UW's Ability To Protect DACA Students May Be Limited

Sep 15, 2017

A photo of the mural by Ruby Chacón in the basement of the UW Union, titled “Trabajo y sueños en todas las generaciones de mestizaje en Wyoming."
Credit Maggie Mullen

Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA would be phased out, colleges and universities are trying to reassure impacted students, including those in Wyoming. But there are a few complications. For one, it’s unknown how many students are protected under the program. And it’s unclear how much power higher ed institutions actually have to shield students against federal agencies. 


Jose Rivas grew up in Gillette, and like a lot of his peers, he played sports. He remembers when he first joined the swim team. 


“Eight or nine of us Mexican boys from the junior high showed up to the swimming pool one day, and of course, we saw the flyer for swimming and we showed up in jean shorts and no goggles. Coach Miller took us in, went back into the locker room, came back, gave us the proper swimming attire and providing us with goggles,” said Rivas. “That’s one of the first times I really felt included here in the state.”


Rivas wasn’t born in Wyoming, but when he was six years old, his family left Mexico without documentation for California. 

“And then in the late 90s, family gets word  that there’s a need for manual labor in Gillette, Wyoming, the energy capital of the nation,” said Rivas. 


So his family made the move and has been here ever since. Rivas, now 27 years old, is a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. One day he’d like to work as a school counselor. It’s been a long journey to get where he is now. 


After graduating high school, Rivas attended college, but it took him eight years to complete a Bachelor’s degree. He said that’s because he was always having to take time off to work in the oilfields and save up for tuition. Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal financial aid.  


One of those years I got hurt real bad. I was bedridden,” said Rivas. “And that same summer, President Obama announced DACA, that was a big blessing. That was my ticket back to doing originally what I wanted to do.” 


DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was essentially a promise from the federal government to those that arrived as children to the U.S. unlawfully--they would not actively be deported while they had the DACA status. That gave Rivas a lot more options when it came to his education.


After the Trump administration’s decision to phase out DACA, congress now has 6 months to replace it. Whether or not they will end up back in gridlock is unknown. In the meantime, that uncertainty is scary for the many DACA recipients on Wyoming’s college campuses. 


UW Vice President of Student Affairs Sean Blackburn said there was a lot of concern from DACA-protected students after the announcement. 


“Most of what I heard from students was confusion--what does this mean? What will happen to them? What are their options? And where will they go for support?” Blackburn said.


The day after the announcement University President Laurie Nichols sent a message to the UW community. 


In it, she said the university’s policies for disclosing student records would stay the same under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA. That guarantees student information is kept private, unless there is written consent by the individual student, or a lawfully issued subpoena, warrant or judicial order. 


Some are concerned federal agencies could override FERPA regulations and force universities to provide student records. But Sean Blackburn said he is skeptical it would come to that. 


“So for DACA students, the Department of Homeland Security already has an amazing amount of information on these individuals, it’s part of the registration process,” said Blackburn. “I really don’t see a scenario where we would have to deal with that.”  


Another concern for DREAMers--that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, will conduct raids on college campuses. UW’s Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Emily Monago says she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.


“Campuses are considered a sensitive location and it would be very unlikely that ICE would come to campus,” said Monago. 


ICE has a standing policy that its agents should avoid these so-called “sensitive locations,” like schools, churches, and hospitals. However, if this standing policy is violated, ICE faces little to no consequences, and recently there have been a handful of detentions in these sensitive locations.


Last April, the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming passed a resolution to make UW a sanctuary campus. The resolution was a symbolic gesture, but would prevent the university from discriminating based on immigration status.


ASUW has been criticized for not pushing harder to get the resolution turned into university policy. But ASUW Director of Diversity Hunter McFarland said she doesn’t think the Board of Trustees would approve it, “because they are really concerned with federal funding, because we are a land-grant institution.” 


However, McFarland said, there are other ways they could make campus safer for DREAMers. 


“[We could] have training for all of our faculty and administrative staff for when they get asked about immigration information that they don’t give out that information and that they report it immediately to a higher authority,” said McFarland. 


Jose Rivas would like to see the sanctuary campus status happen, but in the meantime, he said, there’s no going back.


“I have outed myself as a DACA student at the University of Wyoming, and there is a fear,” said Rivas. “I’m sure if ICE wanted, they’d come knocking on my door.”  


Rivas says he doesn’t regret outing himself, but he hopes UW will continue to support him and other DREAMers. 


This story is part of a series on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Listen to the other stories below:

UW College of Law’s Suzie Pritchett Discusses DACA Changes

DACA Students Ineligible For Hathaway Scholarship