Itzel Chavez in many ways is your quintessential University of Northern Iowa student. She’s ambitious, focused and hard-working. A community college transfer, she’s now a junior studying biochemistry with plans to attend medical school and become a doctor.
She arrives slightly out of breath and nearly 20 minutes late for our interview. Apologetic and appearing just a little overwhelmed, she explains that an anatomy exam ran long.
“But it’s my last midterm, though, so at least there’s that,” she says with a sigh of relief.
Like many of her peers, Itzel doesn’t have it all sorted out. She’s excited about her career path, but she ponders the coming-of-age college questions: What will I do with my degree? What will my future bring?
But these are difficult questions for Chavez to answer due to her precarious immigration status. She’s a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, thrice accepted and once denied for the program established in 2012. Her current status expires in 2019, and she can’t be sure she will qualify for renewal.
Chavez’s aspirations are small yet mighty in the midst of growing fears of deportation. Her hope is to study medicine in the U.S., but that depends, she says, on the lay of the political land following her graduation in 2020.
“Next summer I’m supposed to take the MCAT. I’m going to take it even if I don’t end up going to medical school here,” said Chavez. “If the political climate gets worse, and the deportations get worse, I plan on self-deporting and going back to Mexico.”
It would be the first time she’d step foot across the southern border since her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was a small child. Should she choose this route, she may not be able to return.
“If the political climate gets worse, and the deportations get worse, I plan on self-deporting and going back to Mexico.”
— ITZEL CHAVEZ
A dynamic landscape
“More than ever before, migration touches all states and people in an era of deepening globalization,” begins a 2018 report by the United Nations Migration Agency. In America, the nation with the largest foreign-born population, that touch is an extended reach affecting many. The landscape here is dynamic: at once in continuous upheaval and grinding stasis.
Sweeping policy changes seemingly occur at a moment’s notice, but are subsequently frozen in courts for months, even years. The impact of such changes spans the globe, and alights on the lives of UNI faculty, staff, students and alumni who are confronting the issue through scholarly research, professional work and personal experiences.
Immigrant and refugee scholars at UNI say the situation has become “extraordinarily complex.” They point to the intricate ethnic, cultural and linguistic makeup of newcomers to Iowa as an example.
“What we’re dealing with now is microdiversity,” said Mark Grey, professor of anthropology at UNI. “There is a growing number of smaller, ethnically and linguistically distinct populations. We are now up to about 180 languages in the state of Iowa. Some people say it’s probably closer to 200. And we’re starting to see tremendous diversity in terms of languages, cultures, national origins and immigration status. We have people coming from literally around the world.”
Grey is an expert in culturally responsive community relations. He formerly directed the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration for two decades, and now does similar work consulting with schools, police departments and service providers such as hospitals.
The center helped shepherd the integration of newcomers, primarily Latino, as part of a migration boom in Iowa in the 1990s, providing thousands of trainings to stakeholders across the state. The fruits of the center’s work can be seen today as the children of first-generation Iowans are becoming college-educated leaders in their own communities.
“Less than a generation, they’ve gone from their parents being immigrants or refugees, or they were brought here as young children, and now they’re going to UNI,” Grey said. “And as a professor here that makes me extremely happy.”
WHAT IS DACA?
Per National Public Radio:
DACA is the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created in 2012 by the Obama administration allowing young people brought to this country illegally by their parents to get a temporary reprieve from deportation and to receive permission to work, study and obtain driver’s licenses. Nearly 700,000 people are currently enrolled in the program, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
DACA applicants, commonly known as “Dreamers,” had to be younger than 31 years old when the program began. They also had to prove that they had lived in the United States continuously since June 15, 2007, and that they had arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16.
Those signing up for DACA must show that they have clean criminal records. They have to be enrolled in high school or college, or serve in the military. Their status is renewable every two years.
Perceptions of migrants are changing, both at home and abroad. Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, Americans were more likely to name immigration as the most important issue facing the nation, according to a Pew Research Center Survey (in January of 2017, immigration was cited less often than healthcare, the economy and other issues).
At UNI and across the country, many feel what it means to be an immigrant in higher education has evolved. International student enrollment has declined, nationally and at UNI.
Kristi Marchesani, director of international recruitment and admissions, said the decline is “a result of many factors including increasing concerns … over visa policies, questions of safety and a perception that the U.S. has become less welcoming.” Additionally, foreign governments have made changes to scholarships, which has impacted the number of sponsored students coming to UNI.
Marchesani says the admissions office has worked to make prospective students feel welcome by having international UNI students contact “every prospective student to share their positive UNI experience.”
Paula Knudson, UNI vice president for student affairs, says her office is determined to help current immigrant students in need, such as DACA students, but the work carries added challenges.
“You think of the life of a ‘college student’ that we stereotypically do, and these students have so much more beyond the challenges and excitement of being a college student,” Knudson said, referring to DACA students. “They’ve got family; they’ve got fears that others don’t live with; they’ve got career question marks; financial and food insecurity. And yet, they just want to be able to engage.”
Umaru Balde, ‘13, a UNI alumnus and current master’s student from the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, has felt a change since he first came to the United States 10 years ago.
“Immigrants used to have a little more sympathy from the Americans,” he said. “But now that’s no longer the case. Now a lot of people, what they see in the news … the misinformation … that is playing a huge role and it is impacting people a lot.”
Balde said perceptions of immigrants as dangerous, played out in political rhetoric and in the media, weigh on him. As do increased bureaucratic difficulties related to obtaining citizenship. Balde is a “conditional permanent resident,” meaning he has a temporary green card.
“When I got married, they gave me a two-year residence—that is a conditional,” he said. “Then, after two years, you apply for a new one. The application used to take six to nine months, but now they are 18 months and more. So that creates this obstacle.”
Because of his conditional status, Balde is afraid to leave the country to visit family back home in Guinea-Bissau (the “Portugese Guinea”). He hasn’t gone home to his mother in nearly six years.
And for her to visit him would be risky given federal travel directives that are subject to change, Balde says. His mother is afraid she’ll be turned away.
“So all this really makes things more difficult … I can’t plan anything,” Balde said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Right now, I can’t really travel anywhere. I mean, I can if I wanted to, but I don’t want to take that risk.”
“You think of the life of a ‘college student’ that we stereotypically do, and these students have so much more beyond the challenges and excitement of being a DACA college student. They’ve got family; they’ve got fears that others don’t live with; they’ve got career question marks; financial and food insecurity. And yet, they just want to be able to engage.”
— PAULA KNUDSON
The changing system has created new challenges for UNI alumni like Sarah Schlicher, ‘93, an immigration attorney who owns her own practice in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Working with three other full-time employees, she says it’s hard to keep up with the demands.
“When I started as an attorney, the first discussion I would have to have with a client is why they would need an immigration attorney,” Schlicher said. “That’s a discussion that we no longer have—everybody wants an attorney … it’s gotten to be a stronger feeling that you must have an attorney before you proceed with any kind of immigration application.”
Schlicher estimates her office takes on 200 new cases each year. A few are DACA or family based marriage cases, but the majority are victim based: the applicant is either applying for a U Visa or filing a self-petition under the Violence Against Women Act.
The U Visa was created as a part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 to protect certain noncitizen victims of crimes who assist or are willing to assist in an investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense. The Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in 1994 and expanded in 2000 and 2005 to protect noncitizen victims of domestic violence.
Schlicher said the biggest challenge in the legal world related to immigration is rampant backlogs. Many cases that a short time ago used to take just months to process now take years.
“The U Visa application process between when you file it and when you actually have the U Visa-—you could get it in six months when we started processing them,” Schlicher said. “Now it takes three-and-a-half to four years to get the first temporary decision. And then you might have to wait another five to 10 years to get the actual visa itself.”
Schlicher said the wait is psychologically taxing for her clients. The procedural delays add emotional weight to existing feelings of fear.
“And from a business perspective, it’s pretty difficult to manage cases that you intake knowing that you may have this case in your office for 10 years,” she said.
For some, the wait can be too much.
Balde, speaking at a panel at the Cedar Falls Public Library last fall, recounted a story of two close friends from war-torn South Sudan who, granted temporary asylum in Israel since 2006, waited more than a decade for their resettlement applications to the U.S. and other countries to be accepted. Their U.S. applications were looking good until early 2017, when the process quickly broke down and they were forced to voluntarily self-deport from Israel back to South Sudan.
“They were so heartbroken,” Balde told a hushed room of about a dozen attendees. Balde found out
in February of 2018, a year after the ordeal, that both of his friends had taken their own lives.
“The U Visa application process between when you file it and when you actually have the U Visa-—you could get it in six months when we started processing them. Now it takes three-and-a-half to four years to get the first temporary decision. And then you might have to wait another five to 10 years to get the actual visa itself.”
— SARAH SCHLICHER
Students brave obstacles to attend UNI
“I’m proud to be an immigrant. I’m proud of my parents for bringing me here and for trying to get me a better future,” Chavez says. “But I feel like I don’t belong … America doesn’t accept me and my parents, so why should I accept it?”
Chavez’s parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was four. They resided in Florida for a year and a half before moving to Waterloo. Neither of her parents graduated from high school: her father dropped out in middle school, her mom as a junior.
Chavez didn’t know she was undocumented until sixth grade. She found out in a social studies class.
“The teacher was making a graph about where students were born,” she recalled. “I remember she asked me and I said, ‘Mexico!’ She then asked me—at the time I didn’t think it was a bad question, but now I understand how inappropriate it is—She asked, ‘How did you come to America?’ I remember not being able to answer and feeling confused.”
Chavez recalled questioning her mother that night about how they came to the United States. Her mother explained that the family walked from Mexico, across the border. She explained, as best she could to her 11-year-old daughter, what it meant to be undocumented.
Chavez would soon find out how difficult life would be as an undocumented student. She describes feeling circumscribed by her status: She wouldn’t be able to go to college; to work; to live a normal life. She stopped trying in school.
“I did want to go to college—that was my dream. It was my parents’ dream and I wanted to fulfill that for them,” Chavez said.
She felt hopeless—that is, until 2012 when DACA was introduced. She recalled celebrating, crying tears of joy in the living room with her family as word of the Obama-era executive order came over a LatinX news program.
The first application was a thrilling experience. The $495 fee, the two-year renewal, the mountain of required paperwork—it was all worth it.
“It was exhilarating the first time getting it: ‘Oh my god, I actually have an ID!’” Chavez recalled. “Then I started trying in school because I realized I could go to college, and I felt like I could do anything.” Chavez enrolled at UNI in 2016.
Balde is the first-born son of West African Muslim parents. Per his family’s religious tradition, he was sent away at age 6 to study with a religious scholar.
But what was an honor to his family was more like slavery to Balde. He woke up every day at 4 a.m., prayed at 5 a.m., and then was sent out to toil in the farm fields. At the age of 12, he was severely beaten by the cleric and subsequently fled. He would spend much of his teenage years running from violence and persecution.
At 14, he was recruited into a branch of the army in Guinea-Bissau in the midst of a civil war. At 17, he escaped and made his way to Egypt where he would earn a B.A. in languages and translations. He began his master’s degree there, but was pressured by the government and university administrators to leave the country due to his outspoken political views.
He walked three grueling, dangerous months through desert-like conditions across the Sinai Peninsula and into Israel where he was arrested for illegal entry.
Detained for months, he and dozens of other young Africans began a hunger strike to gain the attention of the Israeli press. After three weeks of protests, the government folded to increasing public pressure and offered release to those who could obtain a sponsor. Balde was sponsored by a journalist who covered the strike.
Balde studied in Israel for a year and a half before applying to school in the United States; he applied to and was accepted at various universities and community colleges in California and Iowa. At the recommendation of a friend, he enrolled briefly at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo before coming to UNI in 2008 to study political science. Balde says he spent significant periods of his life in 12 different countries as part of his journey to the U.S.
“[Looking back,] it was hard, but I didn’t really think about it that way,” Balde said. “As a kid I didn’t have anything to worry about, I just looked to where I was going, and I always wanted just to reach a certain place.”
Overcoming isolation, finding community at UNI
While Balde and Chavez’s stories are different, they find common ground at UNI. For both, initial feelings of isolation gave way to a sense of belonging.
A confluence of hardships—personal, financial and political—forced Chavez to drop out of school less than a year into her time at UNI. Though she has lived in Iowa longer than some of her peers, she must pay out-of-state tuition as a DACA student. As a first-year student, she worked three jobs to get by—until her DACA application was denied.
“I wasn’t sure why; they didn’t tell me why,” Chavez said. “I didn’t have DACA for about a year; it was super scary. I had to stop working. I couldn’t do anything.” She stayed away from home for fear that ICE agents would be waiting to take her away.
No DACA, no work and no money for school led to a period of depression. Steadily, she began tutoring privately for enough funds to reapply and was successful.
The difficult period without DACA inspired Chavez to become more outspoken about her status on behalf of others. In doing so, she found friends in UNI’s Hispanic Latino Student Union, now known as UNIdos, to support her.
“I was able to find my little community,” Chavez says. “My friends, they help me with a lot of things, and I know more now.”
Balde, too, battled mental health issues that resulted in dropping out of school for a brief stint. When he returned, Balde got involved on campus with groups like the International Student Promoters and the African Union.
“I felt really good at UNI,” he said. “Having friends and having that support system—that’s what kept me here and helped me graduate.”
And now, while pursuing his master’s at UNI and working as an educational counselor for the UNI Center for Urban Education, he says he’s pleased by what he sees on campus.
“People are more connected, people communicate with each other, and I’ve seen a lot of students from different cultural and racial backgrounds interacting,” he said. “It wasn’t like that when I first came to UNI.”
Knudson says supporting students like Balde and Chavez is an ongoing commitment bolstered by a culture of kindness at UNI. Despite this, she says, there is work to be done here and on campuses across the country.
“We need to do more, and we’ve started to do more,” she said.
Student Affairs is working to improve the visibility of existing resources. They are coordinating with Career Services to identify internship opportunities for immigrant students, and a recently developed immigration resource page is now housed on the Student Success & Retention website. Student Affairs also partners with faculty to understand student needs and channel appropriate resources.
Although opinions may differ on broader immigration policy, Knudson says, the university’s ultimate aim is to support all students.
“I think most people respond … instead of thinking about it in the masses, ‘I’ve got a human in front of me and I want to help,’” Knudson said. “And I think that’s true of much of the UNI community.” UNI
The University of Northern Iowa is committed to student success, which includes providing a campus culture that reflects and values the evolving diversity of society and promotes inclusion. As a campus community we strive to fully support all of our students, including undocumented students, families and those most directly affected by legal challenges regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).