When the U.S. Justice Department announced Sept. 5, 2017, that it is rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, leaders in higher education were among those in the Christian community who encouraged President Donald Trump and Congress to find a compassionate path forward for the more than 700,000 DACA recipients. Congress now has until March 5, 2018, to put the Obama administrative executive action into law.
For the past five years, DACA has made it possible for immigrant students brought to the United States as minors to enroll in a college or university, obtain valid drivers’ licenses and legally work. As of June 30, 2017, 793,026 young adults have been approved for the program since it began and nearly 900,000 renewals have been approved over the life of the program. Nearly one-third of current recipients–223,000–call California home.
Given the privacy protections afforded all students by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Acts (FERPA), both Mennonite Brethren institutions—Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, and Fresno Pacific University (FPU) in Fresno, California—are uncertain how many of their students are DACA recipients and both pledge continued support of any DACA student in their respective student bodies.
Undocumented students find support at FPU
Eighteen years ago, FPU began providing a limited number of academic scholarships to young adults without documentation. Over time, the Samaritan Scholarship and other support services have drawn undocumented students to FPU. They see the university as a safe and supportive place to pursue their education, says Daniel Dominguez, director of multicultural ministries.
Currently, 18 students are funded through the Samaritan Scholarship program. While a total of 28 FPU students have self-identified as undocumented, Dominguez says there could be more.
FPU acted quickly to reassure their students who may be affected by President Trump’s announcement. When news sources began speculating Sept. 4 what the decision would be, FPU posted a statement online and circulated it to Central Valley news media.
The statement, updated after the decision became final, begins: “As part of its calling to serve the Central Valley, Fresno Pacific University reaffirms its commitment to our DACA students, including those affected by the September 5, 2017, announcement by President Donald Trump.”
In the statement, FPU President Joseph Jones says, “These students have come to FPU with dreams of positively contributing to our community and country. For over 20 years they have proven their value to the region and these United States. We will continue to support their success as a Christian university within the purview of the laws of this country including FERPA legislation, which insures students’ privacy.”
The day following the Trump administration’s announcement, the College Hour, a twice-weekly campus gathering, directly addressed the DACA program. Dominguez, who is part of the Office of Spiritual Formation staff, revamped the format of the gathering and took advantage of the fact that Dina Gonzalez-Pina, a former FPU staff member who was instrumental in establishing the Samaritan Scholarship, was already scheduled to speak during College Hour.
Tuesday night, students were alerted via an email blast that the next morning’s gathering would be a DACA, Dreamers and Immigration “Chirp.” A chapel “Chirp” session addresses current events in a style similar to a TED talk, Dominguez says. Wednesday there was standing room only as Gonzalez-Pina and Dominguez spoke and two students who are DACA recipients told their stories. The discussion and time of prayers of intercession, lament and support was moderated by FPU faculty member Tim Neufeld.
“It was really well received,” Dominguez says.
Standing in silence and solitude
Over the next week, FPU students shared with Dominguez their desire to bring more of an awareness that in addition to DACA recipients, the campus community includes Dreamers.
The term “Dreamer” can be confusing, Dominguez says. In California it refers to students who benefit from the California DREAM Act. The legislation was passed in 2010 and allows undocumented students to receive state financial aid to attend an in-state college or university. A significant difference between the California DREAM Act and DACA is that DACA does not involve student aid.
The word “Dreamer” is also used to refer to young adults who would have benefited from the DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), a federal legislative proposal for qualifying undocumented minors that would first grant conditional residency and eventually permanent residency for those who meet additional qualifications. The bill was first introduced in 2001 and has been reintroduced several times since but has always failed to get through Congress.
To highlight the presence of FPU Dreamers, during the week following the DACA announcement, each day three students, dressed in white T-shirts, stood silently while holding signs with Scripture and other expressions of support for undocumented students. The phrase the students developed to describe the purpose of the week-long demonstration was to “stand in silence and solitude so the Holy Spirit will be our voice,” Dominguez says.
On Friday, all of the students who had participated during the week stood together and were joined by a group of 20 to 30 faculty and staff. The presence of so many faculty and staff was “huge” for the students, Dominguez says.
While the student response and anxiety peaked in early September, Dominguez continues to talk regularly with undocumented students who are concerned about their futures. “There is tremendous stress on our students,” he says. “They live and breathe this every day.”
For example, one FPU student is not eligible to reapply to the DACA program because her DACA status expires March 6. The Trump administration has said that recipients can only reapply if their expiration date is on or before March 5.
“She missed it by one day,” Dominguez laments.
In addition to spending time with individual students, Dominguez holds regular meetings for all undocumented students that provide a time for them to check in. Typically, the gathering includes a devotional and refreshments. It also provides the opportunity for Dominguez and the students to offer relevant information and updates. These meetings “mean a lot to the students,” Dominguez says. “Everyone is in the same situation, and that gives a sense of belonging in the chaos.”
College leaders release statements
In addition to releasing its own statement, FPU joined other California Christian colleges and universities in asking their Congressional representatives to support comprehensive legislation for DACA students. See a copy of the letter here.
Although officials at Tabor College are not aware of any DACA students among the student body, president Jules Glanzer says, “Tabor College will continue to support the success of any DACA student attending our school.”
FPU and Tabor are both members of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). CCCU president Shirley V. Hoogstra issued a statement in early September regarding the decision to end DACA.
“The people participating in DACA have lived in the United States since they were children, and their life in the United States is all they know,” Hoogstra writes. “In order to participate in DACA, they have all been thoroughly vetted, registered with the federal government, undergone background checks and paid fees in exchange for peace of mind in the form of protection from deportation and work authorization. This greater certainty allowed participants to deepen their involvement with and contribution to their communities, including as students in CCCU institutions.”
Presidents of both public and private colleges and universities continue to encourage Congress to support legislation to protect the nation’s Dreamers. While there is bipartisan support for legislation to help Dreamers and DACA recipients, there is disagreement on the best path forward. President Trump gave Congress six months to enact the program into law. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Oct. 3, 2017. The hearing is the first step to finding a solution for these DACA recipients who are set to lose benefits once the program expires in March 2018.
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, one son-in-law and one grandson. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.