When University of Maryland sophomore Amy Rivera was elected president of Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society earlier this year, she already had a mission in mind: to continue the yearslong fight to end the university’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The university’s $625,000 contract — which began in July 2017 and is set to expire in March 2022 — is not with the division of the agency responsible for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. Instead, the contract is with the Homeland Security Investigations division and allows university researchers to provide “terrorism-related research findings” to homeland security investigators, according to a university statement.
But Rivera and other students who condemn the contract say this distinction doesn’t matter. The university is still tied to ICE — an organization that most recently was ensnared by allegations that women held in a Georgia immigration detention center underwent unwanted hysterectomies and other unnecessary gynecological procedures.
“Even if it is a part of a different branch, it’s all from the same tree,” said Rivera, a criminology and criminal justice and government and politics major. “It’s all still ICE. [The contract] is very immoral to have, especially in a school that has immigrant and undocumented students … a school that is in PG County, five minutes away from Langley Park, which has a massive immigrant population.”
In August, during a virtual town hall co-moderated by The Diamondback, university President Darryll Pines indicated the university may not pursue another contract with ICE after the current one runs its course, saying, “I’m not sure if there’s a desire to renew it.”
In the meantime, though, students say the existing contract instills immense fear and tension among its most vulnerable communities, including DACA recipients and international students — two populations that made up roughly 17 percent of the total student population during the fall 2018 semester.
Shavanah Ali, a junior government and politics major who is also the Student Government Association’s undocumented student liason, described that fear. Seeing a police officer is already “extremely frightening,” but seeing an ICE agent would “send me into a panic attack,” said Ali, who is a DACA recipient from Pakistan.
“Knowing … the university that I pay my tuition to is getting money from [ICE] is just extremely disheartening,” she said.
Over the summer, both international students and undocumented students protected under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program faced unexpected changes to policy — further compounding anxiety among students who are not U.S. citizens and amplifying calls to terminate the school’s contract with ICE.
In July, a month after the Supreme Court shot down the Trump administration’s attempt in 2017 to rescind DACA, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would not be accepting any new DACA applications and would be restricting advance parole requests, which allow immigrants to travel outside of the U.S. and return lawfully. The guidelines — which affect approximately 640,000 Dreamers nationwide and 120 students at this university — also require DACA recipients to apply to renew their statuses once every year, instead of once every two years.
And earlier that month, ICE released a new set of regulations, which would have prohibited international students from staying in the U.S. if all of their courses were online. Though the guidelines were ultimately rescinded, new international students still cannot come to the U.S. unless they have at least some in-person coursework.
“It is like a looming presence that’s just threatening to international students on campus,” said Sofia Elkin, president of the International Student Union. “As long as [the contract is] around, we feel like the administration’s kind of failed to fulfill its mission to protect international students on campus.”
PLUMAS is now in the midst of rolling out its two-year initiative, “the RACE to end the ICE contracts,” which aims to inform the university community about how the school’s contract with the agency affects some of the most marginalized students on the campus. The initiative — an acronym that stands for research, alternatives, coalition and education — is split into two phases.
During the first phase, which Rivera said will run until next year, PLUMAS is concentrating on researching issues, including alternatives to the contract, and raising student awareness about the contract. The organization plans to focus on protests and negotiations with administrators about ending the contract during the second phase.
Along with ending the contract, PLUMAS is ultimately aiming for university administrators to declare the school a sanctuary campus, meaning it would not turn undocumented students over to ICE.
“We want to make sure that the University of Maryland does all in their power to protect their students, and part of that is becoming a real sanctuary university,” Rivera explained.
In 2016, ProtectUMD — a coalition made up of 25 student organizations — sent 64 demands to this university’s administration, each describing a way it could better support marginalized students. In one demand, students urged administrators to make this university a sanctuary campus.
But, at the beginning of 2017, former university President Wallace Loh called the demand “unnecessary,” since Prince George’s County already had protocols in place to protect undocumented immigrants from prosecution by federal authorities.
After years of airing their concerns, some students — like Ali — said they don’t have much faith that the administration will listen to them. All the university cares about, Ali said, is “the money they’re getting from these contracts.”
But still, the fight continues.
As a child of immigrants, Rivera said she knows firsthand what it means to come to this country in search of a better life and just how much people sacrifice to do so — especially those pursuing higher education.
“I hope that one day undocumented [or] immigrant students can just go to school and be students, and live the life that they deserve to live without fear,” Rivera said. “They deserve to feel safe, to have that feeling of security.”