“Education, not deportation,” a swell of 20 students chanted as they formed human chains on either side of Locust Walk. 

The rain had dissolved into a misty drizzle, dampening protest signs that read, “No Human Being is Illegal” and “Let Us Be A Part of the American Dream.” 

President Trump had finally announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows young people who came to the U.S. as children to work and study without fear of immediate deportation. During his campaign, he pledged to discontinue the program. After months of oblique hints and veiled warnings, Trump fulfilled his promise and ordered a phaseout for the program on Sept. 5, casting its beneficiaries into uncertainty.  

When the news broke, Kareli Lizarraga, the director of La Casa Latina, told affected students at a meeting, “You can only plan your life for the next two years.” 

Photo: Julio Sosa

In two years, when the last DACA permit expires, work permits and social security numbers will disappear as well. Most Penn students are just beginning to sketch out their lives and careers, but for some, their fate and future are in the hands of Congress.“You don't know what's going to happen in two years,” Ale Cabrales (C ‘21), one of the organizers of the Locust Walk demonstration, said. “You don't know if you're going to be in this country in two years.”

Ale organized the demonstration with Eva Lewis (C ‘21) to support students impacted by the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Last Wednesday, they gathered a small group of students who knew each other, with a few passerby joining them, in linking arms. As campus bustled around them, they lamented what the end of DACA could mean for students on campus who applied to Penn under the program. 

In Ale’s words, it’s as if the government told DACA students, “Hey, two years from now, even if you graduate, your diplomas are going to be useless." 

DACAmented at Penn

There’s a group of students at Penn who applied as international students, even though they live here in the U.S.

Many of them, like Pamela (C ‘18), have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives, and don’t have memories of another place. Pamela, who preferred to omit her last name, was born in Mexico. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was just one year old. Her childhood memories, even the haziest ones, are all of Houston, T.X., where she grew up and went to school.

As a kid, she didn’t really think about her undocumented status. Pamela didn’t begin to feel the weight of her situation until she entered the later years of high school and discovered the barriers in place for college-hopeful students living in the U.S. without citizenship.

"It wasn't until I had to apply for college that I realized my citizenship status would affect me,” Pamela said. “I think that's when I felt a little bit beaten down because of it. But prior to that, it was actually pretty normal."

Pamela didn’t apply to Penn as an undocumented student. She applied under DACA. An executive order issued under President Obama, DACA allows undocumented young adults who immigrated to the U.S. before their 16th birthday to get a job or pursue a degree without fear of immediate deportation. Nationally, only five to ten percent of undocumented students without DACA make it to college, often clearing bureaucratic and financial hurdles to attend. 

The envelope with Pamela’s first DACA certification opened opportunities for her that were previously sealed: a driver’s license, state ID, and ability to travel. And even though the application was unwritten, and an admissions officer hadn’t yet reviewed it, one more door opened: Penn.

In her freshman year, Pamela mentioned her undocumented status to an older friend. That friend referred her to Penn for Immigrant Rights (PIR), an advocacy group for undocumented immigrants. Four years later, Pamela is now the chairwoman of the organization. The group educates the public on immigration issues, directs advice and resources to undocumented Penn students, and raises money for a scholarship awarded to one undocumented student in Philadelphia. 

Maria (C ‘19) is also a member of PIR. She didn’t apply to Penn under DACA: she grew up undocumented and became a U.S. citizen in eighth grade. But she recalls the nagging fear that came attached with her undocumented status, that turned every trivial mistake into a potential catastrophe.

“Being undocumented, I know what it’s like to walk around with that fear,” Maria, who preferred to omit her last name, said. “Something that a lot people talk about is, being an immigrant, you have to be perfect. You can’t get a parking ticket. You can’t do anything.”

Maria does know someone—a friend of her mother’s—who was deported for paying a parking ticket. Stories like this can create a blanket fear of organizations that require formal documentation—like universities. They inspire vigilance against visibility. Pamela called it “living in the shadows.”  

“I think a lot of Penn students—I don’t want to generalize—but I think a lot of them have no idea there are DACA and undocumented students walking around in class with them,” Maria said.

 A Turning Point Called Trump

Pamela got her first DACA certification when she was junior in high school. She used an immigration lawyer’s help to work through the extensive application process, which included proof of residency and background checks. Then, she waited to see if her application was approved. She knew she wanted to go to college no matter what; she would be first in her family to do so.

When she got a letter in her mailbox with news about her DACA status, she didn’t even wait to go inside the house before opening it. When she opened the envelope and saw she had been approved, she cried from relief, still standing at the curb.

“I knew I had a way in for college,” Pamela said. “But regardless, I knew whatever would have happened, I could now work and help support my family.” 

Pamela would renew her DACA permit a few more times. Recipients had to submit a DACA renewal every two years to continue using the program. After Oct. 5, DACA renewals will close. It’s unclear if a program will replace DACA, or what it would look like. 

“The future of DACA is something I’m nervous about and something I have to consider,” Pamela said. “Without it, I don’t have a work permit.”

With the end of DACA looming, the University is once again recalibrating its resources for impacted students. Penn President Amy Gutmann has pledged to “do everything in our power to protect and defend” undocumented students. Eva and Ale suggested that Penn offer other resources for undocumented students during this legislative limbo, such as paying for legal assistance, offering housing during breaks if students feel unsafe leaving Penn, and extending protection to students if they do choose to return home. 

This is the second time in a year the University has affirmed their support for undocumented students. After the 2016 presidential election, Penn professors circulated an open letter urging Gutmann to make a statement in support of undocumented students. PIR members followed with their own petition, calling for her to declare Penn a sanctuary campus. Soon after, Gutmann released a statement that affirmed Penn was a “sanctuary” for undocumented students, which was widely interpreted to mean sanctuary campus, and added her name to a letter supporting DACA. (Philadelphia itself is a sanctuary city.) After her announcement, five undocumented students met with high–level administrators to discuss further protective steps. 

Penn accepts applicants who are undocumented, but policies differ across schools. In Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, undocumented students are banned from even applying to in–state public universities. It can be daunting for an undocumented student to reveal their status to an admissions counselor, a stranger at a school they may have never even visited.

Maria Sotomayor, the deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), has found that confusion abounds when students work within different universities’ policies. As a formerly undocumented student who was once illegally barred from public school, she works with DACA and undocumented students as they apply to college. Her advice to undocumented students is to choose carefully when to reveal their status.

“It’s tough for people to figure out how comfortable they are with sharing everything from their immigration status to their story,” Sotomayor said. “Especially nowadays because of everything we’ve seen. People should know what their limits are in terms of how much they want to expose themselves to.”

Ale emphasized the fear and uncertainty that can trail undocumented students, overshadowing their concerns for grades or schoolwork. It’s hard to focus on an assignment if you’re worried that your family might be deported, she pointed out. It seems futile to work towards a degree if you don’t have a work permit that would allow you to get a job after college. 

"Penn has made a lot of reassurances that these students will be safe at Penn, but no one knows what's going to happen after they graduate, you know? They're just basically being thrown into the world, into the shadows,” Ale said, echoing Pamela’s comparison. “Living in fear all the time."

An uncertain future

“The truth is that immigration is quite complicated,” the founders’ statement of Penn for Immigrant Rights reads, “but it becomes more real to us when we talk about the humanity behind it.”

However, a conversation can become a cacophony. Competing voices can drown each other out. Sotomayor has talked to undocumented students at Penn who have struggled to find a space to speak on campus.  

“That’s the other experience that I see with students who are currently at Penn or have graduated,” Sotomayor said. “That getting lost and not having their voices being heard in terms of the whole institution.” 

Photo: Yosef Robele

Immigrant rights advocates have pointed out that DACA’s strict requirements were exclusionary to some immigrants. And because the measure was an executive order, not a law, it was always tenuous. 

“We need to make sure everyone’s okay,” Ale said, “and that it’s a permanent solution—not an executive action.”

The revocation of DACA affirms the ever–present fear Maria mentioned of getting a parking ticket, of revealing immigration status on a college application. When news about DACA changes by the day, it’s unclear how much DACA students—who submitted their personal information to gain permits—should fear the federal government. Trump has challenged Congress to replace DACA with their own program in six months, and has indicated a possible deal with Democratic leaders. As the waiting commences, It’s unclear what the trajectory of Penn’s DACA students will be, or what Congress will decide, or if 20 voices on Locust Walk can be heard.

Julia Bell is a junior in the College studying English from Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. She is a Features Editor for Street.