Shankar Ramkellawan ’19 carries his papers with him everywhere, and he’ll show them to you if you ask.
“You just never know when you’ll need them,” he says, unzipping his backpack. “Actually, I needed them just yesterday.”
He slides two pages and a photo ID across the table. The paperwork looks no different from the forms one might fill out at the DMV or doctor’s office, and the ID card looks like a driver’s license but doesn’t bear the name of a state. Below his picture, the card indicates the country where he was born: Guyana.
At first glance, the documents don’t seem like much, but for Ramkellawan and other undocumented immigrants like him, the papers constitute a “social fingerprint.” Through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (commonly known as DACA), young immigrants become eligible for work authorization, a Social Security number, and most importantly, exemption from deportation. As long as he pays a $500 renewal fee every two years, Ramkellawan can be relatively certain that he will not be deported.
DACA, created through an Obama administration executive order, confers a type of legal status to its recipients, but its effects stretch past the realm of paperwork and bureaucracy. Since the launch of DACA in 2012, young immigrants at Harvard and beyond have become increasingly open about being undocumented.
Although the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid cannot collect data on Harvard’s undocumented population, outgoing Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Emelyn A. dela Peña estimates that there are about 40 undocumented students at the College. Admissions officers do not consider immigration status when making admissions decisions, and undocumented students receive full need-based financial aid as their peers do. In addition, Harvard often funds DACA renewal fees and similar expenses for undocumented students.
One might expect an undocumented student to speak about his immigration status in hushed tones, but Ramkellawan does the opposite—he talks boisterously over the low hum of the dining hall, animates his words with gestures, and brandishes his DACA papers under the bright lights.
“It’s not like anyone will report me and get me deported,” he says with a laugh.
Though he’s confident, Ramkellawan faces persistent uncertainties about his family’s future. He and other DACA beneficiaries at Harvard and across the country are beginning their adult lives in a political climate that is both turbulent and stagnant for undocumented immigrants. DACA, which grants its recipients the freedom to work and drive without fear of deportation, has its limits. The DREAM Act, an immigration reform bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented young people, was introduced in Congress in 2001 and still has not been passed. Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), a policy that would support mixed-status families by allowing undocumented parents to work, was effectively destroyed by a Supreme Court deadlock in June. What’s more, a contentious presidential election has unearthed virulent anti-immigrant sentiments.
“My parents always told me to never tell anyone” of being undocumented, Ramkellawan says. “I was, and still am, trying to grasp what it really means.”
Growing up in an undocumented family often means growing up fast—many students share memories of filling out forms, translating for parents who don’t speak English, and picking up other adult responsibilities early in life.
When Jin K. Park ’18 was a child, for example, he combed the internet for burn remedies after his father, a restaurant worker, was injured on the job. Because his father’s low-income, undocumented status left him ineligible for most forms of healthcare, Park, the family’s only fluent English speaker, turned to WebMD for solutions.
A handful of Harvard students come from mixed-status families, meaning that some relatives are undocumented and others are not. Romance Languages and Literature assistant professor Lorgia H. García Peña, whose scholarship focuses on racial identity and migration, grew up with two undocumented brothers and emphasizes that immigration status “impacts a whole family” even if some members have citizenship. Ana C. Andrade ’19, who was born at Cambridge Hospital near Harvard’s campus, belongs to such a family. Though a U.S. citizen, she says her life has been shaped by her parents’ undocumented status.
When Andrade was four months old, her father, an undocumented Brazilian immigrant who had crossed the border, was deported. Though her father eventually returned to the U.S., his legal status remained uncertain. When Andrade was 16 years old, a police officer stopped her father for driving without valid identification. Andrade, a licensed driver, had to pick him up in the middle of the night. Fortunately, the officer let her father go.
Because parents without papers struggle to secure permanent employment, undocumented families often struggle to make ends meet. Ramkellawan’s family lived in a “super moldy” basement for $400 a month before upgrading to a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Paulo J. Pinto ’18, an undocumented student from Portugal who leads student activism group Act on a Dream, recalls that his parents were unable to negotiate with their employers because of their immigration status, leaving them to take jobs that paid “under the table.”
Undocumented status often reconfigures typical family dynamics. Some argue that DACA, which authorizes its recipients to work and drive, has reinforced this effect.
“What we’re seeing now with the DACA beneficiaries is that some of these young people are now taking on a lot of extra work within the family: driving parents to and from work, driving siblings to work, taking on these breadwinner roles,” says Roberto G. Gonzales, a professor at the Graduate School of Education whose work focuses on undocumented status and academic performance. “[DACA recipients] are working longer hours, more jobs, so they can contribute more to family expenses, paying larger shares of family bills, rent, mortgage, et cetera.”
García Peña offers a more pointed critique of DACA—she considers the policy a disappointment.
“The message DACA sent out and the message President Obama sent was precisely that the immigrant community belongs in the workforce and not in school,” she says. “We need to do a lot better in passing a much more comprehensive reform for people who came here as children who are trying to go to school.”
Equally worrisome is the growing backlog of DACA renewals. Gonzales says that if no comprehensive immigration reform passes, DACA recipients will be “perpetually in limbo,” their fates set by paperwork and processing time.
“They will continue to have to make sure that their applications are in on time, they will continue to face the prospect that their applications will not be processed in a timely manner and therefore they’ll fall out of status,” he explains. “There are about 500 DACA beneficiaries now who have fallen out of status because of a backlog, and they have to leave work for whatever period of time because they don’t have work authorization during that lapse of time.”
When Park filled out his college applications, he typed 10 zeroes where his Social Security number belonged. He hadn’t yet received a Social Security number through DACA. He didn’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, because non-citizens are ineligible for federal aid.
According to Harvard’s Admissions and Financial Aid website, undocumented students are supposed to apply as international students, even if they have spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. Although they do not qualify for federal funding, undocumented and international students alike receive need-based financial aid from the University. Many immigration reform advocates, including García Peña, feel that this policy alienates undocumented applicants.
“That is the biggest hurdle undocumented students face when they are applying to college—being treated as foreigners when they are not,” Garcia Peña says. “International students tend to come from higher class [backgrounds], and tend to have more resources that are not available to undocumented students.”
Harvard accepts all students—including those who apply as international students—on a need-blind basis, offering full need-based financial aid to those who are admitted. Although Harvard’s admissions policy does not affect the amount of financial aid that undocumented students receive, former Act on a Dream chair Anahi D. Mendoza ’15 insists that it sends a discouraging message to undocumented applicants.
“I think Harvard’s really behind,” Mendoza says. “It feels like they’re opening the back door for us.”
Mendoza says that Harvard should “catch up” to Brown University and Tufts University, two peer institutions that have made strides in their inclusion of undocumented applicants. In the spring of 2015, Tufts Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin announced that undocumented students would be included in the college’s domestic applicant pool. For this fall’s application cycle, Brown is following suit. These policies will make it easier for undocumented students to receive financial aid, as both universities accept international applicants in a process that is not need-blind.
Other members of Act on a Dream lament the lack of information available for undocumented applicants—some say that the Admissions and Financial Aid Office needs to be more explicit in welcoming undocumented high school students to apply. On the College’s website, for example, information for prospective undocumented applicants is buried in an FAQ section. By contrast, the Admissions website offers a plethora of blogs and testimonies for applicants from low-income, multicultural, and first-generation backgrounds. While undocumented students commonly fit into those categories, many feel that their representation is insufficient.
“I think Harvard can be a little more proactive in terms of saying, ‘We accept undocumented students,’” Pinto says. “On the website, it’s kind of unclear.” A statement from Office of Admissions and Financial Aid spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven says that administrators “certainly take all feedback on [the] website into account in making updates and additions.”
Act on a Dream, which now has an informal partnership with the Admissions and Financial Aid Office, was founded in 2008 as a group for immigration reform advocacy, but has gradually taken on the role of providing resources for undocumented Harvard applicants and students. Because many undocumented students feel that Harvard’s administrative resources are inadequate, Act on a Dream often acts as an informal support network. The club’s website features a 30-page online handbook for high school students, offering advice on scholarship applications, reaching out to financial aid officers at universities, and writing college essays.
“Act on a Dream was created to be an activist organization, not to provide resources, but because we lacked so many resources, that’s kind of what it became,” Mendoza says. Through their partnership with the group, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid sends a spring welcome letter to admitted students who have disclosed their status. A number of undocumented students, however, feel that Harvard’s support lessens by the time they move into the Yard.
Although Pinto does not have a passport, he spent the summer studying Shakespeare and Keynesian economics in Venice, Italy. Before his summer program began, he went to Portugal to visit family members he hadn’t seen in 15 years. After his classes ended, he left the island city for an impressive tour of Europe.
“I went to Florence, Rome, Milan, Paris, Edinburgh, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Vienna,” he says, counting on his fingers.
All of this was possible because of advance parole, a government-granted document that allows DACA recipients to travel internationally. An application for advance parole, which must be filed several months before leaving the U.S., costs a steep $360. However, undergraduate DACA beneficiaries like Pinto need not be deterred by the fee—through the College’s Beneficiary Aid Program, undocumented students can have their advance parole applications and DACA renewals funded by Harvard.
Despite the University’s financial generosity, some argue that Harvard has a ways to go in its outreach and support for undocumented students. Although the College has attempted to bolster its administrative support, many undocumented students have deemed it inadequate. Moreover, experts and students are calling for additional emotional support for undocumented students, who often struggle with mental health issues.
“Sometimes I feel like they admitted me and then I got here and there isn’t open support about the fact that they admit undocumented students,” Park says. “Can [the administration] say that it’s OK for us to be here? Even though the letter said that we got in, it sometimes doesn’t feel like we’re entirely welcome.”
Two years ago, the Office of Student Life appointed dela Peña to advise undocumented students. On paper, this seemed to be a victory for Harvard’s undocumented students, who had submitted requests for such an administrator. In practice, several students—particularly leaders of Act on a Dream—found the appointment insufficient. Dela Peña, who was also in charge of BGLTQ Student Life and the Women’s Center, seemed to have little time to help undocumented students.
“We tried to get her to have office hours for undocumented students on a weekly basis where people could drop in, but I think she had a lot of other things to do,” says Enrique Ramirez ’17, a board member of Act on a Dream.
Echoing Ramirez, Mendoza says that dela Peña seemed to have a “figurehead” role, although the position was quite new when Mendoza was still a student at Harvard. According to Pinto, several board members of Act on a Dream were unaware of dela Peña’s upcoming departure until they read about it in The Crimson. In October, dela Peña will take a position at Washington University at St. Louis. Although Harvard has not yet hired her replacement, Loc Truong will assume her position as an adviser to undocumented students.
Dela Peña says that she has a philosophy of “taking a backseat” because students understand student needs better than administrators do. “I have actually gotten feedback from students saying, ‘You should just let us decide what we want to do with programs and events, then give us the resources to do that,’” she says.
Gonzales, an expert on immigration and education, emphasizes the necessity for an administrative liaison like dela Peña—someone to help students “cut through red tape.” However, anecdotal evidence and Gonzales’s own research suggest that undocumented young people often need emotional support in addition to bureaucratic assistance.
Starting in 2002, Gonzales conducted a 12-year study of young undocumented adults in Los Angeles, examining the academic and career trajectories of 150 immigrants. The most surprising finding, he says, was the prevalence of mental health challenges among his respondents.
“All of these young people that I talked to described physical and emotional manifestations of stress—chronic headaches, toothaches, trouble getting out of bed in the morning, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide, and attempted suicide,” Gonzales says. “So it became clear that there is a very strong link between their immigration status and their strained wellbeing.”
Ilian A. Meza-Peña ’17 says that several of her undocumented friends deal with clinical depression and anxiety—the “Undocumented Student Starter Pack,” as she calls it. Two mental health counselors at University Health Services, Carmen M. Cruz and L. Carolina Gonzalez, are well-known among undocumented students for their cultural competency and knowledge of immigration issues.
“They’re really good and supportive,” Meza-Peña says. “But they’re only two people.” In response to inquiries about mental health resources for undocumented students, Chief of Counseling and Mental Health Services Barbara Lewis says that “all counselors at HUHS receive regular training on a variety of topics and competencies,” although each counselor has individual specialties and interests.
In his research, Gonzales observed many respondents taking classes at public universities and community colleges on a term-by-term basis, taking hiatuses for personal and financial reasons. Even at selective private schools schools like Harvard, however, a similar pattern of “stopping out”—taking a year off with the intention of returning—seems to emerge among undocumented populations.
“For most of the undocumented students… finances are the number one driver for stopping out,” Gonzales says. “Harvard is very generous, but nevertheless, the cost of books, the remainder of tuition sometimes, and other expenses really add up, and students find themselves in a bind financially.”
Mendoza recalls that several of her undocumented friends left Harvard for a year or two before graduating, motivated by both mental health struggles and financial obligations. DACA beneficiaries are especially pressured to get jobs and provide for their families.
“One of the hardest things about being undocumented at Harvard is graduating,” Mendoza says. “Not only are we students at the University—we’re also heads of household and are expected to send money back home for surgeries or food.”
The claim that Harvard doesn’t do enough for its undocumented population may seem incongruous with the institution’s public image—University President Drew G. Faust, for example, has been a vocal proponent of DACA and the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act was first proposed in the summer of 2001—more than 15 years ago—and has been reintroduced several times since, although it has never passed. Unlike DACA, which targets a similar demographic, the DREAM Act guarantees a path to citizenship. Faust first endorsed the DREAM Act in 2009, but her support was concretized a year later, when she intervened in the case of Eric Balderas ’13.
Balderas, an undocumented immigrant born in Mexico, was detained at the San Antonio airport in 2010 for traveling without acceptable identification. Facing the prospect of deportation, Balderas garnered national attention—the fact that he was a “soft-spoken” Harvard student made for splashy headlines. Pressured by Faust, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, and other supporters, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) dropped Balderas’s case and granted him deferred action status.
A photo from a 2010 issue of The Crimson immortalizes Faust’s advocacy for young undocumented immigrants: In a red-walled office at the U.S. Capitol, she stands smiling between Balderas and Durbin, thanking the senator for his sponsorship of the DREAM Act.
Four years later, Dario M. Guerrero ’15 similarly made national news. When his mother’s chemotherapy treatments failed, Guerrero brought her back to Mexico, their home country, hoping to prolong her life at holistic medicine centers. About two months before Guerrero planned to leave, he applied for advance parole and waited. Eventually, he says, he just decided to go “with no indication that my parole would be granted anytime soon.”
“My mother, her condition was starting to decline a bit,” Guerrero says. “So, fuck it. Yeah, we left.”
Guerrero’s mother died in August of 2014. Instead of going back to school, however, he remained stranded in Mexico City for two months—USCIS denied his re-entry to the States. Guerrero called Leverett Resident Dean Bilal Malik, who “told [Guerrero] he was going to get in touch with the necessary parties at Harvard and beyond.”
Because Harvard cannot provide legal counsel, Guerrero relied on a nonprofit that connected him to a pro-bono immigration lawyer. As in Balderas’s case, a number of legislators went to bat for Guerrero.
“Harvard was also able to connect me with this senator in Illinois, Dick Durbin, and this Congressman in Boston,” Guerrero recalls. “So the representatives’s offices were coordinating with my lawyer to put pressure on USCIS to grant me humanitarian parole.”
Ultimately, their efforts were successful. Guerrero returned to Harvard and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies. Gonzales says that cases like those of Guerrero and Balderas, although high profile, constitute a small fraction of deportation cases. The few immigrants who have connections to university presidents and elected officials often have the most success in avoiding deportation, Gonzales says. “But most people don’t have those relationships, and most people in those situations fall through the cracks,” he says.
As undocumented students look ahead, past the gates of Harvard Yard and beyond this November, the future may seem daunting. As the election draws near, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to spread vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Washington, the Supreme Court remains tied on a landmark immigration case, U.S. vs. Texas, leaving undocumented parents vulnerable.
In June 2016, the Supreme Court announced that it had reached a 4-4 tie in U.S. vs. Texas, therefore upholding an appeals court decision to block DAPA. DAPA, like DACA, was created through an Obama administration executive action in 2012. The policy would have allowed undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful residents to get driver’s licenses, work authorization, and Social Security numbers. Like DACA beneficiaries, DAPA recipients would have been shielded from deportation.
When asked about U.S. v. Texas, Andrade recalls the days when she learned how to drive. When Andrade first received her learner’s permit, she was only allowed to drive with her mother, who has a driver’s license.
“I could drive with her, and only her, because she didn’t want my dad to feel bad if my uncles were teaching me how to drive—if they were doing something that he couldn’t do for me,” Andrade recounts. Andrade’s father may have been a recipient of DAPA if the U.S. vs. Texas Supreme Court tie hadn’t blocked it.
Although Andrade will be able to petition for her parents to become U.S. citizens when she turns 21, she realizes that the process will not be easy. Because her father was deported and returned by crossing the border, he is unlikely to gain citizenship, and her mother has been trying to get a Green Card for several years. As a citizen, Andrade feels pressure to find high-paying employment that her parents are unlikely to secure. DAPA, she says, would have taken “a huge weight off [her] shoulders.”
Maribel Nava ’19, a U.S. citizen born to undocumented Mexican parents, was certain that her parents would have qualified for DAPA when it was first announced in 2012. The Supreme Court decision left her disappointed, but she remains hopeful.
“I knew it was complicated with Scalia and that the worst-case scenario was happening—they’re not going to let Obama appoint a new judge,” she says. “I’m hopeful because it is a presidential election this year, Hillary’s promised to try something different from DAPA that will work within her first 100 days in office.”
Legislation aside, the pressure for undocumented students to provide for their families persists. While dozens of Harvard students compete for international fellowships, many of their undocumented peers are inclined to move somewhere close to home after graduation.
For Park, being away from his parents in New York City is a source of constant worry. “If they get sick, I don’t think they would know what to do,” he explains. “If something happened to them, everything in terms of my life is unplugged—my parents come first.” Park hopes to attend medical school. He is passionate about someday reforming health care policy—particularly because the Affordable Care Act does not serve undocumented immigrants.
For Daishi M. Tanaka ’19, the burden of financial independence is particularly heavy—his parents, immigrants from Japan, left the U.S. this summer. Because they were undocumented, Tanaka’s parents struggled to find stable jobs and were frequently manipulated by employers. Because they were undocumented, it seems unlikely that they will be able to return to the U.S.
“Now my pressure is to support myself as someone living in the U.S. alone,” Tanaka says. Through advance parole, Tanaka was able to visit his parents in Japan, but he is uncertain of when he’ll see them again. “Since I’m financially independent I have to, you know, think about my finances first and see if I can afford to do that.”
Finding a job as an undocumented Harvard graduate is often an intimidating process—Mendoza, who graduated last year, said that many people reach out to her for advice, nervous to disclose their immigration status to employers.
Guerrero, who can get jobs because of humanitarian parole, is living at home in L.A. because his work authorization was not processed in time—he had accepted a fellowship in D.C. and had to leave after two weeks. With comprehensive legislative reform stalled and graduates from one of the most prestigious universities in the world struggling to find employment, undocumented students commonly feel helpless.
“No matter how much money I have, I can never take my dad on a vacation to, say, Punta Cana because he can’t come back. I can never take my mom to see her father and mother that she hasn’t seen in so long,” Andrade says. “I think that’s really aggravating to be at a place where my opportunities seem so endless when in fact there’s nothing I can do.”
Most members of Harvard’s undocumented community acknowledge that they make up a particularly privileged subset of immigrants. When her father was pulled over by a policeman on her freshman move-in day last year, Andrade learned that the Harvard name alone acts as a kind of security.
“There’s safety with Harvard, without question,” she says. “Just the name.” Her father had only been pulled over twice before. When he handed his Brazilian passport to the officer, Andrade worried that he would again be deported.
“The cop looked at me, looked at the back of the truck with all this Harvard move-in stuff,” she recounts. Tossing the passport back into the car, the policeman told Andrade’s father to get a driver’s license and let them proceed. “I can’t help but imagine how that situation would’ve gone differently if he weren’t moving me into Harvard.”
García Peña, who used to teach at the University of Georgia, started an educational nonprofit called Freedom University when the state banned undocumented students from enrolling in public universities. The simple fact that the state of Massachusetts does not ban undocumented students makes for a major difference between the two states where she has taught.
“One of the things I see my students come struggling with, both my Freedom U grads and some of my students at Harvard, is feeling guilty that they get to do this while other people can’t,” she says. “There’s a sense of responsibility for those who will stay behind.”
At Harvard, it seems that this sense of indebtedness feeds into activism. Mendoza affirms that Act on a Dream is committed to serving undocumented high school students, particularly because of the group’s position as a Harvard organization: “Even though we are undocumented students at Harvard, we are still very privileged.”
Ramirez, who attended a vocational high school where 12 percent of his graduating class went to college, feels fortunate in comparison to many of his peers back home. “A lot of the narratives we see ourselves having, it’s really contrasting with people at Harvard who are so privileged,” he says.
For some, the simple act of being publicly undocumented—of making an unseen population visible—is, in itself, a kind of activism.
“I am very open, as you can see when I show everyone my papers,” Ramkellawan says, putting them back in his backpack. “I go to Harvard and it is important for me to educate.”
—Staff writer Marella A. Gayla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marellagayla.