“Dreamers” — the young and undocumented who are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Obama — have been all over the news lately. And the news has not been good.
Federal agents are allegedly deporting them, which the Department of Homeland Security denies. And the number of ex-Dreamers being deported after losing their protected status has “soared,” according to a recent story by the L.A. Times.
Then there's the Dreamer who's suing the Department of Homeland Security, alleging that the agency deported him even though his DACA status wasn't due to expire until 2018. DHS responded with a statement on April 19 saying that Juan Manuel Montes, the 23-year-old Mexican national and DACA enrollee, was not deported but rather left the United States without having secured the permit mandated under the program.
Legal advocates say the feds appear to be looking for excuses to arrest Dreamers and place them in removal proceedings. But the DACA program for now remains intact; President Trump has pledged to uphold its protections, which cover undocumented people brought to the United States as children.
Armando Vazquez-Ramos refers to the recent headlines about Dreamers as “much ado about nothing” — and he's about to take action to prove it.
Vazquez-Ramos is director of the California-Mexico Studies Center, a nonprofit that grew out of a program he founded at California State University Long Beach, where he's a professor. He estimates the program has taken 120 Dreamers on study-abroad trips to Mexico since 2014.
Despite the uncertainty over DACA's future, Vazquez-Ramos is planning to take a group of 48 Dreamers to Mexico on a study-abroad program this summer. It will be the first such trip he has taken under the Trump administration, and it flies in the face of advice from legal advocates, colleges and universities.
“Studying and traveling abroad despite schools saying we shouldn't go is our way of pushing back against the fear of the new administration.” —Sheila Salinas
Since Inauguration Day, university systems in California have been urging undocumented students covered by DACA to remain in the country. They're making that recommendation even though “Dreamers” are still legally eligible to leave the country and return without negative immigration consequences, under a provision of DACA known as Advance Parole.
Ricardo Vazquez, a spokesman for the University of California system, directed L.A. Weekly to the following travel advice, an FAQ issued by the Undocumented Legal Services Center in January:
Q. I received Advance Parole to be abroad after Jan. 20, 2017 (for example, study abroad). Should I go on my trip?
A. No, you should not leave or be outside of the country now that the new president has been sworn into office. This is because if President Trump repeals DACA while you are abroad, it is very likely that you will not be permitted to re-enter the United States upon return, with or without Advance Parole. If you want to remain in the United States, you should NOT leave the United States if you are undocumented or DACAmented.
California State University chancellor Tim White issued a similar announcement that all students with Advance Parole should return to the country prior to Jan. 20 and discouraged them from leaving after that date.
“Even my own campus is showing signs of weakness,” Vazquez-Ramos says of Cal State Long Beach, where 28 percent of students are Latino. The Dreamers have their own group on campus, and the former president of the student body is undocumented.
“What’s happening is that colleges and universities are totally afraid and cowardly refusing to take the risk,” Vazquez-Ramos says. “In my opinion, they are simply afraid and more concerned about their image and liability than in the potential for these young people to have a chance [to travel] as long as DACA is around.
“We're not going to be standing around until Trump decides to do something with DACA,” he adds. “The reason they haven't acted in three months is because they understand the political consequences.”
Should Trump cancel the DACA program, or the feds begin ignoring it, an estimated 742,000 young people would be affected, a third of whom are in California.
One of them is Sheila Salinas, a recent graduate of Cal State Long Beach and the administrative director of the California-Mexico Studies Center; she's part of the group going to Mexico in August.
Salinas, 26, is handling the travel arrangements and making sure everyone's travel documents are in order to return to the United States. She says the current lack of support from the university is nothing new. Even under President Obama, she says, “We didn't have programs that supported DACA students to study abroad.”
“Most definitely there is a bit of fear,” she says. “I think studying and traveling abroad despite schools saying we shouldn't go is our way of pushing back against the fear of the new administration.”
Salinas was born in Mexico and has been living in the United States for 20 years. She returned to Mexico for the first time in December on a trip with the program. It was the fifth trip the program has made to Mexico, and so far every Dreamer has successfully returned at the end.
“They're telling us don't go, stay in the shadows, don't make a lot of sound, don't bring attention to your issue,” Salinas says. “But we're not doing anything wrong. We're trying to get a better education.”
The unfavorable political conditions have made it more challenging to secure funding and help defray the cost of the trip. The study-abroad program costs $2,500 per student, and the fee to apply for Advance Parole is $575. Vazquez-Ramos says students are finding ways to get churches or university departments to sponsor them.
The 21-day trip gives students a chance to visit their hometowns, tour Mexican landmarks and take a 10-day course on migration studies at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Mexican graduate school in Tijuana. Each student is expected to write a 10-page paper during the trip, which they present at an international research conference.
Salinas says her first trip back to Mexico was a life-changing experience. This time she is traveling with an older sister who has never met her grandparents south of the border.
“We're not going for spring break or to get drunk,” she says. “We're going to reconnect with our roots, to learn to speak Spanish with higher proficiency, taking classes in Spanish, immersing ourselves in the language and grasping something about the culture we won't be able to grasp in the U.S.”
“We're coming back across in a bus with all of them,” Vazquez-Ramos says. “We're confident that there will be no problem coming back in as long as DACA is in existence. If they kill DACA between now and then, we won't go. We won't put these students in jeopardy.”