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Colleges are lawyering up and fighting back against Trump's DACA repeal

The University of California filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration Thursday for its decision to repeal the DACA program, led by president Janet Napolitano — a former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013 who created the DACA program in 2012.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the Northern District of California, argues that the United States and the university have “benefitted enormously from the presence of the Dreamers” and that these students face expulsion “based on nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.”


It’s the first large-scale legal action from a university at a time when colleges across the United States have been scrambling with the ramifications of the Trump administration’s decision to remove protections for the roughly ten thousand DACA students attending college in the United States.

It’s unchartered territory for the nation’s higher institutions, and time is running out to them to formulate meaningful policies. So far, the approaches have been varied. Some universities have publicly declared their support of DACA recipients; others have extended free legal aid. And some are considering becoming “sanctuary campuses,” a policy similar to “sanctuary cities” where campuses would refuse to cooperate with immigration officials attempting to deport undocumented students.

“Sanctuary campuses”

Wesleyan University, for example, moved to adopt a “sanctuary campus” identity even before Trump’s inauguration, and others, like Rutgers University have enacted similar policies without using the exact term.

But becoming a sanctuary campus presents complex legal issues, explains Susan Akram, the director of Boston University’s International Human Rights Clinic, because university policies are closely tied with state policies. This makes it difficult for colleges who are in states like Alabama — a state that does comply with federal immigration law — to turn against their state.

Additionally, colleges don’t have the ability to block criminal warrants, Dr. Angela Garcia, a sociologist and assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.


“Civil and administrative warrants do not authorize entry (say, to a dorm room) without consent, but criminal search or arrest warrants usually do,” said Garcia. “Given the limitations of colleges to block federal immigration enforcement actions on their campuses, there is some concern that the term “sanctuary campus” can provide a false sense of security for undocumented students and staff.”

“Even for universities that had long developed thoughtful strategies for undocumented students, the uncertainty introduced by the elections and the lead-up to rescinding DACA has resulted in a range of improvisational and contingent efforts,” said Dr. Angela Garcia, a sociologist and assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

Keeping status secret

At Arizona State University, for example, students and administrators have joined together to secure scholarships and financial support for DACA recipients who are eligible for in-state tuition. A spokesperson for the ASU told VICE News that the school has also promised those students “to keep their information confidential, to work towards private financial support if needed and to support their cause with all stakeholders, including Congress.”

“We are doing whatever we can whether it is through counseling or private scholarships,” ASU’s student body president, Matt Lubisich, told VICE News. “They’re like every other student. They are come here to graduate.”


While many colleges have come out with public statements reaffirming campus resources like free legal aid, assistance for DACA renewals, and grants for other expenses, students aren’t totally convinced that their colleges’ vocal support for DACA will actually translate into tangible aid.

Dozens of presidents from UC Merced in California to Columbia University in New York have publicly released statements expressing their support for DACA students in the wake of Trump’s announcement. Other have spearheaded fundraising efforts to help with tuition costs and are offering legal resources to affected students.

The chancellor of California’s state community college system called the repeal “a heartless and senseless decision”; the president of the University of Washington declared that ”ending DACA diminishes us all”; and the president of the University of Pennsylvania said Tuesday was a “heartbreaking day for this country.”

Tuition struggle

There isn’t a federal law that bans the admission of undocumented students, but there are laws that prohibit undocumented students from receiving federal tuition money.

Stephany Lopez, a senior working two jobs to cover her Texas A&M tuition is also worried she won’t make it through her last semester. Just being admitted there in the first place was a struggle after she was forced to drop out in 2015 when she couldn’t afford the tuition.

“Yesterday’s [Tuesday’s] decision shattered my sense of security and put a huge obstacle in my dream of obtaining my bachelors in Computer Science,” Lopez told VICE News. “I currently hold two jobs and have finally been able to save for a semester at school, but just the thought that in a year I won’t be able to work makes it much harder for me to go back and finish what I started.”

Oscar Hernandez, a 20-year-old senior at Arizona State University who came to the United States at age nine from Chiapas, Mexico and has been living in Arizona ever since, isn’t sure he’ll even be able to finish college.

“I am in my senior year at ASU, but with today’s announcement how will I be able to afford college?” Hernandez said. “DACA students already pay out of pocket or with private scholarships, and if we don’t have DACA, then college is completely out of the picture.”

And even if he could finish college, he says, what would he do after? Without DACA’s protection, he’ll be an undocumented immigrant who can’t legally work in the country he grew up in.

“If I can’t work with my degree in the U.S., then the past four years have been worthless,” Hernandez said, “I now find myself tied down to an invisible timer counting down my days with legal status,” he said.