Amid the national political debates over immigration, university students across the country, and at Illinois State, are feeling in limbo. A new group on campus, the Committee Assisting Undocumented Student Achievement (CAUSA), has been working to provide support for undocumented students and those who live in mixed status families.
Along with talk of the executive order that allows undocumented students to legally work and get driver’s licenses, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), lawmakers are debating a bipartisan bill to protect “Dreamers,” or young people brought into the country by their parents at a young age either without documentation or with documentation (visas) that has expired.
“DACA expanded many opportunities, especially in regards to accessing higher education,” said Assistant Director of Admissions Nancy Vasquez, a member of CAUSA. She pointed out that those affected include not only students who are undocumented and legally attending ISU, but also those who are citizens and have undocumented parents or guardians who face an uncertain future.
A goal for CAUSA is to raise awareness among faculty and staff regarding the unique challenges these Illinois State students face. “These students are vulnerable in ways we have not even begun to comprehend,” said Maura Toro-Morn, the director of Illinois State’s Latino/a Studies rogram and a founder of CAUSA. “We know the vulnerabilities that underrepresented students face, but these students are vulnerable due to a unique social context. As educators, we feel a responsibility to ensure that these students feel supported at ISU, and that they have allies who can advocate for them.”
Last semester, CAUSA organized a workshop with the support of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, the Office of Admissions, and Latino/a Studies to educate faculty, staff, and community members on the issues students face. Organizers worked with Charlotte Alvarez, an attorney from the Immigration Project in Normal, to present to faculty and staff, as well as hear fears from current students.
“If they are undocumented themselves, everything about their lives is a challenge,” said Toro-Morn, who noted research shows that education provides a quasi-citizenship. “They are in school, and learning everything that everyone else is learning, but they cannot undergo all the typical rites of passage, such as getting a driver’s license and working.”
Beth Hatt, another founder of CAUSA, noted many Dreamer students have spent all or most of their lives in the United States. In fact, some do not learn about their status until it is time for them to take a driver’s test, or apply for college. “Sometimes when students learn they are undocumented, they unfortunately feel shame about it,” said Hatt, an associate professor in the College of Education who has family members that have battled the undocumented label. “They are afraid to talk about it for fear of putting their families at risk. You can tell they live in fear.”
In Illinois, undocumented students may be eligible for in-state tuition if they meet certain guidelines but they are not eligible for state or federal financial aid. Students must complete an affidavit and return this to the Office of Admissions for final review. Vasquez is the main contact for undocumented students and can help answer questions regarding how to navigate through the admissions application process.
“I’ve been recruiting for years in Chicago and undocumented student topics are not uncommon,” said Vasquez. “During or after presentations, students have come up to me and asked, ‘How does this work for me?’ because their parents or guardians or they themselves are undocumented.”
Vasquez spearheaded a page on the Admissions website dedicated to undocumented student resources and frequently asked questions/answers. Undocumented students can reach Vasquez via telephone or by e-mail if they need additional support. Vasquez also noted students can contact the Immigration Project for assistance.
The growing needs—and worries—of students whose families deal with the undocumented status means greater support is needed. “The challenge is the limitation with funding and resources, and that many of our colleagues are not aware that there are students here,” said Toro-Morn.
Hatt noted the group would like to do another training, and establish core contacts on campus for students. “We have faculty and staff who are interested in helping, but we could use more allies,” she said. “CAUSA is striving to have a strong infrastructure in place to assist undocumented students. We need to expand resources to combat the greatest challenge—a lack of scholarships for these students.”
Ultimately, Toro-Morn said CAUSA is there to provide support. “We would like ISU to be a place where the fear and anxiety can be assuaged for students of undocumented families,” she said.
Undocumented students with questions are encouraged to contact these designated staff members in the Office of Admissions, Financial Aid Office, and University College (Advising):
Assistant Director, Office of Admissions
Specialist, Financial Aid Office
Academic Advisor, University College