she was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and brought to Wichita at one month old), she said she’s struggled with finding a concrete sense of identity as a Mexican. With light skin and red, curly hair, she says she hasn’t fit into stereotypes of who people think a Mexican immigrant is.
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“For the longest time, I was embarrassed to speak English, because I didn’t know it well,” Lucio said. “I was embarrassed to speak Spanish, because to learn English, I had to focus on it and forget about Spanish. I remember feeling like I was a fake Mexican and a fake American. I felt like I couldn’t satisfy anybody.”
At K-State, though, Lucio says she’s worked toward making a name for herself as someone who’s making a difference. Someone who is passionate, someone trying to make her family proud and someone who “has her sh*t together.”
More than anything, she wants to bring to light the struggles that she and her fellow DACA recipients face.
“We want people to know all about us and who we are and what we do,” Lucio said. “We want people to know that we aren’t the stereotypes and negative things that [Trump] says we are.”
For now, though, Lucio said she looks forward to graduation by taking things day by day.
“I just don’t want to feel stuck and not knowing where I’m going,” Lucio said. “To me, that just haunts me, and it haunts a lot of the other DACA recipients on campus.
“It sucks that we have to work within that two-year timeframe, but I tell myself, ‘I have two years,’ so that once I hopefully get another two years, I have a set foundation,” Lucio continued. “I can’t predict the future, but I’ve got to work with what I’ve got.”