April 26, 2017
WASHINGTON (The Eagle) - When transfer student and School of Public Affairs senior Laura Hoyos first arrived on campus, she couldn’t find a space to discuss the topic of cultural identity and immigration. As an immigrant from Colombia, she had always been forced to confront stereotypes about identity. Under the Trump administration, she felt that need even more strongly.
“When you have an administration that’s so blunt and so open to sharing misinformation about immigration and about undocumented people, what that creates is more confusion,” Hoyos said. “When it comes to immigration and undocumented individuals, what you need the most is proper information.”
On Jan. 25, President Trump took a step towards making good on his campaign promise to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border by issuing an executive order. The order also sought to increase the powers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to find and deport undocumented immigrants.
These policies and the anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding them prompted Hoyos to take a stand against recent immigration uncertainties. She worked with other students and the national media and culture organization Define American to establish a chapter of the group at AU in December 2016.
“Before we even have immigration reform we need to change the way that we look at immigrants,” Hoyos said. “And the way that we do that is through storytelling.”
On March 5, the organization hosted its first event at AU, a screening of MTV’s documentary "White People" followed by a reception. The documentary seeks to explore white privilege in the U.S. and was directed and produced by Define American founder and immigration rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas.
In the days following the screening, the group published a video on its Facebook page compiling interviews from AU community members answering the question, "What does it mean to be an American?" Hoyos said she found the responses encouraging, despite preparing herself to hear unfriendly language. Students mentioned diversity and emphasized the insignificance of race and religion in defining nationality.
“To receive those kind of answers that were pro-immigration, pro-diversity, I was like ‘Wow, this makes me feel comforted,’” she said. “In doing this work I have felt very proud of the community I’m in, in terms of the students.”
Whitney Huang, a sophomore in CAS, moved to D.C. from Ecuador nearly two years ago to attend AU. Her legal status is “complicated” -- she has family in both countries and is a U.S. citizen through her father, who lived here with a visa but has now returned to his home country.
"We want students [who are immigrants] to know that they’re not alone, that they’re not the only ones going through those feelings of fear and anger,” she said.
Life as an immigrant
While Define American seeks to advocate for all immigrants, part of its focus is on raising awareness about and for undocumented Americans. Julián Gómez, a 2015 AU alum and the campus engagement manager for Define American, is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in the U.S. since he was 2 years old. When applying to colleges, he called their admissions offices to inform them of his legal status.
Gómez said the process was so difficult for some schools, such as Syracuse University, that he was unable to submit an application.
“It’s a pain, having to call schools,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t that difficult, but for other students, especially if they’re not publically ‘out’ yet as undocumented, that’s hard.”
Students are required to enter their citizenship status on the Common Application and the Coalition for Access, Success, and Affordability, the two application platforms used by AU, Associate Director of Admissions Jeremy Lowe said. However, he said in an email, there is no citizenship requirement for admission to AU.
Gómez said that upon his arrival at AU, the main obstacle he faced was financial aid.
“Unfortunately, undocumented students do not have access to most financial aid (at most colleges), because right off the bat, they can’t get any federal aid since they can’t file a FAFSA,” he said. “Most private scholarships still require FAFSA, and so that means that a bunch of other scholarships are off limits as well.”
Gómez graduated from AU in May 2015 with $90,000 of debt at high interest. As a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he was able to work while he was at school but said he had a hard time finding a job on campus because so many were federal work study positions.
“Many students can’t afford to travel off campus regularly [for work],” he said. “And that’s another obstacle.”
Even as a legal resident, Hoyos said she has faced her own set of challenges. She immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at the age of 8, and while she was able to travel here legally, her parents were not.
“I didn’t feel the privilege of being documented because at any point my parents could be deported,” Hoyos said. “That fear was something I lived with up until five years ago.”
As a first generation college student, navigating the college experience was lonely at times, Hoyos said.
“You have responsibilities and family challenges that people your age don’t deal with,” she said. “I’m the only person that speaks English in my house, so that means when my mom needs to make a doctor’s appointment that I need to make it for her, that means if my younger brother -- who does speak English -- gets in trouble in school, I’m the one who’s speaking to his principal.”
Hoyos said such challenges, in addition to the typical stressors experienced by college students, required a level of attention and care that she found lacking at AU. She felt isolated when she first arrived at AU as a junior and was disappointed that the University didn’t make more of an attempt to reach out to her.
“When I first came to this university I felt very alone and very lost, and I think what happens when you feel that way is that instead of being proactive and saying, ‘I’m going to ask for help,’ you retreat inside yourself because you’re feeling angry and lonely and confused,” she said.
Sanctuary: what’s in a word?
In a memo written by President Neil Kerwin and published on Feb. 10, he said AU will not label itself a sanctuary campus, but will actively oppose President Trump's immigration ban.
In the same memo, Kerwin said in the event that the DACA program is suspended or ended and authorization to work is rescinded, the University will assist currently registered DACA students to find replacement resources.
The memo also assured students that AU will not disclose private information about “students, faculty or staff to law enforcement officers unless presented with a warrant, subpoena, court order or other legal requirement.”
Lowe said the Office of Admissions has never been asked to release information regarding the legal status of applicants and admitted students. In the event that the University is legally compelled to release such information, its policy is guided by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), said Vice President of Communications Terry Flannery.
“We would make every effort to notify a student before releasing educational records, while complying with a legal order,” Flannery said in an email.
Despite this promise, however, Hoyos remains concerned.
“AU constantly wants to pride itself on being a very diverse campus, and diversity is not only about where you come from, it’s about whether you’re documented or not, what religion that you’re practicing, your sexual orientation -- diversity entails a lot of different things,” Hoyos said. “If you want to pride yourself [on diversity], then you need to create a safe space and protect all these identities.”
Huang added that the University could be more understanding of the difficult circumstances facing students.
"I feel like in a way they might not be comfortable getting in between what students are feeling or what they’re doing,” she said. “But, the fact that we are part of the university and the campus, that automatically makes it their responsibility.”
During the election, Huang struggled to focus on school, feeling overwhelmed by the political atmosphere.
“During the election, especially regarding immigrants, it was a very hard time for people, especially Hispanics,” she said. “That was a very harsh thing to go through.”
Help at AU
Kerwin’s memo directed students to AU’s existing resources for students concerned about their immigration or legal status including:
- The Office of International Student and Scholar Services
- The Washington College of Law’s Clinical program
- The Counseling Center
- Faculty Staff Assistance Program
- Center for Diversity and Inclusion
- Kay Spiritual Life Center
The Washington College of Law and the American University Office of International Student and Scholar Services offer support, referrals for legal assistance and other immigration resources for students.
The Immigration Clinic program at WCL is run by students serving as lawyers under the supervision of a practicing attorney. The clinic provides legal counseling and recommendations for members in the community seeking advice or help on immigration questions, said Amanda Frost, a law professor and Director of WCL’s Doctor of Juridical Science program.
“Our policy as a clinic is if people in the community want counseling, we are able to do that,” Frost said. “It doesn’t mean we are able to take a case and handle them as a client, but we are able to take stats and details and provide some advice.”
Though the immigration clinic primarily serves low-income immigrant residents in the DMV area, it is available to provide referrals and legal advice for students or AU community members seeking help with immigration concerns.
The clinic also organizes public “Know Your Rights” meetings which provide information about what an individual's rights are if they are stopped by immigration authorities and how to respond as well as safety plans for family members in case of detainment. In March, the clinic led a teach-in with two student attorneys and an AU law professor to discuss the rights and possible legal options for noncitizens living in the U.S.
As the Define American chapter grows, Hoyos said she hopes the club will provide a lasting space for people to learn about the immigrant experience.
“I want people to be able to come to us, come to our meetings and ask uncomfortable questions,” she said. “That’s the only way things are going to change.”
Katherine Saltzman contributed to this story.