‘Defending the AU Dream Initiative’ works toward undocumented student community-building with DACA event

Undocumented students advocate for greater University support

‘Defending the AU Dream Initiative’ works toward undocumented student community-building with DACA event

Editor’s Note: The last name of an undocumented student has been omitted in this article for privacy and protection.

When law student Andrea Rodriguez Burckhardt arrived in D.C. to study at American University’s Washington College of Law, she was surprised by the lack of community with undocumented students on campus.

Burckhardt, a student in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, studied as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. At UT, Burckhardt said she felt community “from day one” as an undocumented student with a strong support system of student-led organizations at the public university.

According to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, less than 20 percent of undocumented and DACA-eligible students attend private institutions as compared to public colleges.

Saba Ahmed, the supervising attorney for WCL’s “Defending the AU Dream Initiative,” is working to change that. Created in 2019, AU Dream operates out of WCL’s Immigration Justice Clinic and provides free legal support for immigrant and undocumented students. Ahmed hosted “DACA & Dinner” on Nov. 4 to allow students to learn about DACA under the Biden administration and undocumented students on AU’s campus.

Rodriguez, Ahmed and undocumented graduate student Ellie spoke at the event about their experiences at AU and encouraged students to sign a petition urging the University to publicly support DACA. The event was hosted by a coalition of student groups including the Asian American Student Union, African Students’ Organization, AU Por Colombia, AU League of United Latin American Citizens, AU Dream and the Center for Community Engagement and Service.

Ahmed’s vision is to expand the current services of AU Dream — asylum issues, humanitarian visas, family petitions, advance parole and more — to become a “hub of support” to holistically address the needs of undocumented and immigrant students. 

“I definitely have put in a lot of effort over the past few months to even have people aware that we exist,” Ahmed said in an interview with The Eagle. She added, “I think it’s hard to feel empowered to speak out if there’s no solidarity, and there’s no support.”

DACA and undocumented students find opportunity in AU Dream

After beginning her degree, Burckhardt anxiously anticipated the chance to study abroad. But as a student with DACA during the Trump administration, she struggled to obtain advance parole travel documents.

In September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced measures to reject any new or pending applications for advance parole.

Burckhardt found opportunity in AU Dream and worked with the organization for months to apply for advance parole to study abroad. But even with legal help from AU Dream, Burckhardt faced something else that is part of many DACA students’ experience — financial barriers.

“The cost of the application, not even to find out if you go or not on advance parole, is [$575],” Burckhardt said. “So I would be spending close to $600 more than any other student by trying to see if I could even get into a study abroad [program].”

Ellie also utilized AU Dream to help ease financial burdens. With the help of Ahmed and AU Dream, Ellie was able to receive tuition aid and internship opportunities. 

“I’m not qualified for DACA and I have to pay out of pocket,” Ellie said. “I’ve been supported by family overseas, but then COVID[-19] hits and everyone is in financial difficulty at this time.”

Though undocumented students are unable to qualify for financial aid, states like California and Texas, where Ellie and Rodriguez studied for undergrad, have opportunities for grants. California and Texas are the two states with the highest number of undocumented immigrants, with about 2.2 million and 1.6 million undocumented immigrants, respectively, according to Pew Research Center estimates.

Ahmed also cited housing and food insecurity as well as mental health concerns, particularly for those who are victims of crime or dealing with significant trauma. 

“Someone’s immigration status in itself can be a barrier to higher education,” Ahmed said. “And the students that we see in colleges and universities have had to work incredibly hard to overcome barriers that citizens students might not have.”

Turning the personal into passion — AU students advocate for undocumented community 

Ellie said she wants to see greater University-wide training for faculty who may encounter an undocumented student who needs assistance. When she first looked into resources on campus, Ellie was regularly referred to international student services, even though she was specifically seeking support for undocumented students.

Burckhardt said she believes the University’s next step could be connecting with affinity groups. 

“Living undocumented is a lot of hiding your status, especially when you’re growing up in small towns, or in more conservative areas, you have to hide your status; it’s a lot of living in the shadows,” Burckhardt said. “And having that support in UT allowed me to just stand forward to be heard and feel like I was a student with needs worth recognizing.”

Burckhardt works for the International Human Rights Law Clinic and is also a student who has benefited from its services. She said her experiences have shaped her passion for immigration law, but learning about immigration law started as a way to educate herself and her family.

When she was young, Burckhardt’s family came to the U.S. from Peru on a tourist visa. When the family learned their supposed sponsor was scamming them, they were left without money and papers. Burckhardt hopes she can change the story for future immigrant families.

“The law is something that I see as something that’s really unreachable for a lot of people, and in having the opportunity to learn it, I want to translate it and give it to a lot of others that don’t get the opportunity to do the same,” Burckhardt, whose family is Colombian, said.

Ahmed, Burckhardt and Ellie stressed supporting undocumented community members through listening to their stories and continuing conversations about undocumented students. 

“I do hope people who are undocumented or DACA [are] able to speak up and voice their opinions and talk to people at their comfortability and tell people that it’s important to let others know about this story; this community here,” Ellie said.

Correction: Burckhardt's work in the International Human Rights Law Clinic was misstated in a previous version of this article. This article has been updated with a more accurate and earlier memorandum from the Trump administration about advance parole.

cmulroy@theeagleonline.com 

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