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Know the West

Why the University of California is fighting for DACA

From a campus legal clinic all the way to the Supreme Court, UC stands up for Dreamers.

For most of her life, Stephanie Medina felt adrift. When her classmates in San Bernardino, California, were dreaming of college and careers, Medina hesitated to think about her future. Because she was undocumented, it was easier to forgo her dreams and ambitions, accepting her life as it was without the hope that anything would change.

But things did change. In 2012, when Medina was 12, President Barack Obama announced the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, or DACA, which provided temporary deportation relief and work authorization to undocumented young people who had come to the U.S. as children. To qualify, young immigrants had to meet certain requirements, including not having a serious criminal record and having earned (or be in the process of earning) an American high school diploma.



Medina begged her mother to let her apply, so she could work legally and make more money. Her mom, who was also undocumented, did not trust the program, but eventually relented and in 2016, Medina received DACA. For the first time in her life, Medina felt like she had options. She started thinking about college and chose UC Santa Cruz, in part because its leafy campus near the sea felt like a fresh start, far away from her life in the Mojave Desert.

A year after Medina got DACA, in September 2017, Jeff Sessions, who was then President Donald Trump’s attorney general, announced the end of the program, claiming that Obama had acted unlawfully and circumvented the country’s immigration laws by creating the program via executive order.

“The compassionate thing to do is end the lawlessness, enforce our laws,” said Sessions, defending the decision.

Stephanie Medina sits in the living room at her mother’s home in San Bernadino. Throughout school, Medina didn’t consider college an option until DACA was announced when she was 12.

AS A UC STUDENT, Medina had access to an indispensable resource: the University of California’s Immigrant Legal Services Center. Headquartered at the UC Davis Law School, it was launched in 2015 by UC President Janet Napolitano to offer free immigration legal help for the estimated 3,700 undocumented students enrolled at UC campuses. As the Trump administration escalates its crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration, the center has become a lifeline for students trying to navigate the increasingly bewildering U.S. immigration system. A little over two years ago, when the Trump administration ended DACA, the University of California stepped up its efforts, not only supporting its undocumented students, but actively fighting the government on their behalf.

That fight has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court, with a lawsuit the university filed in 2017 challenging the government’s decision to end DACA — the first legal effort by a university to preserve the program that has helped tens of thousands of undocumented students access higher education. With a decision expected sometime in 2020, attorneys at the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center are doing what they can to keep the door open for undocumented students. Without DACA and the work authorization it provides, María Blanco, the center’s executive director, fears that undocumented students will struggle to pay for college or even see any point in finishing. “I’m really worried that we’ll lose students from this population,” she said.

ONE MORNING IN NOVEMBER, I met Blanco in her office at the UC Davis Law School. She had just finished interviewing a candidate for the staff attorney position and emerged wearing a navy blazer, earrings, and a whiff of perfume. In conversation, Blanco has a deep laugh that comes out often, despite the nature of her work. She had recently returned from Mexico City, where she met with deported families and discussed their legal options for returning to the U.S. “It was pretty heavy,” she admitted. “One of the things that was really disturbing is a lot of the kids haven’t been able to go to school because they don’t have a Mexican ID.”

For Blanco, who was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. with her family as a toddler, it was a reminder of what is at stake with her work at the Legal Services Center — and why it matters that the UC has taken such an aggressive role in the fight to preserve DACA.

During college, Blanco was involved in Chicano rights activism before attending law school at UC Berkeley. After graduating in 1984, she went to work as a civil rights lawyer defending low-income immigrant women, many of  them undocumented. As she learned the particulars of the women’s situations, she realized how much their immigration status compounded their vulnerability to discrimination.

In 2001, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois authored the first DREAM Act, which would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship for many undocumented young people or “Dreamers.” But it died in Congress, as has every new version introduced since then.

For nearly 20 years, congressional efforts to reform America’s immigration laws have gone nowhere. But Blanco has continued to fight for immigrant rights in other ways. At the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Blanco convinced California legislators to pass AB 540, a 2001 state law that allowed undocumented students who are California residents to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.

Despite the success of AB 540, many undocumented students still struggled to afford college. Without work authorization, they could not get jobs on campus, and many had to drop out of school when they ran out of money. When Obama created DACA, not only did the number of undocumented students enrolled in the UC system jump; the number who graduated rose as well.

When DACA was ended, Medina applied for a green card to stay in the country and continue her degree program at UC Santa Cruz. After completing extensive paperwork, she had to appear in Mexico for an interview with the consulate.

FOR MEDINA, THE END OF DACA meant a return to the vulnerability that had defined her life without a legal status — and marked the beginning of another ordeal. Her mother had recently married a U.S. citizen, making her daughter eligible to apply for a green card. Last summer, after all Medina’s paperwork had been approved,  she went to Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, for the final step in the green card process: an interview at a U.S. consulate in Mexico.

That part — leaving the country — had always terrified Medina. At home in Santa Cruz, she had a new job at a law firm and had recently been offered a competitive research position with the university’s Human Rights Investigations Lab. She was earning money and felt like she was succeeding. But what if something went wrong in the green card process and she wasn’t allowed back into the U.S.? “Don’t be stupid,” her mother told her. “You’re going to go to Mexico to do the interview.”

She was earning money and felt like she was succeeding. But what if something went wrong in the green card process and she wasn’t allowed back into the U.S.?

Last July, Medina faced the U.S. consul, who sat behind a glass window inside an office building in Ciudad Juárez. The consul asked about her sponsor. In order to petition for a family member’s green card, a sponsor must prove that he or she can financially support the immigrant and his or her own household members. Medina’s stepfather’s epilepsy prevents him from working, though, and her mother’s $20,000-a-year factory job did not meet the financial requirements. A family friend had offered to become Medina’s “joint financial sponsor,” but the consul told her that his income was also not high enough. Even though Medina was working three jobs and an internship and paying her way through college, the consul denied her green card.

When Medina told her mother the news, she started weeping. “What are we going to do?” she asked. It had taken a lot of effort to find a family friend to act as Medina’s financial sponsor. Who else would be willing to accept that kind of responsibility?

Medina, still in shock, tried to think of people who might be able to help. She called her mentor from her campus internship and the provost of her college at UC Santa Cruz. Both agreed to sponsor her and put her in touch with the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center.

The next day, Medina’s mother had to return to California for work, leaving her 19-year-old daughter alone in Ciudad Juárez. For the next two months, Medina was stuck in Mexico, staying with relatives in Mexico City and Oaxaca while she waited for Anna Manuel, an attorney at the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center, to help sort out the new sponsorship paperwork. Medina tried not to think about the worst-case scenario: that she would be stuck in Mexico for years, unable to finish college and pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.

Stephanie Medina with her mother outside their San Bernardino, California, home.

SITUATIONS LIKE THE ONE Medina found herself in last summer are why the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center exists — and why the future of DACA matters to the president of the University of California: Janet Napolitano. Years ago, under Obama, Napolitano served as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) where she authored the memo that created DACA. But UC students remembered her for another reason: She also oversaw a record number of deportations during her tenure as DHS secretary. When Napolitano became UC’s president in 2013, student protests erupted over her immigration record.

Partly in response, she set up a committee to advise her on how to better serve the needs of undocumented students, who, among other things, suffer disproportionately from clinical level stress — 30% compared to just 5% among the regular college population. Kevin Johnson, the dean of the UC Davis Law School and a prominent immigration scholar, suggested that she set up a free legal services center to serve both students and their families, since the students’ stress is also caused by their relatives’ risk of deportation. In January 2015, the center opened with a staff of three and Blanco as the executive director.

The first two years were optimistic times. Blanco liked to say, “We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.” Many of their cases involved helping undocumented students apply for DACA, which had a provision that allowed undocumented students to travel abroad.

“It was such a big deal for them,” Blanco said. “If they were French majors, they could go to France. They could leave the U.S. for the first time in their lives to visit ailing grandparents.”

Blanco was learning things, too. The majority of the students and families that come to the center are originally from Mexico, but the second-largest number are from South Korea. Many of them, as Blanco learned, don’t think of themselves as undocumented, because their parents came to the U.S. legally on a visa and then overstayed. She recalled meeting an undocumented Korean student during the early years. “Can I get DACA?” he inquired, adding, “I’m not undocumented.”

“It was such a big deal for them. If they were French majors, they could go to France. They could leave the U.S. for the first time in their lives to visit ailing grandparents.”

Then came the 2016 election. For Napolitano, the new administration’s decision to rescind DACA felt like a personal attack. She was the one who had made the program possible, after all, said Blanco, who meets regularly with the college president. “She knew that there would be a lot of lawsuits, but she wanted hers to be first.” 

On Sept. 8, 2017, just three days after Sessions announced the end of DACA, the University of California’s lawyers filed their lawsuit. “Neither I, nor the University of California, take the step of suing the federal government lightly, especially not the very agency that I led,” Napolitano said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. But “to arbitrarily and capriciously end the DACA program, which benefits our country as a whole, is not only unlawful, it is contrary to our national values and bad policy.”

JUST AFTER NOON on the afternoon of my visit, Blanco walked to lunch at a cafeteria across campus with attorney Anna Manuel, discussing the two DACA renewal appointments scheduled for that afternoon. In 2018, a San Francisco judge granted a request by California and other states to stop the administration from ending DACA, at least until lawsuits can play out in court, allowing existing DACA recipients to renew their DACA status until the Supreme Court decides on the case.

In 2018, the center processed 500 DACA renewals. This year, it was 960, out of a total 1,495 cases. The jump in renewals encouraged Blanco and Manuel, but they were anxious about what will happen to these students if the Supreme Court sides with the government and allows DACA to fully expire. “I hear a lot of ‘Why should I bother continuing in school if I can’t get a job?’ ” Manuel said.   

The two women entered a cafeteria buzzing with students carrying backpacks and trays. “This is where I really feel old,” Blanco joked, getting a bowl of hot noodle soup and making her way towards one of the few empty tables.

The previous week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the university’s lawsuit, which has been combined with several other lawsuits arguing that the President ended DACA without thoroughly considering the impact the decision would have on its 700,000 recipients and their families—more than a million people in total. Their argument rests on a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires government agencies to base policy changes on sound reasoning that is explained to the public. Instead, the lawsuit argues, the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA was “arbitrary and capricious,” violating the law.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case with so many people at risk.”

Given the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, Blanco is nervous. She had recently conducted a webinar on the possible outcomes for TheDream.US, a nonprofit that helps make college affordable for undocumented students. After the presentation, questions flooded the chat box.  The first one read: “Are they going to round us up if they strike down DACA?”

“My heart sank,” she said. The question made her realize the fear people were holding. Immigration enforcement officials have already targeted DACA recipients who have spoken out against U.S. immigration policies, so it hurt to know that she could not truthfully say that their fear was unwarranted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case with so many people at risk,” she said.

Still, Blanco is grateful for the UC lawsuit, which has energized both the center’s attorneys and the undocumented students they support. “I know I always get a little excited when I see the name of the case and it’s University of California vs. U.S. Government.” Blanco laughed and turned to Manuel: “Don’t you get that feeling?” she asked.

“Totally!” said Manuel.

The lawsuit garnered 36 different letters of support, or amicus briefs, from a wide swath of U.S. civil society, ranging from the normally conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The lawsuit has boosted the center’s work in other ways, too. When it opened five years ago, many undocumented students didn’t trust the initiative, believing it was just Napolitano’s attempt to make amends for her immigration record under Obama. But after the lawsuit was filed, Blanco sensed a change in those students. “It made them feel like somebody has their back,” she said.

Medina had mixed emotions when she received her green card. She was no longer afraid of getting deported, but the experience had left her uneasy. “I still have these doubts about whether I belong in this country,” she said. Private information has been concealed.

WHEN MEDINA WAS IN MEXICO, waiting anxiously for her second interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, she took comfort in knowing that so many people were doing what they could to help her. After years of feeling invisible, it was reassuring to know that her education and her life in America mattered to them.

Manuel hastened to get Medina’s new sponsorship paperwork ready. She was worried about the student’s mental health. “She went through this range of trauma, where she just kept imagining everything she was going to lose,” Manuel said.

Nearly two months after the ordeal began, Medina submitted her new sponsorship paperwork to the U.S. Consulate. A few days later, she picked up her new passport.

Medina had finally received her green card, yet she found herself feeling strangely ambivalent: She was no longer afraid of getting deported, but she didn’t feel any more welcome in the U.S.


“I still have these doubts about whether I belong in this country,” she said, as we walked back from the restaurant where we met to her dorm, through the sun-dappled redwood forest that envelops UC Santa Cruz.

At college, though, she felt at home.  A gifted student, she threw herself into her politics and legal studies classes and the other opportunities available for students. “I apply for everything,” she admitted, smiling sheepishly. Though she had always tried not to get too attached to anything — possessions or people — her education had always felt different. No matter what happened, it was the one thing that nobody could ever take away.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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