Immigration

Undocumented High School Students Fear Applying to Out-of-State Colleges in the Era of Trump

We need to hear the deportation horror stories—but we also need to talk about the subtle, devastating ways life narrows for immigrants scared of deportation.

Photo Credit: antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

A student I taught last year—I’ll call her Ana—comes by my classroom at the end of the day to ask if I’ll write a recommendation for her when she applies to colleges next fall. I tell her of course, and ask if she’s excited to be a senior. She says she is, but she’s nervous. She talks about her ACT scores and college applications. She mentions that her Junior Seminar teacher is frustrated with her because, in making lists of colleges to apply to next year, she keeps refusing to include any out-of-state schools.

“Why not keep a variety of options?” I ask.

“I’m undocumented,” she explains. “Well, I mean, I have DACA. I’m a Dreamer.”

I ask why that means she won’t apply to out-of-state schools. I know some schools won’t take undocumented immigrants, but many will. Why not focus on those?

“It’s just that I don’t want to fall in love with a school and then find out I can’t go there.”

I get that, but is it a reason to write off all out-of-state schools? What about the schools that would take her?

“No, it’s just things are changing. With Trump and all. I don’t know what the rules will be next year.”

So she’s worried about future policies, not the way things are now?

“Yes. And, also, my family would still be here, and I don’t know if I’d want to be apart from them in case anything happens.”

She says she visited Colorado last summer with an extracurricular club and fell in love with the state. She came home and told her mom she wanted to go to college there. Her mom was thrilled. So Ana has been researching universities in the state, and found one that really appealed to her. But she won’t put it on her list.

Another student—I'll call her Brenda—tells me about her aunt and uncle in Houston, who left for Mexico when it became clear that SB4 would pass, taking their son (the student’s cousin) with them. He was a senior, college-bound. Now he doesn’t know when he’ll finish his education. Brenda tells me her parents are considering doing the same thing with her. They’ve already pulled her brother out of his charter elementary school and put him into a neighborhood school.

“Why?” I ask.

“Less driving,” she says.

Brenda loves acting, is always writing about her auditions and rehearsals. Now she's had to give it up, because her mom won’t drive her to auditions anymore.

Her family had two dogs, but sent them to live with relatives in the country.

“Why?”

“They bark,” she says, “and we don’t want the cops to come because of the noise.”

After Governor Greg Abbott signed SB4 into law, the Houston Chronicle’s Lomi Kriel wrote about the lessons Texas can learn from how immigrants in Arizona have dealt with the immigration laws passed there in 2010. She describes one Phoenix couple who now hesitate before calling the police or accessing public health care for their children, who are American citizens. After SB 1070 passed, Kriel writes, the couple chose to “make their lives smaller.”

This is exactly what I’ve seen with my students: a narrowing, a self-restriction. In February, one boy wrote that his parents are afraid to even go to the store now. “We used to feel safe driving around,” he wrote, “but now we just look over our shoulders to see if anyone is following us. Of course we make it safely home, but then later that night I hear my parents watching videos of people getting taken away. Then they decide not to drive where those people were getting taken away.”

Along with this circumscription, I’m seeing a need for a hyper-awareness of family members’ whereabouts and well-being. That makes sense—if you’re afraid someone might be taken away from you, you always want to be near that person, always be in contact with them. I think that’s what really underlies Ana’s reluctance to apply to out-of-state schools.

After the first travel ban and the February raids, Dana Snitzky wrote about the responsibility of bearing witness, of answering important questions like Who has been detained? Who has been denied entry? and Who has been deported? And she’s right: we need to hear about the five-year-old handcuffed at the airport, about the father detained while taking his daughter to school. But we also need to record this narrowing, which is less likely to show up in statistics or in images on the news. We need to talk about the families who are too afraid of the police to keep their pets, the parents who drive to the store looking over their shoulders, the students limiting their college options.

We need to point out that this climate of fear seems to have been built by design. In the early part of this decade, some members of the Republican Party floated the idea of “self-deportation” as a means of reducing the undocumented population without mobilizing a large deportation force. The idea was that if you could make the lives of undocumented immigrants miserable enough, those immigrants would choose to leave the country on their own. The cruelty behind such thinking is obvious; even Donald Trump called it “crazy” and "maniacal" and criticized Mitt Romney for adopting the idea during the 2012 presidential campaign.

But the thinking behind self-deportation is back, in large part because Trump has let his immigration policies be shaped by men like Jeff Sessions and Kris Kobach, the author of Arizona’s SB 1070. Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly made it clear in a March interview that his agency intends to use cruelty and fear to deter illegal immigration. While defending the possibility of separating children from their mothers at the border, Kelly said, “Yes, I’m considering [that], in order to deter movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”

That logic, in which cruelty functions as a deterrent and fear is a disincentive, is likely behind the highly public, large-scale ICE raids in February, and ICE’s decision to encroach on areas previously considered sensitive, like churches and courthouses. Such logic may also explain why Texas Republicans paid no attention to city police chiefs who said SB4 would make immigrant communities less safe. After all, if undocumented immigrants don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods, aren’t they more likely to leave?

But that type of thinking comes at a couple of costs. One cost is to our country, because we want kids like my students, who inherit their parents’ work ethic and enterprising spirit, and so build a better future for all of us. The saying “immigrants make America great” isn’t just a snappy rejoinder to Trump’s campaign slogan—it’s the truth, and has been since our country’s founding.

The second cost involves what we lose as human beings when we adopt such policies. If stripping people of their dignity, opportunities and joy is the method by which we achieve our goals, then we come up with monstrous ideas, like forcibly separating mothers and children, or holding undocumented immigrants in facilities with appalling conditions. We start to think that maybe it’s okay for people who aren’t supposed to be here to live lives that are dimmer and smaller. And in doing so, we make our nation, and ourselves, smaller, too.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Franklin Strong is a writer and high school teacher living in Austin, Texas. His writing has appeared at The Millions, Religion Dispatches, Sojourners, and Essay Daily. Find him on Twitter at @frankstrong.

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