Individuals who were previously protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, an executive order penned by President Barack Obama in 2012, may be in danger of deportation. Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered President Trump's decision to rescind the action after a six-month delay, ostensibly to offer Congress an opportunity to proffer a legislative solution.
The turn of events has educators across the spectrum wondering how the decision could affect students and the role of leaders in serving them.
Leaders taking steps to ensure these students know they are valued
In interviews with several college presidents and system leaders, the importance of ensuring DACA students had immediate and affordable access to legal advice about what their rights were. For instance, Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, said the the institution looked toward a local law firm to offer pro bono legal assistance, with the college paying for legal advice that couldn’t be offered for free. After Tuesday’s announcement, Rosenberg said, “the nature of the advice will change, and the importance of legal advice gets even greater.”
According to a USA Today analysis from earlier this year, approximately 10,000 “Dreamers” graduate from college each year, and 65,000 graduating from high school. About 2.1 million individuals could be affected by the action, and even students with green cards or who are citizens may have family or friends who could be affected — meaning this is not just an issue around protecting or graduating current students; it yields a pipeline issue for higher ed leaders to address. But for most leaders, it is the students who are already on campus whom they're focusing on most immediately.
Williams College President Adam Falk said it was all the more vital for students and faculty to understand the services and policies already in place on campus. Like other institutions, Williams will not provide any personal information to any agency without a court order— a policy Falk said extended beyond just cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He also pointed out there are counseling services available for students. He wants to make sure the school is comforting students by affirming their value and sense of belonging, while also stressing the college can't speak to concerns about the policy's future.
“One thing that’s very important is there may be uncertainty about what’s going to happen with the law, but we can reduce other types of uncertainty, to let them know what we can do and cannot do. It’s important to make that space where people can continue to get their education even in an environment with this kind of terrible stress,” he said.
“I don’t want to create a situation where we feel even more that we’re in a crisis. We’re in a serious situation, and we are doing this in an existing context.”
Certain states have a large contingent of DACA beneficiaries, including California, with many enrolled in the state’s community college system, which has approximately 2.1 million students in total. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the system’s chancellor, called the decision by President Trump “senseless and heartless” in a statement and expanded on how the state’s community colleges would respond in a subsequent interview.
Like Falk, he expressed the importance of offering counseling services for affected students, saying the “fear and uncertainty” the period evoked in students has been the chief challenge facing community colleges in the system.
“I have spoken to several statewide organizational leaders in our system who have given me reports of thousands of students coming to seek services in our counseling offices. They’re expressing concern and fear and they’re looking for answers,” he said.
“We have been sending out specific materials to colleges to help them with some of the specifics and provide those specifics to faculty and staff, and have told our colleges how they can access dollars in their budget to provide counseling services, and we have asked our colleges to provide direct support and training for faculty so they can have the most accurate information they can share with our students.”
Supporting other legal ways of protecting, financing these students
The community college system also could continue to offer financial support to students through the California DREAM Act — the federal equivalent of the law was killed in Congress in 2010, which President Obama said led to his decision to take executive action on the issue.
Ortiz said it's essential to make sure students understand DACA currently remains in place and they can continue to attend school without fear of deportation. Ortiz said the system was also inquiring about ways in which the state could continue financial support for students even if DACA ends; he cited DACA beneficiaries employed as student workers, who might lose their ability to receive federal work study. He's hopeful the state might fill the void, if necessary.
“Our initial challenge is reassuring students that our doors remain open to them, and we continue to provide them support services,” he said. “They continue to qualify for state aid as well as in-state tuition, and we are going to do everything possible to advocate in Congress for their permanent status.”
Rosenberg concurred with the need to lobby Congress, saying even college presidents in areas with legislators who are supportive of retaining DACA could join with other college presidents and leaders to try and convince members of Congress. The concerns of college leaders have not worked on Trump, he admitted, but he believes such lobbying could be more successful when dealing with representatives in the House, rather than with senators or the president himself.
“It’s clear now that if this is going to be addressed, it’s only through a congressional solution. As dysfunctional as Congress has been and can be, at this point it’s our only hope,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of lobbying on Congress to make this right.”
He also said legal counsel had been advising students and faculty on the practical things students could do to remain safe. For example, legal counsel had advised students it might not be a good idea to drive cross-country; if a DACA student is discovered for a simple violation, there is no certainty about what could happen.
“I don’t think the advice would be fundamentally different,” he said when asked whether his counsel to affected students had changed due to the announcement. “But it would be more emphatic.”