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Panelists discuss immigration policy and DACA students

DACA panel
Jason Koski/University Photography
Vijay Pendakur, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, speaks at a panel discussion on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program March 17. Other panelists, from left, are Estelle McKee, clinical professor of law; Carlos Gonzalez, executive director of the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives; and Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School.

A panel of Cornell faculty, staff and administrators in Kennedy Hall March 17 discussed resources for undocumented students and answered questions about the potential impacts of national immigration policy on these students on campus and at the local and national level.

The federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, begun in 2012 under President Barack Obama’s administration, currently protects more than 750,000 young immigrants – but the program and those it protects face potential changes under the Trump administration, including the risk of deportation.

“Undocumented students have the same challenges as any other student on campus as to their academic success. But on top of that, there is constant stress around general uncertainty for themselves and their families,” said Carlos M. Gonzalez, executive director of the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI), which serves underrepresented, first generation, low-income and undocumented students.

“There is a network of staff on campus, and offices that can fundamentally assist undocumented students,” he said, listing the Office of Financial Aid, Counseling and Psychological Services, OADI, the Public Service Center, the Asian and Asian American Center, the Latina/o Student Success Office and the International Students and Scholars Office.

Some students have been using those services in part as a result of a fall orientation event for new students with DACA status, Gonzalez said.

Vijay Pendakur, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, said one of his main concerns was “creating a culture of care and a culture of [support], so our undocumented and DACA students can focus on learning – which should be their first job here.”

For those needing help with an immigration case, legal counseling is available from the Law School and is subject to lawyer-client confidentiality, “so we would never disclose anything, including who that person is,” said clinical professor of law Estelle McKee, who has worked as an immigration attorney. A legal representation fund has been set up, and more information on legal assistance services is available by emailing, she said.

“The immigration law faculty is able to handle the current counseling needs,” McKee said. “If the DACA program changes in a way that could potentially negatively affect students’ status on campus, the Law School is prepared to hire a clinical fellow to work on these issues and to help affected [students], through the Farmworker [Legal Assistance] Clinic.”

Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, who oversees undergraduate admissions and financial aid, said the university implemented a recommendation from the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group (composed of students, faculty and staff) and, as of fall 2016, DACA undergraduates are considered domestic students in regard to their eligibility for need-blind admission and need-based financial aid.

While that eligibility now applies to “all newly admitted and continuing students with DACA status,” Knuth said, “should that go away at the federal level, they will continue to be eligible at Cornell for need-based financial aid.”

Cornell provides institutional grant aid for DACA undergraduates for whom federal and state financial aid is unavailable. For graduate students with DACA status who were awarded funding in their admissions letters and become unable to hold assistantships should DACA be discontinued, Graduate School fellowship resources will be available, she added.

Miguel Martinez ’18, of the DREAM Team, a campus organization supporting undocumented student peers, asked the panel about centralizing services, rather than having offices scattered across campus. The organization has also proposed resource centers and a dedicated staff presence for undocumented and first-generation students.

Other groups on campus, including veterans and students with disabilities, have been asking for the same in support and services, Pendakur said.

“We’re in a moment in time when our very vulnerable student communities are saying, ‘I need something that grounds me on this campus,’” he said. Pendakur said he would work with students and his staff to assess the ways that identity-based services are currently arranged, to “inform a redesign process” geared to delivering spaces that meet campus needs.

Following reports that some registered DACA participants were being detained and arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) elsewhere in the U.S., some students reportedly did not feel safe, even on campus.

Law faculty have been giving “know your rights” presentations in the community and on campus, McKee said, and the school is preparing to lead training for local sheriffs and police. Both the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County have passed legislation limiting how law enforcement can cooperate with immigration agents within the bounds of federal law, she said.

The university also has been offering training to staff on the concerns of DACA and undocumented students, such as the policies regarding releasing information to immigration agents, McKee said.

“Not all students should renew” their status if a criminal record or other circumstances complicate it; they should speak with an immigration attorney first, McKee advised. However, some legal protections are in place, she said: “ICE, under the prior policy, will not enter school grounds … the Tompkins County Sheriff and Ithaca Police Department will not honor ICE requests to detain or arrest unless [warrants] are judicially issued.”

On March 10, Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner wrote to the campus community in her weekly safety message email, reaffirming President Hunter Rawlings’ Jan. 29 statement to the community regarding immigration policy impacts at Cornell. The email was read at the event.

“Cornell Police officers are not legally required to, nor will they honor civil immigration detainer requests from a federal agent unless accompanied by a lawfully issued subpoena or warrant,” Zoner wrote. “Cornell Police will not seek immigration status information of any individual in the course of its law enforcement activities, unless necessary to investigate criminal activity by that individual or required by law.”

The discussion helped to inform steps going forward in “bringing about a coherent support system for DACA and undocumented students,” said Rebecca Stoltzfus, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of nutritional sciences, who moderated the panel.

The panel discussion, “Immigration Chaos: DACA Students and Higher Education Grapple With Upheaval,” was sponsored by the University Relations Diversity Council.

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