Sep 22, 2017

UT Leaders Pledge DACA Support, But Actions Remain Uncertain

Reporting Texas

Shortly after President Donald Trump ended protections for roughly 800,000 young adults shielded by an Obama-era immigration program, university leadership in Texas vowed to protect their students affected by the recent executive order.

Nearly a month later, however, officials have taken no discernable action regarding those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA.

Many DACA recipients are college students, and higher-education leaders nationwide questioned Trump’s decision. William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, and Greg Fenves, president of the University of Texas-Austin, both responded publicly regarding DACA. McRaven’s statement, in particular, assured students affected by the policy change that university leadership would take action to protect them.

“Let me also speak directly to you, our UT DACA students,” McRaven wrote in his  Sept. 5 statement. “You can be certain of our support as you continue to pursue your dreams – the American dream – to obtain an education and build a better future for you and your families. As UT adheres to federal and state laws regarding immigration, rest assured our campuses will remain places where you can safely study as Congress takes up this issue.”

While McRaven has given his assurance of support and safety, UT leadership has been unable to spell out any longterm solutions. If Congress does not create a legal pathway for DACA recipients to remain in the country, some students will be vulnerable to possible deportation.

Both McRaven and Fenves were not available for comment on their efforts to assist DACA recipients.

“There is not a lot to share beyond the public statements at this point,” said J.B. Bird, director of media relations at UT Austin.

“President Fenves and Chancellor McRaven have made supportive statements in favor of undocumented students,” said Samuel Cervantes, a member of University Leadership Initiative, a youth-led advocacy group for the undocumented community.

“But statements are not enough,” he said.

Legally, Fenves, McRaven and other state employees cannot lobby members of Congress. They can and have become signatories on statements shepherded by private universities and associations.

On Nov. 21, 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, hundreds of higher education leaders, including McRaven, Fenves and other UT campus presidents, signed a letter to Trump urging that the DACA program be maintained and even expanded. The list of signatories now numbers more than 600.

On Sept. 7, Fenves and 56 other presidents and chancellors also signed a letter to Congress, through the Association of American Universities (AAU). The letter condemned the decision to end the program and urged Congress to pass a permanent solution. Yet the letter itself promised no action on behalf of signatories.

“We have not been cataloguing any action beyond signing the letter,” a spokesperson for the AAU said through email.

In fact, the AAU spokesperson, who did not provide a name, said the letter “speaks for itself” and that it’s a call for congressional action on the issue. There is not yet any evidence that the letter has accomplished its intended effect.

DACA legislation has been underscored by a long and troubled history. Senators Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the DREAM Act 16 years ago. This bipartisan legislation proposed a process for immigrants to apply for conditional residency with a pathway to permanent status if they could meet certain qualifications such as providing proof that they entered the United States before the age of 16 and had received a U.S. high school diploma or GED. This legislation never passed, and President Barack Obama took executive action to establish similar, although less permanent, legal protections in 2012. His DACA program provided renewable 2-year deferments from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.

Now, in the absence of DACA and a quickly shrinking window of time for Congress to replace it, many are afraid of what the future might hold. At UT-Austin, the president is pointing students to the International Office and the Longhorn Dreamers project. The UT Law Immigration Clinic is another resource for DACA holders.

Elissa Steglich and her colleagues at the immigration clinic are meeting with DACA clients to determine whether there are other legal opportunities that might be more permanent.

“This will place 800,000 vibrant members of our society at risk of deportation,” Steglich said. “At the same time, the head of ICE is talking about how those who are undocumented should be looking over their shoulders. That’s problematic. That’s counter to the type of welcoming country I know we are.”

In reality, there are few options for most DACA recipients without help from Congress.

“On a larger reform level, Congress must come up with a law that will match the bipartisan spirit and principles of the original Dreamer legislation that never passed,” Steglich said. “The cruel gamesmanship that the administration seems to be playing with Congress is really something that is hurting us all.”

Meanwhile, university leadership can do little to protect their students should lawmakers fail to act, university officials acknowledged.

“We are evaluating the implications ‎of the decision for our students and will continue to do so as more guidance comes from the federal government,” said Karen Adler, a UT system spokeswoman. “We hope congressional action will resolve questions and allow our students to continue their education. In the meantime, the UT system’s Office of General Counsel will work to provide general guidance for students, faculty and staff.”

For students affected by the legal wrangling over their futures, university leaders play a big role. Roughly half of DACA recipients are enrolled in high school or college.

Cervantes, of University Leadership Initiative, called for more urgent action.

“We wish to see the university and the UT administration materialize their statements in support of undocumented students.”