As the president of LaGuardia Community College, Gail Mellow spent years encouraging the hundreds of undocumented students on her school’s Queens campus to sign up for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. With DACA, she promised them, they’d be able to live their lives “in the sunlight.” They could become nurses, have internships, and work so they could pay their tuition.
Then President Trump announced Tuesday that he would end DACA in six months, leaving Mellow and her students, she said, “devastated and in shock.”
“I feel that I have put these students in harm’s way by promising them they would be safe,” she said. “I can’t tell you how painful this is — how it’s kept me up at night. I feel personally responsible for every LaGuardia student who is harmed by the rescinding of DACA.”
College leaders across the country said they feel a responsibility to do more than condemn Trump’s decision to end DACA, which provided protection from deportation to young immigrants brought to the US as children. They would do everything within their power to fight the end of the program, they said, and to shield the undocumented students that lived, studied, and worked on their campuses.
It’s not clear how many DACA students are currently enrolled in American colleges. But the numbers are likely massive: some 800,000 young people have been approved for DACA status, and more than 95% are in school or working.
In the county that re-elected Joe Arpaio as sheriff for 24 years before voting him out of office last fall, Arizona State University president Michael Crow was adamant that his school would stand beside its hundreds of DREAMer students.
He promised to lobby the state’s conservative legislature, round up private scholarship money for DACA students, offer counseling, and coordinate legal and financial support. If all else failed, Crow said in an email to the student body, the college would create a “contingency plan,” working with Mexican and other international universities to find places for students if they were forced to leave the country. It would find ways for students to take ASU classes online, and would drum up the money to pay for them.
“There hasn’t been a single college that has said, ‘I won’t stand beside these students,’” said Tania Wilcox, a director at TheDream.US, a scholarship organization for DREAMers. That’s even true among public schools in states with hardline immigration policies and oppositional legislatures. “Colleges have been amazing, the way they’re responding.”
In the hours after Trump’s announcement, dozens of schools promised they would pour resources into their undocumented students, offering everything from counseling and legal advice to private financial aid — most DACA students, ineligible for federal loans, pay their tuition out-of-pocket by working during the school year.
Others sought to reassure anxious DACA students that they would protect them as far as the law would allow. “We will not release any student’s information or employee’s information to federal officials or anyone else... unless we receive a lawful subpoena or warrant that requires us to do so,” said Bruce Benson, the president of the University of Colorado, in a statement.
But Benson’s promise likely carries little weight: the government already has access to DACA recipients' personal information, and federal privacy law protects the bulk of student data. Like vows to create "sanctuary campuses," which are vaguely designed and carry little legal weight, such promises are largely symbolic, serving as a signal to worried students.
Many school administrators said they would focus their attention on Congress, where higher education institutions, scattered across hundreds of liberal and conservative districts alike, often wield influence and economic power.
“In the months to come, we will make every effort to have our voice heard, in the halls of Congress and elsewhere, about the need for the protections of DACA to continue,” Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, said in email to students. “This cruel policy recognizes neither justice nor mercy.”
There is no Trump administration policy that has more forcefully united American colleges than immigration. In January, colleges across the country decried the president’s executive order attempting to ban travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, saying it hurt their students — some of whom found themselves abruptly trapped abroad — and would damage colleges’ businesses and reputations; the University of Washington joined the state’s successful lawsuit against the executive order.
Litigation is something some colleges and higher education groups are weighing now, after Trump’s decision to end DACA, said Steven Bloom, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education, a college lobbying group.
“If we find an opportunity where it makes sense to join litigation, we’d strongly consider it,” Bloom said. “The truth is, we’re all just trying to absorb what the administration has just done, and figure out how to respond to it.”
“It felt like a punch to the solar plexus,” said Judy Miner, the chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza community college district, near San Francisco. “It’s not just an academic exercise for us — it’s the heart of the values that a university is supposed to stand for. It’s just shocking that there would be this punishment for a student who came her who had no choice.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been silent since the president’s announcement. The Education Department, which released a congratulatory statement from DeVos within hours of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate accord, did not respond to five requests for comment from BuzzFeed News on Tuesday and Wednesday.
For DACA students, the reality of Trump’s decision overshadowed the normal September stresses of moving into dorm rooms and signing up for classes. Many said they were anxious, afraid, and even angry — betrayed, they said, by a government they had trusted with their personal information.
Within hours of Trump’s announcement, one student had emailed Wilcox’s organization to say he felt he had no choice but to drop out of school: his DACA status expired in a year, he said, and he wanted to spend the next year working two full-time jobs, saving up as much money as he could before he was forced underground.
“There are real, drastic consequences for our students,” said Wilcox.
Losing DACA status means losing the ability to work while in college, said Gabriel Sanchez, a student at St Gregory’s University, a small Catholic college in Shawnee, Oklahoma — money necessary to to pay tuition and living expenses. And Trump’s decision threw his entire future into jeopardy.
“I don’t know anything about Mexico,” said Sanchez, whose parents brought him to to Oklahoma when he was just seven years old. He wants to become a teacher, perhaps in a program like Teach for America, and to go to graduate school.
“I want a shot at teaching in the country I grew up in,” he said, “and I don't want that taken away from me.”
Most DACA students, Wilcox said, said they wanted to remain in school. “Yesterday there was the feeling of being scared and afraid. They’re turning that into anger and motivation to tell their stories. They want to say, we’re here to stay.”
Lorena, a student at Rutgers University in Newark, was leaving her French history class Tuesday when she saw that her phone was exploding, she said, texts pouring in with news of Trump’s announcement.
“You can’t blame a student for wanting to succeed just like everyone else. It’s not our fault,” said Lorena, who came to the United States from Peru when she was two years old and asked to be identified by her middle name. “I’m very upset and angry that someone would want to take this opportunity away from me.”
Lorena said she had turned to Rutgers, which has a strong support network for undocumented students, for help and advice. “I’ve been very lucky to go to a school that’s so encouraging,” she said, saying she’d been offered counseling, trainings, and classes on immigration issues, like asylum.
But Lorena worried about current high school students — DACA is open to those as young as 16 — who now lack the same support systems to lean on in the wake of Trump’s announcement. “There’s a lot of high school seniors who don’t know the resources that are out there.”
Hina Naveed, a first-semester law student at the City University of New York whose parents brought her to the US from Dubai when she was ten, said her biggest worry if DACA ends is that she won't be able to pay for her degree. Not only does DACA enable her to work as a nurse to pay her tuition as she attends school part-time, she said, but it also allows her to get in-state tuition, a fraction of the price of what she'd pay. If her work permit runs out, she said, she might have to postpone her studies — which are already taking her longer to finish than most of her classmates.
There are other worries for DACA students, too, said Naveed, who directs the Dream Action Coalition: the possibility of losing a driver’s license, for example, making it impossible for students to commute to work and school.
“The immigrant community is resourceful and strong, and people don’t give us enough credit,” Naveed said. “Fear is not stopping us from going after what we want — institutional boundaries are. Immigrants do what they need to do, and get it done, and work harder than most to overcome hurdle after hurdle. And that’s not going to change.”
Brianna Sacks contributed reporting.