By Hannah Esqueda
Photo via Flickr
MERCED, Calif. – Instead of retreating into the shadows, undocumented students at the University of California, Merced are using President-elect Donald Trump’s victory as a chance to speak out and share their stories.
They are also touting the benefits of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, (DACA), which Trump has promised to overturn once in office.
“For me, I think it goes back to that night when the election [results] were announced … I felt like it was just time for me to let other people know the stuff [undocumented] people do even if we’re not from here,” said Leslie Renteria, a second-year sociology major at UC Merced.
Born in Mexico, but raised in City Heights, San Diego, Renteria is one of more than 400 undocumented students currently attending UC Merced. Many are DACA recipients, known as Dreamers.
Announced in 2012, DACA provides temporary relief from deportation for those who came into the country as juveniles. Though it does not provide legal status, DACA has opened the door to work and school for the nearly 800,000 nationwide who currently benefit from the program.
Francisco Ortiz, originally from Mexico, is a sophomore at UC Merced. He received DACA while in high school along with three of his siblings. Two others were born in the country. His parents remain undocumented.
“The application part [of DACA] is very complicated so my mom and my dad hired a lawyer for us. It took a toll on my parent’s finances,” explained Ortiz, noting the $465 application fee, “but it was literally an opportunity that we could not afford to miss.”
Both Ortiz and Renteria agree that DACA is not a perfect solution, but they say without it attending college and pursuing careers would be out of reach.
“It kind of made me feel like I was part of the system,” Ortiz said. “Before that, I always felt like an outsider because I’m undocumented. But, for once, I feel more included.”
Renteria said through DACA she’s had the chance to conduct university-level research, get published and travel to Washington D.C. to speak with elected officials.
She summed up her experiences in a tweet last week using the hashtag “#WithDACA” and pledged to continue fighting for her future even if Trump scraps the program.
“I wanted to share my story and show that ‘OK, I’m here and this is what I’ve been doing’,” Renteria said.
Since emerging on social media platforms last week, #WithDACA has grown to include thousands of posts, encouraging young people throughout the country to open up and share their personal stories.
Renteria said that level of visibility is good, as it can help educate others who may be uncertain of what exactly is at stake when the president-elect threatens to repeal DACA.
“I think a lot of people don’t really know what DACA is. People think [Trump] can’t really do anything about it, but they don’t really understand the difference between an executive order and the law,” she said. “He can literally just take that piece of paper and throw it in the trash and that will be it. It won’t mean anything anymore.”
Fear of a Trump presidency is in fact prompting many to shy away from applying for the program or from renewing their paperwork out of fear their information will be used by the government to initiate deportation proceedings against them.
Legal aid and immigrant’s rights groups warn the application approval process can take up to eight months, meaning many who are applying for the first-time or even renewing their application may not be approved in time before the president-elect takes office.
But Renteria said despite these concerns she takes comfort in the way UC officials throughout the state have responded. Earlier this month UC President Janet Napolitano’s released a statement pledging continued support for undocumented students.
“It’s good to know that we have the UC system and even the [UC] president protecting us and making us feel safe,” Renteria said. “In many of my classes, too, the professors are having this conversation and bringing it up.”
Renteria explained that since the election she’s seen new faces come forward to share personal tales of being undocumented.
“We’ve had open-mic nights where more and more students are coming out and identifying as undocumented,” she said. “It’s so important because there are freshmen out there who don’t know that there are people older than them in the same situation.”
And, she said, the fear and apprehension that students like her face is working to draw people together.
“Just last week, I was sitting at a table and a random student came up and started venting to me. He is an immigrant from China and he told me that he was afraid and didn’t understand why Trump can do these things,” she said.
“I was like it’s ‘OK, I’m from Mexico. I feel the same way you’re feeling right now and it’s perfectly fine’,” Renteria continued. “I think he was a little surprised by how well I could relate to him.”
Still, despite assurances of protection from UC officials, Ortiz admits he’s worried.
“It’s kind of scary because yes, they said that UC Merced is going to protect undocumented students, but what about our families?”
He continued, “DACA has helped so many people. For once, we finally feel like we belong in America, and now it’s being threatened all because of one person.”