UMD undocumented students and their advocates say fight continues for immigration rights

Protesters hold up a giant monarch butterfly, a meaningful symbol for immigrants, outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The court heard arguments on DACA on Nov. 12, 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Leading up to Nov. 3, Shavanah Ali prepared herself for the worst.

She knew what could come with President Donald Trump’s reelection: another four years of perpetual fear and anxiety surrounding the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Ali’s bridge to legal residency in the country.

“‘Where am I going to be in four years? How can I construct my life in a way where I will not be subjected to deportation, but also protect myself and my family?’” Ali wondered as Election Day approached. “That was really mentally straining.”

She wasn’t alone.

The latest estimates show there are between 10.5 million and 12 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, over 640,000 of which are protected under DACA. At the University of Maryland, where Ali is a junior government and politics major, about 120 students are DACA recipients. With DACA battered by litigation and the ever-looming threat of mass immigration raids, the last four years have been fraught with stress for this population.

Although Trump’s defeat was announced four days after Election Day, Ali and Rocío Fregoso-Mota, the university’s new coordinator for immigrant and undocumented student life, both stressed that many uphill battles remain when it comes to immigration rights and policy.

Come election night, Ali couldn’t bring herself to focus much on the results. Her future and the decisions she would have to make should Trump win were racing through her mind. When former Vice President Joe Biden was announced as the winner on Nov. 7, Ali said she felt a sense of relief, followed by a desire to hold the incoming administration accountable.

She was happy, she said, but not because Biden had won. Because Trump had lost.

“My relief was like Trump is no longer in office,” she said. “But I was also kind of weary like, once Biden’s in office, how much good would he do for undocumented immigration?”

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Another undocumented student at this university, meanwhile, remembers being surprised when the election was called for Biden. Though Biden was well on his way to gain the necessary 270 electoral votes, it was shocking to find the election had been called, said Christina, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her immigration status.

“I thought that they would wait until all of the states finalized their votes,” she recalled.

In the week following his victory, The Washington Post reported that Biden planned to reinstate DACA through an executive order when he takes office in January. 

The new administration also plans to “explore all legal options to protect their families from inhumane separation,” according to Biden’s campaign website. On top of that, the president-elect has pledged to ensure that DACA beneficiaries, otherwise known as Dreamers, can qualify for federal student aid and have access to debt-free community college. 

Besides Biden’s already announced plans, Fregoso-Mota hopes to see the administration address changes that DACA underwent earlier this year. 

Trump initially tried to terminate the program in 2017, but his order was blocked by several federal courts. Then, the order was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled on the matter in June, shooting down the administration’s attempt to end the program. That ruling, however, left an opening for the administration to try again and provide justification for wanting to end the program. 

And just about a month after the Supreme Court ruling, the Trump administration announced it would no longer accept new DACA applications. The new guidelines also limited protection renewals to one year for current recipients, something Fregoso-Mota wants to see increased to two or three years. 

In addition to DACA complications, the U.S. is set to stop providing Temporary Protected Status —which supports individuals who immigrated to America because their country of origin is not safe — to individuals from six countries, beginning in January. Currently, immigrants from 10 different countries across Central America, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean are protected under this program.

Fregoso-Mota raised concern for those who would face the consequences if the Biden administration does not address this program’s impending end date.

“We also want to make sure that immigration doesn’t get lost in a lot of the other … policies that get pushed forward,” she said.

Exessenia Funes, a sophomore criminology and criminal justice major, grew up around Republican neighbors in Maryland. And as the daughter to two immigrant parents, fitting in wasn’t always easy. In high school, she felt like she couldn’t speak out or voice her opinions in fear of retaliation from others. 

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And after the 2016 election, Funes recalled that members of her community advocated to build a wall at the Mexican border to decrease illegal immigration. It felt weird to be around that, she said.

“I felt silent … I was never really able to express my opinions and when politics were brought up in class, I just stayed silent and just listened to what others had to say,” she said.

But this year, Funes knew she needed to vote. Her parents expected her to, but it was something she wanted to do for them, too — a way to secure a better future for them and others to immigrate to the United States, she said. 

“It definitely felt like a big deal for me because I felt like … I should be obligated to vote for my parents and also for other immigrants like my boyfriend,” Funes said.

Her parents, who immigrated from El Salvador and Honduras, were undocumented at first. But after settling into their new life in the United States, they became legal residents. Even though her parents motivated her and her sister to vote this year, Funes also wanted to go to the polls because it was her very first time voting.

And when Funes and her family found out Biden won, it felt good, she said. 

“This is what the country needed — a change,” Funes said. “There’s just a good feeling to know he’s won, especially during this time during this pandemic … I hope Biden betters the country.”

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