Last Monday evening, Nov. 7 — on the eve of the most anticipated presidential election in recent history — Eduardo Muñoz and three students who are undocumented immigrants filed into the Lowry lobby to claim their reserved table and prepared to distribute 50 t-shirts and 2,500 stickers. Each bore the same simple wordmark: “No human being is illegal. #undocumented.”
It was a surprise when a line of what they estimated to be over 100 people had amassed in anticipation of the t-shirt distribution. They distributed all 50 shirts in a matter of minutes, with plenty of demand left over, and they made a dent in their pile of 2,500 stickers.
The highly coveted shirts and stickers were the result of a meeting in which Muñoz and his three undocumented classmates — attending the College under President Obama’s executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — met with President Sarah Bolton to present an agenda for fighting the social stigma and obstacles faced by undocumented students.
For them, the smash hit shirt distribution was hardly a result to celebrate, but rather the promising launch of an ambitious campaign to spread awareness and understanding of the experiences of undocumented students, cultivating a campus community that supports and celebrates undocumented and DACA students.
For many DACA students, pursuing postsecondary education is a challenge. Because undocumented students are not eligible for federal student aid through FAFSA, few are able to pay for a four-year college degree.
In fact, Daniela — an undocumented student involved in the campaign, referred to here by a pseudonym due to the legal and social dangers of broadcasting her family’s immigration status — recalled that, when she disclosed to her high school counselor that she was undocumented, the counselor’s reaction was something to the effect of “‘You better start looking into community colleges,’” as those would be the only remotely affordable options.
With her eyes set on higher academic standards, Daniela, along with two other undocumented students here in her class, ultimately became recipients of the Pritzker Access Scholarship, sponsored by the Noble Network of Charter Schools. The College is one of 18 partner schools in the scholarship program, whereby the Noble Network pays $12,000 a year for a student’s tuition provided that the partner schools pay the remaining tuition as financial aid.
Upon enrolling in the College and arriving on campus, Daniela and her undocumented peers, the first cohort of openly undocumented students to attend Wooster, had an acute sense of being guinea pigs. Daniela said that her enrollment and orientation into the College was riddled with paperwork and processes that were not designed to accommodate undocumented students.
One example occurred during orientation when she and her peers were initially given the itinerary for international students, which included programs geared toward orienting international students to American academic and social culture. Attending such programs seemed silly to Daniela and her undocumented classmates, who had grown up immersed in American culture as any citizen and had been educated in American schools.
“We’re not international, but we’re also not citizens,” Daniela said. “It was very complicated to determine ‘where do we fit?’”
Further still, Daniela and her peers face the ongoing struggle of navigating social lives as undocumented immigrants amid a culture wherein that label bears strong political implications and xenophobic stigma. Daniela describes having to be careful to disclose her undocumented status only to those of her peers who will be accepting of her nonetheless.
Friendship and other purely social interactions take on a political aspect, as Daniela must constantly evaluate who is open-minded enough to accept her undocumented status and who is racist enough to reject and ridicule her for it.
Even when she does tell people whom she trusts and who are accepting of her undocumented status, they rarely understand the complicated experiences of being undocumented enough to be able to offer her meaningful support. ”At the end of the day, they still don’t understand, they’re not in your position,” Daniela said, “So they’re just like, ‘Oh, but- ya know, you’ll be fine.’”
It is this imbalance of acceptance of undocumented students versus intimate understanding of their experiences that both Muñoz and Daniela see as the most tangible target of their advocacy. While there are certainly people who actively reject undocumented immigrants, Muñoz reports that students are willing to build a community that supports undocumented students. Indeed, he has seen such an enthusiasm demonstrated at every level of the community, from his fellow students to President Sarah Bolton and Chairman Bill Longbrake.
It was Bolton who readily agreed to meet with the students and provide the funding that launched the campaign. Furthermore, Daniela said that, following the election of Donald Trump last week, whose campaign promises imperil the future of undocumented people in the U.S., Bolton sent her and her undocumented peers a letter reaffirming the College’s support of them, even suggesting that the College may be able to involve immigration lawyers in any fight for their continued residence and education in the United States.
Muñoz says that Chairman Longbrake has shown similar enthuasiasm. Following a conversation about undocumented students with the trustees in October, Longbrake gave Muñoz his email. To continue the conversation they began, Muñoz said that Longbrake has sent him links to relevant articles and met with Muñoz and an undocumented student for coffee when he was on campus recently.
Muñoz said the primary aim of their advocacy campaign is not as much to fight for acceptance of undocumented students as it is to share their experiences with the community at large. Among the next steps for the campaign is to hold a panel discussion for undocumented students and people with intimate understandings of their experiences to educate the community on the many social, institutional and legal challenges that they face.
Another focus of the campaign will be to launch high school outreach initiatives to encourage undocumented students to pursue DACA-protected status and four-year college degrees. They plan to create a pamphlet to send to high schools, entitled “Educación para Todos” (Education for All), with information on colleges that support undocumented students and how to apply and find financial aid as an undocumented student.
The extreme topical relevance of their campaign in this historical moment is not lost on Muñoz and his partners. “Right now is a prime time to be bringing this advocacy campaign on campus,” Muñoz said, alluding to the looming concern about what anti-immigrant measure president-elect Trump may institute.
“Next semester, the seats in the classrooms may be physically vacant,” Muñoz said, “but they will be filled with the ambitions, endeavors, and dreams that [undocumented students] could have accomplished.” To Muñoz and his partners on the campaign, galvanizing support for undocumented students, and immigrants in general, is a now-or-never issue, and they are determined not to see undocumented students’ seats emptied by Trump-induced xenophobia or a failure to fight it as aggressively as possible.