SAN FRANCISCO — Pamela Ortiz Cerda vividly remembered the assignment six years ago from her Mexican-American history instructor at San Joaquin Delta College, a community college in Stockton, Calif. “He required voting for our class,” Ms. Ortiz Cerda said. Students were told to bring in voting ballot stubs as proof.
“I assumed it was a joke, but to the whole class he said, ‘And for you, all you illegals, I’m going to have immigration waiting outside the class for you if you don’t have the stubs,’” she said. “As a teenager, straight out of high school, that’s terrifying.”
Terrifying because Ms. Ortiz Cerda was undocumented herself, brought to the United States from Mexico when she was 9 by her parents, who sought a better life for the family.
In a statement, San Joaquin Delta College said that it would be “almost impossible” to know what happened in the history class so many years ago, but said that in recent years the school had taken steps to support undocumented students.
Ms. Ortiz Cerda, now 24, became an advocate for those like herself, and she is the program services coordinator at Skyline College’s Dream Center in San Bruno, Calif.
It is one of about 40 such centers in California that assist students without legal status, navigating the complexities of admissions and classes, and connecting them with financial aid. “It’s really a focused effort in supporting undocumented students holistically through their higher ed journeys,” she said.
The centers are part of an endeavor in the nation’s higher education system to help undocumented students attend classes and attain degrees. And while many of these programs have existed for years, there are concerns about pushback as the Trump administration has shifted to a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.
This has led colleges to develop policies, with California in the forefront, that would thwart possible interference by the federal government.
The concerns are especially acute at community colleges, which have more open admissions policies than selective four-year institutions. According to a report from the California Community Colleges System, up to 70,000 undocumented students attend the state’s 114 community colleges, more than 3 percent of the 2.1 million students enrolled.
“We have, as our primary mission, the embracing of all students, and it is our desire to be there for the most vulnerable and the most marginalized populations,” said Judy C. Miner, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which serves Silicon Valley.
The official policy of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is to steer clear of college campuses, unless there is an extraordinary safety threat. “Enforcement actions are not to occur” at schools, according to the agency’s Sensitive Locations policy, “to ensure that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so, without fear or hesitation.” The same policy applies to churches and hospitals.
But after Donald J. Trump was elected president, following a campaign filled with rhetoric against undocumented people, colleges became concerned about the future of the Sensitive Locations policy. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement to colleges in November 2016 that said the policy would “remain in effect.”
However, in recent months, as scenes have unfolded of young immigrant children being separated from their parents and placed in detention centers, there are renewed doubts about how the current administration will treat undocumented college students.
“We don’t feel a level of confidence and security on behalf of our students,” said Dr. Miner, “given the fact that we hear so many stories that would indicate that our own laws are not being honored.”
In a statement last month, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said, “Yes, the policy is still in place.”
But Dr. Miner, as past chairman of the American Council on Education, which represents about 1,800 higher education institutions in the United States, said she and her colleagues had taken precautions. At her colleges and others, for example, any warrant from immigration officials must go directly to the college president for review and could be subject to a legal fight.
All of this is a sea change from just a few years ago, when many undocumented students were given temporary immunity from deportation after the Obama administration’s creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, in June 2012. An estimated 800,000 immigrants within a certain age range, who were brought to the United States as children, were allowed to remain as residents, attend school and obtain work permits.
The Trump administration effectively ended the program this year, and participants have been left in limbo as Congress considers an alternative, if any, and as challenges work their way through the courts.
Even before DACA, California had its own Dream Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) in 2011, allowing those brought into the state without documentation as children to attend college and receive financial aid and in-state tuition benefits. At some community colleges, that means paying $46 per credit, instead of more than $200.
And now state lawmakers are considering a new bill, AB-2477, that could create even more support centers for undocumented college students.
But in the current political climate, undocumented students in other states have faced resistance. In April, the Arizona Supreme Court eliminated in-state tuition benefits for them, and similar programs face legal hurdles in several other states, according to a recent analysis.
“There’s so much enmity that it’s looking very hopeless, honestly,” said a mathematics student at Skyline College, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his identity. “People talk about the whitelash to Obama, to the first black president, and this was bound to happen.”
The student’s mother brought him to the United States from Mexico at age 13, when she was fleeing a violent husband. He worked at auto shops, warehouses and in manufacturing to support his mother and six siblings. Now, at 41, he has been able to get an associate degree and has ambitions for a bachelor’s.
He said he had often faced hostility as an undocumented person, but not at college. “I don’t feel fearful when I’m at school,” he said. “I don’t feel my studying is threatened, at least not yet.”
For Dr. Miner, the community college chancellor, the stakes are also personal. Her mother was undocumented, brought to the United States from Mexico at age 3 or 4 — in another era, she also would have been a “Dreamer.”
“Her own fear of discrimination led her to never speak Spanish to us, even though that was her first language, so we never grew up bilingual,” Dr. Miner said. “She was of that generation of immigrants who were so concerned about their children being real Americans.”
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