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Undocumented college students are facing an uncertain future

People gathered for a rally and protest to mark the fifth anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program near Trump Tower in New York on Wednesday.
People gathered for a rally and protest to mark the fifth anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program near Trump Tower in New York on Wednesday.USTIN LANE/European PressPhoto Agency

Undocumented immigrant students are returning to college campuses in the Boston area weighed down by an uncertain future, worried they could soon lose protections that have allowed them to live, work, and study more openly in the United States in recent years.

The Trump administration is expected in coming days to decide the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, created by the Obama White House to protect undocumented young people. The five-year-old program protects from deportation more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and whom the government doesn’t consider a public safety threat. Thousands of such immigrants live or study in Massachusetts.

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But attorneys general in Texas and nine other conservative states have threatened legal action if the Trump administration doesn’t rescind DACA by Tuesday. They call the program unlawful and say it unilaterally gave undocumented immigrants work authorization and status to legally be in the country without congressional approval.

The conservative pressure has prompted a full-throated defense from higher education groups and some college presidents, including Harvard University president Drew Faust, who wrote to President Trump this week, urging him to keep the program in place and defend it in the courts.

“DACA has made it possible for talented and motivated students to pursue their education and explore meaningful ways of contributing to our communities and economy,” Faust wrote.

“We, as a nation, have already made an investment in these young people, and we will benefit far more by permitting these students to put their skills to their highest use rather than by repealing DACA and forcing them to return to the shadows of our society.”

Harvard President Drew Faust
Harvard President Drew Faust The Boston Globe

On Wednesday, more than 1,850 leaders, including governors, five state attorneys general, over 130 mayors, 230 state legislators, and several faith leaders, judges, police chiefs, and sheriffs signed a statement calling the end of DACA “senselessly cruel.” They said it would cost the economy billions of dollars in the next decade as it shed workers and businesses were forced to replace them.

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The threat to DACA has fueled anxiety of undocumented college students. The program, in addition to protecting certain immigrants from deportation, makes them eligible for work permits. It does not provide a path to citizenship or eligibility for federal welfare or student aid programs.

“I’m trying to figure out what to do next,” said Cairo Mendes, 24, a University of Massachusetts Boston senior from Brazil who has been in the United States 15 years. “Am I going to finish college? Am I going to be able to keep my car? Am I going to be able to keep my driver’s license? People are worried.”

Mendes said he has worked at a recycling factory, as a barista, and most recently as an immigrant student organizer to help pay for his education, since he couldn’t qualify for any scholarships until last year, when UMass Boston expanded eligibility. But Mendes fears that if the Trump administration ends DACA, he won’t finish the degree he has worked toward for five years and, if he graduates, he may not be able to find a job.

Valeria, a sophomore at Northeastern University who didn’t want her last name used, said she has talked to college administrators, seeking assurances about her future at the college and whether she will be able to participate in internship programs if she doesn’t have the appropriate work papers.

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“I feel like I’m calculating different scenarios,” Valeria said. “I’m on my feet in case anything happens.”

Her status as a DACA recipient with a Social Security number has allowed her to help her family more easily sign up for utilities and apply for housing. Concern for their future has added to her stress, she said.

Trump has given mixed signals about DACA. In his campaign, he pledged to end the program and criticized it as an abuse of executive power by Barack Obama when he was president. But since the election, Trump has expressed sympathy for undocumented youngsters.

Department of Homeland Security officials said DACA is still under review. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to process applications.

Universities including Tufts, Northeastern, Harvard, and the University of Massachusetts have said they support their undocumented students and have urged the administration to keep DACA or expand it.

The University of Massachusetts, for example, conducted training and information sessions after the election for administrators and students to understand a potential DACA repeal and provide academic, mental health, and legal support for students, said Jeff Cournoyer, a spokesman for the university.

Harvard has hired a full-time attorney to help undocumented and DACA students, and administrators are scheduled to meet with students at a welcoming event on Thursday.

But immigrant student activists at several campuses said those who are undocumented are returning to college more worried than before about their future, and administrators need to be more vocal about how they plan to work with students on financial aid issues and protect them if they are at risk of deportation.

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“There are so many rumors . . . and uncertainty,” said Daishi Tanaka, 20, a junior at Harvard and codirector of Act on a Dream, a group for immigrant youth on campus. In the past few weeks, his situation has changed, said Tanaka.

This winter, he was hoping to visit his parents, who moved back to Japan last year. It was already going to be an expensive and cumbersome process to get permission to leave the United States and then return. But now, with the possibility DACA will end, he fears leaving and wonders if he will be forced to shelve his plans for law school.

“It diminishes the prospects of seeing my parents again,” he said. “I was on a trajectory to pursue my passions. But it’s shifted now to a mindset of how am I going to survive after college?”


Deirdre Fernandes
can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.