Former undocumented migrants form support groups

When Yadira Hernández Pérez graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2015, she was faced with many questions common to new graduates, such as how to save for retirement, how to apply for graduate school, and what to do with it. health benefits choose.

But Hernández Pérez, a Mexican native from Puebla, also questioned a whole host of other issues related to her undocumented status in the United States: Should she disclose her lack of a green card during interviews? hiring? And how could she find mentors? As a first generation college graduate, she couldn’t ask her family for advice.

So, in 2017, she created the UCLA Undocumented Alumni Association to help other undocumented graduates with the unique challenges they face adjusting to life after college. The association organizes social events for former undocumented migrants, connects elders with faculty members and offers advice on legal issues, from visa status to obtaining employment without a work permit. . The association also facilitates meetings between undocumented alumni and potential employers and provides career advice and information on graduate programs. Most importantly, said Hernández Pérez, the association allows former undocumented migrants to share their struggles and stories with each other.

With the support of the group she helped found, Hernández Pérez enrolled in law school at the City University of New York in August.

“One of the reasons I created the association was certainly a response to the anti-immigrant political climate that reigned” after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, said Hernández Pérez. “At the time, it was also my own experience as a former undocumented student navigating my life after graduation and creating structures that will be of use for future generations.”

Currently, the association is working on mentoring programs between alumni and current students of UCLA. During the pandemic, she said, the association raised COVID-19 emergency grants for more than 100 undocumented families – some alumni and others from the wider Los Angeles community – who did not ‘were not eligible for COVID-19 stimulus payments.

“We wanted to provide a community and a network so that when students graduate and are no longer students, they still feel connected to a community where they can come and be a part of that space and connect with others.” , said Hernández Pérez.

Since establishing the Association of Undocumented Alumni at UCLA, Hernández Pérez has worked with other institutions, including the University of California at Santa Barbara and California State University at Long Beach. , to create their own groups of former undocumented students.

The struggles of undocumented students have gained national attention in recent years, said Hyein Lee, director of measurement and evaluation at TheDream.US, the nation’s largest academic and career success program for those without. – papers with or without deferred action protection for arrivals of children (DACA). or Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

“So much attention has been drawn to DACA over the past four years, especially with the Trump administration, and everything that has happened and I think the spotlight has been put on this particular group of students. “said Lee. “It certainly got the needle going in terms of the conversation around raising awareness of the identity of these students and their special needs.”

The TheDream.US Alumni Survey 2021 report, released last month, found that of nearly 1,000 former TheDream.US scholarship students surveyed, 92% were undocumented, 88% with DACA status. Lee said the majority of survey respondents were recent graduates. Since graduating from college, only 8 percent of former students surveyed have been able to adjust their status to conditional or permanent residence or citizenship in the United States, according to the survey. Two graduates emigrated to Canada.

Lee said undocumented alumni face a particularly difficult application process this year, given that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services have reported significant backlogs in processing the flood of new applications to Beginning in December 2020 after the Biden administration rolled back the Trump administration’s crackdown on DACA recipients.

“We constantly remind people that provisions like DACA and TPS are just temporary arrangements,” Lee said. “It puts constant pressure on our former students to lose their status. I know, especially this year, with [the Department of Homeland Security] Receiving applications again for the first time in four years, there was this rush of applications submitted which created these long delays in processing renewals for our alumni who already had DACA.

The DACA application process creates “unnecessary stress and constant anxiety” for new graduates because they lack a sense of permanence, Lee said. A survey conducted last December by the UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity (UC PromISE) and the Undocumented Student Equity Project (USEP) found that out of 1,300 undocumented students attending State University campuses of California or the University of California, 39% said they, a family member or friend had been detained or deported or otherwise involved in deportation proceedings. Sixty-five percent said they had used immigration legal services on campus, and 67 percent admitted to feeling distracted in class because of concerns about their immigration status.

David Sun, associate director of diversity programs for UCLA’s Alumni Relations Office, said some alumni, especially those from marginalized communities, feel “cut off” from their network after obtaining their diploma, and that former undocumented migrants in particular lack the various services provided to students. UCLA has an Undocumented Student Program that provides free and direct immigration legal services to undocumented students and their families, or undocumented family members of legally status students.

“I think for a lot of our groups that have been historically excluded it really lets them know that UCLA really cares about them and that there is a community for them, they are wanted and they are appreciated, ”Sun said.

In TheDream.US report, 85 percent of alumni said they were employed, and 76 percent of them worked in essential or frontline jobs. And while former undocumented migrants had a strong interest in attending higher education, only 17 percent of former undocumented migrants said they were actually able to enroll in a graduate program or had graduated. their graduate degree.

Obtaining funds to pay for graduate school was the biggest barrier to attendance, the report notes. While other alumni may choose a graduate school based on the strength of the program or the professional development opportunities it offers, Lee said, for undocumented alumni the most important factor is the cost.

“The overriding concern for our graduates is really the financial concern, as they are not eligible for any kind of assistance,” Lee said. “They are not eligible for graduate study loans. For the most part, it becomes very difficult to pay for higher education.

In addition to everything else, a high percentage of undocumented students also face issues of food insecurity or mental health. In the UC PromISE and USEP survey, 96 percent said they were worried about not having enough money, 59 percent reported food insecurity, and 53 percent said they used a pantry on campus.

Students surveyed also reported having mental health issues, with 72 percent stating that they felt they needed to see a professional in the 2019-2020 academic year due to mental health issues, d ’emotions or nerves. However, only 48 percent said they asked for help.

Issues related to food insecurity, mental health and health care are at the heart of the mission of the Association of Undocumented Former UCLA, said Hernández Pérez. The group recently hosted an event on ‘Decolonizing Undocumented Migrants and Resilience’ with a focus on mental health and how people contribute to the exploitation, violence and trauma of undocumented migrants when they are undocumented. they say things like “undocumented people are so resilient,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the way the United States does not provide resources to undocumented people, we have had to be able to provide those resources, whether it’s navigating through the resources available to the undocumented community. papers or advocate for policies that could bring resources to the undocumented community, ”she said.

The response from UCLA alumni to the Association of Undocumented Alumni has been positive, Sun said.

“We are the very first alumni network dedicated to the undocumented community,” Sun said. “So I think for our former students it also alleviates a lot of the concerns they had for the well-being of the students.”

Lee noted that associations like the UCLA Undocumented Alumni program and others are creating a community for alumni during what could be a potentially difficult time.

“Having someone like TheDream.US or other graduates who really care what they’re going through has been very important for undocumented graduates, especially in college, but also after college,” he said. said Lee. “In some ways, the college is a safe environment. And then once you go, you have to fend for yourself, and there are a lot of questions that arise about your finances.

Hernández Pérez said that in the next five years, the association hopes to expand its membership, establish endowments that would generate scholarships for undocumented students, expand the board of directors and potentially create an advisory board.

“We’ve heard that when people feel connected to space, they feel safe and feel like they’ve been able to find others and not feel alone on the trip,” said Hernández Pérez.

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