Over one hundred Utah State University students, faculty and community members flooded The Quad Thursday in defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), a national immigration executive order made newly vulnerable under the Trump administration.
“It’s a program brought into existence in 2012 by the Obama administration, which basically gives two-year exemptions at a time to undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children,” said Samuel Jackson, president of the USU College Democrats and organizer of the Defend DACA rally.
DACA is a program under Homeland Security that allows children who are undocumented, in or graduated from high school and criminal-record-free to apply to for temporary deferment of deportation from the United States. DACA participants are given an employment card, allowing them to apply to colleges and work legally. The program benefits approximately 800,000 participants — called DREAMers after the bipartisan Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This was a bill introduced several times which had bipartisan support from legislators including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT.
“DACA provides people who grew up in America a chance to stay in America,” Jackson said.
The issue of illegal immigration was brought to the forefront of American politics in the 2016 presidential campaign, and in some cases transcends partisan lines. Senators like Marco Rubio, R-FL, favor immigration amnesty, an idea that contradicts the Republican establishment platform.
“[This rally] is bringing awareness to an issue a lot of people aren’t aware of in Utah, but is a big issue. We have DREAMers on this campus. There are 10,000 DACA recipients in the state of Utah,” Jackson said.
One such USU DREAMer, Sofia Rodriguez-Walter, is hoping to see DACA protected.
“Being undocumented is a very scary feeling. It feels like the entire country is against me,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
Born in Cordoba, Argentina, Rodriguez-Walter and her family immigrated to Utah in 2003.
“I went to elementary, middle and high school in Provo. It wasn’t until middle school that I found out that I was undocumented,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
Rodriguez-Walter said she grew up believing her family was safe and protected from deportation.
“At first it was like an identity crisis, because now I felt the need to prove to people — even if they didn’t know what my status was — that I was American,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
Despite knowing she was undocumented, Rodriguez-Walter felt said she always felt American, and sought to make something of herself.
“Growing up it was isolating. It was difficult when I would share that with people and they would say, ‘I hate to break it to you but you really aren’t an American,’” she said. “I understand I was born in a different country but that doesn’t mean you can take that away from me.”
Rodriguez-Walter has lived in America most of her life and can’t even remember what life in Argentina was like, she said.
“When I graduated high school, I decided I wanted to pursue a higher education and ended up coming to Utah State. I think it was that first year as a freshman that definitely shook me,” Rodriguez-Walter said. “It was always in the back of my mind, like, ‘I can’t do this or this because I’m undocumented.’”
Living alone for the first time, Rodriguez-Walter said she began to realize the limitations of her opportunities.
“It was a really scary thing and I realized I needed to find someone or something that would be a support to me,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
She began reaching out to professors and programs, and ended up establishing the student advocacy group Aggie Dreamers United.
“I was able to get a few people who said they were in the same situation and felt just as lost and alone,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
“One of the goals [of Aggie Dreamers United] is to share our stories,” Rodriguez- Walter said.
“Another goal is to make it easier to help undocumented students get the help they need, whether that is healthcare, financial aid or finding people who have gone through similar experiences.”
Rodriguez-Walter said she feels that all too often, undocumented students are seen in a different light than what they really are.
“The media only has one portrayal of what an illegal alien or an undocumented student looks like. The truth is we are all very different and come from completely different backgrounds — each one of us is completely different,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
Despite negative press, attacks from the executive branch and threats of deportation, Rodriguez-Walter said she is optimistic that she and other DREAMers will be able to make it in America, just as the inscription on the Statue of Liberty promises.
“It is overwhelming and emotional to see rallies and protests in support. Often we feel that we are alone or that we are in the minority. Seeing all the people out here really makes me feel good. It makes me feel like there is hope,” Rodriguez-Walter said.
Sam Jackson said he also believes events like the Defend DACA rally are an effective way to increase inclusivity on campus and to show DREAMers, as well as allies, that they are not alone.
“We hear a lot about free speech, and having rallies like this is not only important for the issue of DACA but also for people on the USU campus who feel marginalized,” Jackson said.
Rodriguez-Walter, though still undocumented, said she sees a light at the end of her tunnel.
“I do have DACA currently and since I recently married an American Citizen I now have the possibility to apply for permanent residency,” she said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced DACA would officially be rescinded on Sep. 5. However, President Donald Trump announced a deal with Democrats Thursday that seeks to keep DACA in place of more border security spending.
“I think the biggest thing [for apprehensive undocumented students] is to stay hopeful and talk to a lot of people to let them know what the situation is. If other people aren’t aware and can’t attach these issues to a face it’s really easy to not understand and say, ‘Well why are they here?’” Rodriguez-Walter said.
While the dreams of some USU students hang in the balance of political gain, they can be assured there are plenty willing to risk it all in order to protect their livelihood, Jackson said.
“I would stand in the way of them for you,” Jackson said to DREAMers at the rally. “If they try to take you, they are going to have to take me, too.”
This story was updated on Sep. 19 to better represent Ms. Rodriguez-Walter’s story in relation to the DACA program.