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UVA Student Group Supporting Undocumented Students Finds Its Footing

Paola Sanchez Valdez, a sophomore majoring in youth and social innovation at the University of Virginia (UVA), says she is one of the lucky ones. She and her family received permanent resident status in the United States years after migrating from Ecuador.


“Not only was it great news because we could travel back and see our family in Ecuador, but also because we no longer had to live in fear,” Sanchez Valdez said. “As undocumented immigrants, there’s a lot of fear involved.”


Permanent residency gave her and her family a legal pathway to citizenship and transformed her educational opportunities. She received permanent residency the same year she applied to college. Without it, the college application process—and the complicated calculus involved with paying for college—would have been much more difficult.


“My story is lucky, because a lot of undocumented students will never get a chance to have a pathway to citizenship, like I currently have,” she said.


Sanchez Valdez is part of a new student group at UVA—DREAMers on Grounds—that is working to create a support network for students who are either undocumented or who have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) benefits.


DACA offers temporary relief from deportation to eligible young adults who arrived in the country as young children, along with a two-year work permit. According to the Center for American Progress, nearly 640,000 people had obtained DACA status as of January 2015.


State governments cannot change DACA itself, but they can control benefits to recipients, including higher education benefits. There is a great deal of variability in terms of how state policies affect DACA recipients. Arizona, for instance, prohibits DACA recipients from qualifying for in-state tuition rates or receiving state financial aid. In Virginia, DACA recipients have qualified for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities since 2014. DACA recipients are not eligible for federal financial aid.


There is no direct path to citizenship for DACA recipients, and it can be revoked at any time.


“It’s done under executive order, so if the next president comes in and doesn’t believe in it, it can be taken away,” Saúl Sandoval Navarrete, UVA student and DACA recipient, told Diverse. “It’s terrifying knowing that at any minute my status could be terminated.”


Sandoval Navarrete, who is a member of DREAMers on Grounds and hails from Houston, Texas, said that he attends UVA with the assistance of a Posse Foundation scholarship.


DREAMers on Grounds’ path to CIO—contracted independent organization—status was not smooth sailing. UVA’s Student Council originally denied CIO status to DREAMers when it first came up for vote on March 22,  based on a vote of six for and six abstentions. Without a majority vote, DREAMers on Grounds could not be denied CIO status but nor could it win approval.


Shortly after the vote was finalized, UVA law student and Student Council representative Erich Reimer posted a controversial opinion on Facebook. “UVA Student Council news: bill approving a student group to support illegal immigrants at UVA has been defeated! #conservative,” he wrote. Reimer has since deleted the post.


The Student Council posted a public statement on its website on Sunday, calling Reimer’s post “insensitive and polarizing.” The council held a re-vote on Tuesday night, this time approving DREAMers on Grounds for CIO status.


Sanchez Valdez said that, now that the group has CIO status, its members want to build more understanding about what it means to be undocumented.


“We want to inform people about the struggles and the pressures that a lot of undocumented students go through,” she said. “Now, more than ever, we want to create a safe space for students that feel marginalized because of their immigration status.” She added that faculty have an important role to play in supporting students.


In general, UVA is an inclusive space, said Parisa Sadeghi, a UVA senior and president of the UVA Minority Rights Coalition, although she acknowledged that there is “room for growth.”


“There are students who don’t understand that just granting CIO status isn’t advocating for illegal activity; it’s about providing a group of students with a voice and letting them create a community for themselves,” Sadeghi said. “Those are two different things.”


Determining the number of DACA recipients and undocumented students is another challenge that DREAMers on Grounds is prepared to tackle, said Sandoval Navarrete.


“It’s terrifying to state that you are undocumented, so getting a number like that is difficult,” Sandoval Navarrete said. “I personally only know one other person who is [a DACA recipient], but I’m sure there are more here.”


Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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