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Cinthya was fifteen when she packed her bags, thinking she was visiting the United States to see Disneyland. But upon arriving in Los Angeles, she realized that her parents had not booked a hotel room. She was not going back.
During these years, few resources existed for undocumented students in the United States. So when she enrolled in UCLA four years later, Cinthya helped found Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS), a support network for undocumented students inside and outside UCLA. Cinthya continued trailblazing in the budding national arena, up until she became the first undocumented student accepted to the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. A few days before graduation in 2010, Cinthya died in a car crash.
The tragedy came at a moment of poignance for Cinthya. Columbia’s policy on financial aid forced her to defer acceptance until it was no longer possible. She then had to use all of her savings, max out the credit cards of her friends and her friends’ parents and set up a fundraising website, “Project Cinthya,” in order to attend. Once a student, Cinthya found few people to talk to about the issues closest to her, so she focused primarily on schoolwork. Cinthya seemed happiest when she was with Tam, her closest friend in the undocumented movement at UCLA and a doctoral student at Brown.
The two were vacationing together when a drunk driver hit. Undocumented student activists across the nation mourned and blogged about inspiring memories of these two movement builders, and media outlets broke the news of the loss of the duo that defied stereotypes. The Mailman School posted a paragraph about Cinthya’s studies.
Though Cinthya felt isolated as an undocumented student, her experience is not entirely unique. While Columbia doesn’t offer specific resources for such students, as does UCLA with IDEAS and Stanford and Harvard with designated scholarships, its diversity-friendly admissions process means that Cinthya isn’t the only undocumented student who has attended Columbia. Some, like Cinthya, have struggled with mental health; some with tuition; some with finding an audience. Two years after the crash, the stories continue.
Columbia College 2016
Prospective Major: Math
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Age came to US: 3
Columbia was Brandon’s top choice, his only choice, because it was the only school that offered enough financial aid for Mexican students. He cried when he got his likely letter, and in April, he didn’t flinch to accept his offer from Columbia.
But in July, Brandon became a registered felon under H.R. 4437. He discovered this when his immigration lawyer advised him to travel from San Antonio, Texas to Juarez, Mexico—the world’s second most dangerous city, after Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital—for required medical exams. Now that Brandon was no longer a minor, he could apply for a pardon for overstaying his visa. He came equipped with a thick packet of proof of his Columbia acceptance.
The officer ignored the packet. Instead, he asked a question.
When was your eighteenth birthday?
The official counted up to eight fingers. And that was it. Six months past his 18th birthday, and Brandon would have been off to enjoy his last summer before starting classes at Columbia. But eight months after meant that returning to the United States would be complicated by a felony charge.
So he caught a bus to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, arriving to a crowd of his family members who thought that fifteen years after his departure to America, they would never see him again. All this two months after the last date for deferral of admission, and given a past Columbia interaction—the financial aid office demanded nonexistent documents from his undocumented biological dad—the unexpected time of leave was a gamble.
But this turned out not to be true: Brandon’s Columbia admissions officer was supportive and even offered to refer him to an immigration lawyer. The gamble, instead, was petitioning a visa. The expected date of processing came and went without response. Brandon, imagining each Columbia event as he missed them, scoured the Internet for any sign of an end. After three months of managing the television at the local sports bar and four days before Christmas, Brandon finally heard back.
Brandon’s year of waiting has made him re-examine his relationship to the country that had rejected him for so long. He now has status and attends Columbia, but he says his undocumented past “is an issue that doesn’t really leave.”
When Brandon “came out” at Columbia as having been undocumented, some students were “shocked” at how far an undocumented student could come; some were interested to hear more. In a space with diversity as a buzzword, Brandon says that his experience without status seems trivialized when spoken of as his tagline, his background. Now, Brandon says he assumes his Mexican identity more so than he had in both the Mexican-dominant San Antonio and in San Miguel de Allende.
Columbia College 2014
Majors: Economics and Latin American and Iberian cultures
Hometown: San Diego, California
Age came to US: 11
He went by “Robert” with r’s rolled, in Mexico; “Roberto” with r’s Anglicized, in the States; “Rob” in his teens; “Roberto” now by email and “Rob” by phone. To his gangbanger friends, he was the guy that studied after school; to the all-white golf team, he was “that Mexican.”
Like Brandon, who grew up fishing toys out of dumpsters with a clothes hanger, his acceptance to an elite San Diego high school allowed Columbia to be in his vocabulary. His five older siblings, who had stayed in Mexico, added Columbia to their vocabulary when their brother was accepted.
Because his mom didn’t speak English, Roberto handled the finances. His eye on income prompted him to move in with a friend. Though he assumed college was not an option, Roberto continued along the Ivy League track—sports, extracurricular activities, APs. During it all, Roberto saw his mom divorce after his step-dad lied about his petition for residency and his brother face detention after seeking asylum from a drug cartel. He says he would “100 times rather have the stress of school than the immigration battle,” a battle that he says made him mature faster and in a “less orthodox” way than his peers.
While Roberto struggles with defining himself as either American or Mexican, one term he refuses to adopt is “undocumented.” He associates the word with a period of feeling nonexistent, a period that brought him psychological problems and led to a suicide attempt. Now that Roberto has residency status and doesn’t “have to think about this every 5 seconds of my life,” he likens his condition to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The police still make him cringe, and he tends to think in terms of the immediate future.
Attending Columbia marks a point of Roberto making public his concerns on immigration. Before, he says he was ashamed of his status and afraid of what his friends might think of him because of it. Now, he feels compelled to share his story because he wants to challenge his friends who “when they think illegal, they think illegal farmer workers.” He only joined the Chicano Caucus this year, but ever since, he has consistently attended their meetings.
Cinthya tested the waters in her first year at Columbia. She visited the Chicano Caucus—the term “chicano” was reclaimed by Mexican-Americans in the 60s—when the DREAM Act was proposed federally. Cinthya shared her story, but she later told the president at the time that she was hesitant to do so because she felt the club was not ready.
Abril, a Columbia College senior, remembers a silence when she brought up her parents’ lack of status at a Chicano Caucus meeting. The topic ended there as to avoid creating discomfort. Though the club has advocated for immigrants’ rights and connected undocumented students—Brandon, Roberto, and Abril met through the Chicano Caucus—it is apprehensive when stepping in political territory. When Jim Gilchrist, founder of border vigilante group Minuteman, was invited to speak in 2006 by the Columbia University College Republicans, half of the Chicano Caucus stormed the stage with a “No Student Is Illegal” sign, and half of the group refrained. The more radical wing resulted in LUCHA, a club for radical politics. LUCHA declined an interview for this article.
This year, no campus organization has held a monopoly over undocumented issues. A group of Barnard students and professors protested President Obama’s mass deportation of undocumented immigrants during his commencement speech. LUCHA hosted its annual informational Immigration Week and a discussion on detention and deportation, with attendance rates a little above the usual. Students for Education Reform (SFER) ran a discussion on the DREAM Act last year and followed up with a teach-in from the New York Immigration Coalition last month, culminating in letter writing to Governor Cuomo.
Benji, SFER president, American studies major, and a self-identified privileged Latino, says that the DREAM Act is “not a brown issue,” but an issue not unlike classist exclusion familiar to the Ivy League. He says the issue resonates with SFER’s nonpartisan platform. While the DREAM Act may not seem taboo on campus—anti-immigrant rhetoric on campus tends not to stray past the anonymous comment section or the half-dormant discussion section—Abril says that what’s worse is that it’s a non-issue. Having grown up in a Mexican corner of Las Vegas, Abril says she is disillusioned by the work-centric mindset of her peers. Even well attended events she finds unsuccessful because the empathy they generate—by “exhibitionary” means—can only last so long.
Columbia College 2011
Majors: Sociology and Sustainable Development
Hometown: Hendersonville, North Carolina
Age came to US: 7
Rosario says she would not have had the peace of mind to face arrest in a civil disobedience event had it not been for yoga. For her, facing Columbia was another matter entirely.
Rosario chose to apply to Columbia after watching YouTube videos of the Chicano Caucus’s protest against Gilchrist, looking for a vibrant support system. But, when she arrived, one of her main sources of financial support from the university—work study—was an impossibility because of her status. Looking for student support, Rosario approached LUCHA, but she felt that her courage couldn’t meet their level. On the other hand, at the Chicano Caucus, she found friends she could relate to, though their political voice wasn’t as loud. (Rosario had been at the meeting when Cinthya paid a visit, and they later reconnected through the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a student-run organization for undocumented students.)
Only after mobilization in the national campaign for the federal DREAM Act did the first undocumented student that year share her status with the club. Rosario then shared in response. And, after a period of building trust, others shared with Rosario privately. Their status didn’t leave the circle, but their activism did. That year, the Chicano Caucus petitioned University President Lee Bollinger to publicly endorse the DREAM Act. Twenty-five student organizations and 13 professors signed on. Even more voiced support—without a signature.
Rosario was vocal in her disappointment about some professors’ inability to follow through with the petition, but she felt “shut down” by the comments of some of her classmates: Undocumented immigrants would be better off not infringing on minority benefits; undocumented immigrants should just go back.
Rosario did contemplate “just going back,” and she set a departure date for October 21. After a meditation retreat and a couple of blog posts for The Huffington Post (she complains that one of the headlines was changed to emphasize her attendance at Columbia), Rosario is “in a waiting room of sorts.” None of her immediate family is in North Carolina; its immigration policies are too Draconian to stay. She says that she is exhausted by the materialistic lifestyle she found at Columbia and sees opportunity for activism “at the roots,” but she cannot abandon her mother or the movement on the ground.
Her undocumented peers are also split: some are pursuing degrees abroad, while others are forging futures in the States. Those who are abroad hope to build resumés to expedite a second immigration process; those who remain in the US hope to live beyond their immigrant pasts.
With school as a haven for undocumented youth, graduation inaugurates a period of existential questioning. Before President Barack Obama introduced Deferred Action for childhood arrivals, students often clung to graduate school options to avoid falling to the depths of the job market. Still, the same factors filtering out college applicants operate for graduate school applicants.
Nancy, a leader in the national undocumented student movement and ex-member of IDEAS, dreamed of attending Teachers College, a school that she was told was out of her reach as someone from a low-income community. She says she wanted to prove that an undocumented immigrant could have access to an Ivy League in immigrant-rich New York. Nancy applied and was accepted—but had to turn Columbia down. It came down to money: the financial aid office could only secure her minimal resources. The “heartbreaking” dead end has made Nancy rethink her educational goals. She is currently exploring schools that offer enough aid regardless of immigration status.
Nancy’s IDEAS peer Eder, who now has status, is a first-year at the School of International and Public Affairs. He credits his enrollment in UCLA to Cinthya’s story. After two months on campus, Eder already calls the undocumented scene at Columbia non-existent. He brought with him one “I’m Undocumented” shirt but left his other four at home and with his brother and ex-roommate (the two also have status). There, his shirt met smiles and conversations. Here, it meets confusion or nothing.
Teachers College 2014
Program: Mental Health Counseling
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Age came to US: 5
Mariella says her path to Columbia was a race to avoid becoming, in the eyes of a legislator, “just an undocumented immigrant.” When she arrived at Teachers College, she decided graduate school was to be done differently. Her undergraduate years at a liberal arts college were a “cushion” from the daily realities of deportation and of work and transportation restrictions. Only the admissions director had known her status. At Teachers College, everyone was to know.
Yet being public didn’t translate to staying present. When she found herself unable to pay for her first semester, Mariella went straight to administration. An email to the head of diversity affairs led to a meeting with Dr. Kenny Nienhusser, who graduated from and had taught at Teachers College. Nienhusser offered her a position on his team researching possible stigma associated with documented status and its impact on higher education. An email to the president of Teachers College led to a meeting with Vice Provost William Baldwin. Baldwin settled her account, though Mariella still does not know where funding will come from next year.
Mariella learned in class that an inability to make plans causes anxiety. Instead of focusing on tuition, she focuses on numbers to be dealt with; instead of focusing on her uncertain future, she focuses on daily tasks—though due to her status, even daily tasks are sometimes limited. These strategies had to come from her studies, since formal counseling services are not available because of the inaccessibility of health care.
Mariella learned from her parents that a lack of plans can be survived. Her mother, who had been a math professor at a top university in Peru, had to quit a 15-year hotel job in Miami when the employer asked for papers. Her father, who had been a computer analyst at Diners Club, now hosts a political radio show, runs a computer repair business, and plays indigenous huaynitos music. He has dreamed of returning home since he was 11—he had been “the one” of the family to move to the big city, Lima—but stays in Miami for his daughters. Both keep their status private.
When Mariella came to Teachers College, she knew no one. Within her first few weeks, Mariella met Cyndi, who was familiar with the LA network Mariella had begun to tap into. When Cyndi came, she knew two people: Cinthya and Professor Ernest Morrell, the director of Teachers College’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education and Cinthya’s mentor. Cinthya’s acceptance to Columbia inspired Cyndi to apply too.
Though Cinthya is now gone, Cyndi says she feels the same isolation that her friend faced, despite now having status. She sees complacency in raising issues: partly, she says, because the conservative Ivy League space has few outlets for students of color; partly because the prestige means students feel entitled not to be open; partly because institutional aid means reluctance to stir waters. Students’ minimal contact with undocumented students and with other Columbia schools makes conversation even harder.
While Cyndi sees a structure at other schools, she barely sees a base at Columbia. She finds the university isn’t built for undocumented students.
“Inhabiting this space,” Cyndi says, “is more than just physically being here but actually having the issues that affect us being addressed.” Though Columbia students tend to be independent enough to find information and resources, in this movement, independence is not enough.
In October of 2011, SIPA student Mynor—now Eder’s mentor—contacted Cyndi about a cross-school partnership. Mynor, a second-year student in security policy and conflict resolution, had stumbled upon the issue by accident. His second day in the city, he was assaulted by four men in Brooklyn and was left with nothing but a broken jaw, a Blackberry in his front pocket, and the address of an acquaintance he was subletting from written on his hand. The acquaintance, Lorena—a friend of Cyndi from LA and a New York University student—found the police at her house and took a day off of work to take care of him. With his jaw wired shut, Mynor didn’t see Lorena for the next two months and could only keep email correspondence. When he saw her again, Lorena told him she was undocumented. When his jaw healed, he knew what he wanted to do with his time.
Mynor first approached the Latin American Students Association (LASA). This was 2010, the year of the federal DREAM Act, the year of the Chicano Caucus’s petition and the year of the car crash, but the foreign national group wasn’t interested. This same year, one of his friends ran for a board position on the Migration Working Group (MWG). Mynor went to a MWG meeting, presented the issue, and this time, was appointed DREAM Act liaison.
To organize his first event on the topic, Mynor needed co-sponsorship. A broad spectrum of cultural and advocacy clubs supported him enthusiastically. Attendance was just as successful, and grew throughout the two-week series. Two movie screenings were followed by a fishbowl panel discussion; the fishbowl panel discussion was followed by students spontaneously coming out in the Q&A session. The final event, an open mic segment, ended with new partnerships. A few days later was May Day, a national day of action for immigrant rights.
The following fall, Mynor expanded his network to other Columbia schools (Cyndi at Teachers College, Abril at Columbia College, and others at the Columbia School of Social Work, the Mailman School, Columbia Law School, and Barnard College) and to other Ivy Leagues. The latter came unexpectedly. His fiancé’s cousin, a Harvard student, initiated a series of Skype conversations and emails to discuss a pan-Ivy League coalition for undocumented issues.
That December, the cousin hosted the first summit of the Collegiate Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) for Ivy Leagues and NYU. Mynor and other Columbia delegates were surprised to see mostly first- and second-year undergraduates. From this, he learned two things: First, that campus activism should be led by undergraduates, whose longer time at school rewards them with more influence. Second, that DREAM Act activism provided relief for less than 1 percent of the undocumented population, and that its rhetoric of victimized students tended implicitly to criminalize their parents.
At Mynor’s May event, Jong-Min, who had met Mynor, Mariella, Cyndi, and Cinthya through organizing, spoke about his experience as a “left out” undocumented immigrant. At 31, Jong-Min is past the cut-off age for both the 2010 federal DREAM Act and Deferred Action. Rosario’s brother is also ineligible for benefits. Neither has a path to citizenship, save maybe marriage, until newer reforms are introduced.
Roberto Lovato, co-founder of the immigrants’ rights group Presente, says that like any movement, the undocumented students movement has its own slang and its own factions. Some may be institutional—public school students versus private school students; some may be linguistic—those that are eligible and those that are not; some may be legal—those that can vote and those that cannot. Rosario, who, as a graduate, feels more strategically positioned to support students, says that she relies on shared activism to build solidarity.
Though immigration came up once in the presidential debates, and though President Obama championed Deferred Action, Lovato says change will come more from the realm of human networks than from the current realm of politics.
Professor Rodolfo de la Garza, SIPA’s authority on immigrant politics, sees the power of the Latino vote, but not necessarily in the favor of the undocumented. He says that when he lived in Texas, Brandon’s home state, there was a bar that hosted undocumented immigrants on Friday nights and immigrants with status on Saturday nights. The two communities never talked. De la Garza also doesn’t believe that undocumented students attend Columbia.
Nienhusser acknowledges that education-centered legislation like the DREAM Act affords opportunities only to a sub-section of this underserved population. But he, with colleagues in this eligible underserved population, colleagues in the immigrant population and colleagues in neither, acknowledges that the undocumented student marker can empower this eligible population and move the political agenda forward.
Not all feel this marker works to define them—Brandon and Roberto do; Rosario, Eder, Mariella, and Cyndi don’t. Still, revealing their immigration status, despite tangible risks, can open up resources. Nienhusser, who specializes in higher education policies that impact undocumented students, says that universities operate on a supply and demand basis. When a critical mass of undocumented students attends a university, it is generally more responsive to this population’s unique needs. As of recently, outside motivations like some states passing legislation to offer higher education benefits to undocumented students are forcing more and more universities to face the issue of the role of status in college access.
At Teachers College, a news story on the DREAM Act caught the attention of Vice Provost Baldwin, and he brought it up at an administrative meeting. He says that while access to educational opportunity “fit in as a natural part of the conversation,” no undocumented student had shown up on an administrator’s radar screen before Mariella.
“Many of the Harvards, Princetons, Columbias of the world that have very large endowments probably have a little bit more discretion to repurpose resources to address an issue like this,” Baldwin says. “There’s also certainly the option that institutions have to use bully pulpit of that institution to begin to speak out on issues of education and access and opportunity.”
Yet Baldwin admits it’s not so simple. He draws an analogy with disabled students: because privacy laws make it hard to identify a student with a disability, he has had trouble granting them diversity scholarships.
At Columbia College, identification is even trickier. Undocumented students are assumed to apply through the International Students and Scholars Office, but the ISSO “has no contact with undocumented students,” according to an ISSO officer.
While Eder says he’s concerned about administrative support, he chooses to focus his efforts on students. Along with Cyndi and Abril, Eder plans to inform campus dialogue with a university-wide teach-in next semester. Cyndi is planning the same with more students from SIPA and the Latino Caucus at the School of Social Work. Abril hopes to send a more confrontational message with a university sit-in—a kind of “Occupy Education.” The audience she seeks, more than administrators, is her peers. (After all, she says, Obama was once a Columbia student.)
This year, friends of Cinthya published a book memorializing her and Tam and documenting the new generation of undocumented leaders. A book event at Teachers College brought together Cyndi, Mariella, Jong-Min, Professor Morrell, and interested teachers, students, and activists. The panel answered questions on politics, on visibility, on resources—crucial issues facing the undocumented community. Columbia has yet to do the same.
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