Every year, millions of monarch butterflies migrate across international borders in hopes of finding a home where their future generations will prosper.
The black-and-orange butterfly, with its migration patterns, has become a common symbol for the undocumented community. It represents the freedom for humans to immigrate to different parts of the world, said third-year film and television student Nicole Corona Diaz.
Corona Diaz, like thousands of others within the undocumented community, has benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She is what many refer to as a “Dreamer,” an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the United States as a child and has benefited from the DACA program. Implemented by former President Barack Obama in June 2012, the executive order sought to delay the deportation of young immigrants brought to the country by their parents.
However, the program was subject to change when President Donald Trump’s administration announced its end Sept. 5, 2017. Three days after the federal decision, the University of California sued the Department of Homeland Security over the administration’s decision because the University faced losing members of its community. Soon after, in January, the UC received support from Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and the Federal Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit in November when they issued an injunction to stop the cancellation of the DACA program. It required the government to continue accepting renewal applications.
As it stands today, the DACA program has not been cancelled – DACA recipients can renew their DACA permits and are unable to be deported from the U.S. However, the future status of the program remains uncertain.
At UCLA, there are communities of students and faculty who are still affected by the program’s unclear status. Nonetheless, they continue to advocate for the rights of the undocumented through fundraising, campaigning for social awareness and sharing their stories.
Nicole Corona Diaz
Corona Diaz immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was just 3 years old.
Now a UCLA student, she said the Obama administration introduced the program when she was a teenager. At the time, it was too early for her to think about college, let alone how to pay for it. But, when she started to consider higher education later in high school, DACA was already in place, opening the door for her to apply for financial aid.
“I grew up in the perfect period ... so I fit in this perfect window where the access (to higher education) was just granted for me,” Corona Diaz said.
However, Corona Diaz said she still faced hardships. Growing up, she was not comfortable talking about her immigration status, she said. Her parents warned her about the risks associated with being undocumented, as well as their fears of deportation.
Corona Diaz said it took years for her to find the strength to share her story. In high school, she became comfortable talking about being undocumented with her counselors and close friends. In college, she finally was willing to tell a larger audience.
“I was still finding my own voice and having the strength and courage to say it because a lot of people won’t say it publicly,” Corona Diaz said. “It’s definitely a process for everyone, one in which they shouldn’t be rushed and if they are not ready, then they are not ready.”
Motivated by her newfound willingness to speak and the fear that the newly elected Trump would terminate the DACA program, Corona Diaz decided to run for student government in winter 2016. She said she felt running for student government was the first step in raising awareness about undocumented students and their narratives.
Corona Diaz served as Undergraduate Students Association Council general representative 1 for the 2017-2018 academic year. As a general representative, she collected information on the concerns of the student body and brought them to campuswide attention through social and fundraising campaigns. One such concern was the topic of immigration.
In February, she stood blindfolded on Bruin Walk alongside a sign that read, “I’m Undocumented. I’m called an ‘Illegal Alien.’ I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a Hug.” She said she wanted to bring awareness to anti-undocumented immigrant rhetoric used in conversations. She said she blindfolded herself because she felt it might incentivize people who dislike undocumented immigrants to approach her. She also was put into a vulnerable position because she couldn’t look at them. Overall, Corona Diaz said it was a positive experience, because countless people went up and hugged her when they could have decided to ignore her even if they agreed with her message. She said she was also surprised that people of all backgrounds came up to her as well.
Corona Diaz and her team did educational work on campus and through social media, addressing the symbolism of the monarch butterfly in the undocumented immigrant community.
“Questioning the legitimacy of borders and reviving the narrative that humans by nature need to migrate creates a sense of understanding and acceptance for immigrants in this country,” she said.
Corona Diaz and the rest of the General Rep. 1 office also launched a crowdfunding campaign called #UndocuBruins through UCLA Spark, an online fundraising platform. The month-long fundraiser in fall 2017 raised over $16,000 in scholarship money for undocumented students.
By joining student government, Corona Diaz said she brought the perspective of undocumented students to the table – a perspective she said that had not been prioritized enough before. Activism enabled her to find power in her voice and strength in community.
“I cannot function without activism, and my hope is that everyone finds their own voice and is motivated to speak for themselves when confronted by injustice,” she said.
Third-year sociology student Eduardo Solis once thought he could only afford to attend a community college or a California State University to pursue higher education.
Growing up, Solis saw his older brother, who is also undocumented, settle for a school that wasn’t his top choice because he could not apply for financial resources to attend UCLA. However, once Solis was in high school, he was able to apply for financial aid through DACA. He said he recognizes the privileges, the support and protection he receives through DACA. Yet, Solis said he never feared his own deportation until now.
On the day the Trump administration announced the cancellation of DACA, Solis said he turned to the TV to see former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions deliver the information. Solis said the news left him in tears but he was motivated to advocate for immigration rights once the UCLA school year began.
“I’ve been involved with activism in different aspects of stories of my life ever since I was 12 years old,” Solis said. “I just reflect on the fact that I started sharing my story at such a young age because ... I thought to myself, ‘Why would I let someone who doesn’t see me as a human have that power over me?’”
As a legislative advocate for the USAC External Vice President’s office in the 2017-2018 academic year, Solis took part in phone banking events dedicated to DACA and the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship for youth and young adults who were brought to the country as children.
Later in the year, Solis also traveled to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to lobby for the DREAM Act, to keep it clean so that it would contain no attached legislation such as border funding or cuts to legal immigration.
Now as general representative 3 for USAC, Solis said he aims to showcase to the student body the major issues approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants face, such as the threat of deportation and how intersectional identities are affected by immigration policy.
“A lot of times, people don’t realize that there are a lot of Asian undocumented students,” Solis said. “I’m also queer, and within the queer community, sometimes I feel like people forget that (for) undocumented queer immigrants ... deportation means being deported to a country that is very hostile.”
In October, Solis and the general representative 3 office launched the “ALL 11 Million” photo campaign, encouraging the allies of DACA recipients to extend their support to all 11 million undocumented immigrants, including adults who didn’t come to the country as children and students who don’t qualify for DACA. Solis said sometimes people don’t realize that only being an ally to DACA recipients is problematic because it makes it sound as if only someone who speaks English and is educated is worthy of citizenship.
He and his team passed out flyers at the event and to passersby that addressed why only supporting DACA recipients is problematic and what it means to be undocumented. Solis said he believes the campaign was effective because UC administrators and professors, who oftentimes only show support to DACA recipients, came and took pictures with an Instagram photo frame prop that read, “I Stand with #All11Million.”
Solis said one of his main frustrations has been that people don’t care about issues like deportation until it personally affects them. After Trump announced the rescission, people close to him did not reach out to talk to him about it, despite understanding how it could change his life.
Still, Solis said he believes storytelling can serve as an immensely powerful tool to help people understand the undocumented immigrant struggle.
“The only way people can care about the issues that don’t affect them personally is by hearing, seeing and listening to the stories of people that are affected by these issues,” he said.
Janeth Velazquez shared her experiences an undocumented individual in front of 400 people at the First-Gen Welcome Soiree at UCLA this quarter.
Now an alumna, Velazquez said she likely would not have been able to attend UCLA in the first place had it not been for the DACA program. During her senior year of high school, Velazquez said she had applied and been accepted to four-year universities, but her parents told her she could not go because they could not afford the tuition without financial aid.
“I couldn’t work, so I had to say no to college, and then I went to community college after. At that moment, that wasn’t the road I wanted to take,” Velazquez said. “It felt like someone else was making the decision for me.”
She said though she was upset with her economic position, she accepted reality by remembering that her ultimate goal was to attend a four-year university and that community college would help her get there.
Once she became a DACA recipient, Velazquez got a job working for as a public service aide for the San Francisco Department of Public Works. With her government job, Velazquez gathered enough financial resources to attend UCLA.
She was initially uncomfortable sharing her experience as an undocumented individual out of fear that people would not support her or understand her current situation, Velazquez said. She wanted to share her journey so others can see that they are not alone. Sharing her own narrative at events like the soiree helped her feel more connected to other DACA recipients, in part because doing so helped her accept her current situation, she said.
“I was very nervous speaking about my story, but at least having people more aware about the issue ... impacts real people,” she said.
Aside from sharing her story, Velazquez said she found other ways to express herself and her concerns. For example, she marched in a strike in Downtown Los Angeles – something she said she doesn’t normally do – to protest Trump’s rescission of DACA and show support for the program. She also got more involved with the Undocumented Student Program at UCLA by volunteering at the Undocu-Orientation for the past two years. She was part of a Q&A panel at the orientation in September, in which she answered questions and helped students understand why choosing to attend UCLA was the right decision.
Though Trump’s decision to rescind the DACA program ultimately made Velazquez more comfortable sharing her story, she said it still affects her life negatively, as she feels discouraged from keeping up with ongoing litigation against DACA. She would rather like to know when an official decision about the program’s future is made, she said. In the meantime, she feels she has to be cautious.
“It feels like you are tippy-toeing with time,” Velazquez said. “You are not able to take certain risks because you always have to be prepared for the what if.”
Securing the Campus
Though undocumented students have found their own ways to advocate for their rights and visibility, administrators and organizations at UCLA have also provided funds, legal services and implemented laws to ensure the campus remains a safe place for its students.
Founded in 2009, UCLA’s Undocumented Student Program assists undocumented students through different workshops that help students with issues such as housing and DACA renewal. The program also answers questions undocumented students might have on tuition-related matters, the admissions process and establishing California residency.
Following the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA, USP also provided students with access to immigration lawyers offering their legal services for free. Through the funds USP provided, Corona Diaz and Velazquez were able to renew their DACA statuses.
A year before the September 2017 announcement, Chancellor Gene Block formed the Advisory Council on Immigration Policy. Abel Valenzuela Jr., a co-chair of the council and a Chicana and Chicano studies professor, said that the council was created in the case that Trump’s immigration policies would further impact the campus and its student body.
“We knew that his targets were toward undocumented student immigrants. We were worried that he was talking about upwards of 850 students at the undergraduate level and upwards of 75 students at the graduate level,” Valenzuela said. “We had things in place, things being a committee, a counsel of worried people.”
Since its formation, the council has provided monetary support and conducted fundraisers for undocumented students. The members’ current goals include protecting UCLA students from possible detention or deportation.
Valenzuela, with assistance from a law student and close work with the council, drafted the Detainment Response Protocol and helped implement California Assembly Bill 21 – both of which outline plans for protecting students from the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement.
Lisa Hasegawa, the council’s policy analyst and an Asian American studies lecturer, said AB 21 defines when ICE is allowed to come to campus for immigration enforcement – that is, when they are looking for a particular student who they suspect has committed a crime. She added that ICE can only enter UCLA for federal immigration enforcement action if they have a judicial warrant to do so. In the event that ICE does visit a campus, faculty and staff are to refrain from sharing student data.
To further help faculty and staff understand what to do and how to comply with California’s AB 21, the council composed a campus response guide that will be released later in the quarter. The guide outlines the steps faculty and staff should take if ICE were to come for federal immigration enforcement, such as informing Valenzuela, who acts as the Chancellor’s representative on immigration, of their arrival, Hasegawa said.
The guide will also be posted as an infographic around campus and in the dorms, Valenzuela said.
Unlike AB 21, which addresses how to respond to federal immigration enforcement on campus, the Detainment Response Protocol, completed this year, provides assistance to an undocumented student detained by ICE off campus, Valenzuela said. It outlines how the school would provide legal counsel and secure the release of a student from detention.
Though Valenzuela said he does not want to speculate on the likelihood of a student being detained by ICE, the council is prepared in the event that it does happen.
Moving forward, the council’s top priorities consist of developing, generating and securing resources for financial aid and scholarships for undocumented students. Valenzuela said many undocumented students do not get enough financial aid to cover the total cost of attending UCLA.
He added that financial aid is a pressing issue for undocumented students because they have to balance other problems related to being undocumented in addition to being UCLA students. He said they also do not have access to the same resources as their documented peers.
“We have to do anything possible to ensure their academic success, too and that they receive as many resources as they are entitled,” Valenzuela said. “To make sure they join the ranks of the alumni. To get them out with a degree in hand so they can go out and do what other Bruins do. Change the world, become leaders.”
The Future at a Standstill
More than a year of legal disputes and a midterm election later, the future of the DACA program still remains unknown.
After the midterm elections Nov. 6, the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives, while the Republican Party will maintain its control over the Senate.
The elections meant more federal representation for the Democrats, who tend to support immigrant rights, but they do not ensure an answer for the program’s uncertain status, Hasegawa said. However, these results do mean there are more members of Congress who can propose legislation in favor of DACA. But for such proposals to be approved, they need to pass through both chambers and the president. Hasegawa added that a permanent legislative fix could include amendments in the language of the bill that are unfavorable to immigration advocacy groups, such as funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or more law enforcement at the border.
Ultimately, the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients might not learn any more about DACA’s status until the Supreme Court tackles the situation later in the 2018-2019 term, likely months away.
While the uncertainty surrounding the Obama-era program remains intact, DACA recipients at UCLA remain firm in their willingness to advocate for their own futures.
Corona Diaz said she hopes, moving forward, there is a focus not only on DACA, but on comprehensive immigration reform. People like her parents are still waiting for any new policy related to immigration because, besides proposals to increase border security, there haven’t been recent policies that could help them acquire citizenship, she said.
“We need to take a step back from focusing on border security and address the needs of immigrants that are already within the country, how we can uplift their voices and help them with their immigration status,” Corona Diaz said.
While Corona Diaz hopes for more citizenship security within the U.S., Velazquez said she wants more freedom to cross international borders. After having studied geography, she said she would love to travel the world to study and do research but without U.S. residency or citizenship, she currently cannot travel outside the country. For now, she plans to continue traveling within the country, as she went to New York for a study abroad program in the summer.
Velasquez said she hopes higher education institutions will also focus on helping undocumented graduate students. She wants to pursue graduate school at UCLA but currently cannot afford it, despite her DACA status.
Solis said he hopes one day he will live in a house with a husband in the only country he has known, alongside his parents. To get there, he hopes the government creates a clean pathway to citizenship that does not incur any negative effects for future generations.
Ultimately, Solis said he wants students who are in the same situation his brother was in years ago to stay hopeful.
“I know that these times are extremely scary and uncertain, but the undocumented community has achieved multiple accomplishments before DACA even existed,” Solis said. “With or without DACA, I know that we will prevail and prosper.”