An uncertain future for undocumented students

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A Dreamer wonders what’s next. Plus, hope and hiccups as visa processing resumes.

DACA’s Future in Limbo

Growing up, Lizbeth Macias knew her family’s story, that she and her parents had come to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a small child. 

But she didn’t see that history as something that set her apart from her classmates. Thanks to DACA, the Obama-administration program for young undocumented immigrants, she got her driver’s license alongside her friends and landed a part-time job in high school.

That sense of sameness, and the security it brought, fell away when she got her first college tuition bill, triple what she’d expected as an in-state student at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. She hadn’t realized that Wisconsin, like many states, charges nonresident rates to undocumented students.

Lizbeth had not told her guidance counselor or teachers about her status. Partly, she worried about the impact disclosing the information could have on her parents — and by extension, on her two younger brothers. But she’d also allowed herself to believe that because she was a Dreamer, the opportunities she and her friends had were alike. They were not.

For a time, Lizbeth lived at home, taking classes at the campus in Waukesha. Then she heard of the Dream.US, a foundation that offers full scholarships to DACA recipients and other undocumented students. “I didn’t know if I trusted it,” she said. “It seemed almost too good to be true.”

Still, she applied and won a scholarship to study at Eastern Connecticut State University. All she knew of Connecticut was that it was the setting for Gilmore Girls.

The first semester was tough. Lizbeth, now a junior majoring in education and Spanish, developed a new appreciation for her parents’ sacrifice. 

“I knew for the first time what it meant to leave home for a brighter future,” she said. “But they came here with nothing, while we had everything they did not have.”

At Eastern Connecticut, Lizbeth is one of 143 Dream.US scholars. The students are excellent, said Chris Dorsey, the university’s director of enrollment management, with an average grade-point average of 3.5 and a four-year graduation rate above 90 percent. The senior class president was part of the program, as was the student-government vice president. 

“It shows that when you take cost off the table,” Dorsey, said, “just how successful these students can be.”

Eastern Connecticut holds weekly meetings for scholarship recipients their first year and monthly after that. It connects them with mentors and sets them up with campus jobs. For a college with a mostly regional pull, the scholars add welcome diversity. And Eastern Connecticut is applying lessons from the program, such as building cohorts for support, to improve outcomes other first-generation and low-income students, Dorsey said.

When the college signed on, it made a four-year commitment. This past year, it enrolled the fifth class of scholars. “I thought by now we wouldn’t have to do this anymore,” Dorsey said.

Legislation to provide legal protections and a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and other young immigrants has remained stymied in Washington, although President Biden is supportive of such changes. And many immigration-law experts think a federal judge in Texas could rule the current program unlawful.

Recently, Lizbeth joined other students and recent graduates at a roundtable with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona; it was her first time sharing her story publicly. 

Since she was a child playing school, Lizbeth has known she wanted to teach. Without a DACA fix, she wonders what will happen to those dreams. “I worry that my future is in limbo.”

Got a story tip or question? Email me. Or connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.

A Slow Return to Normal?

With the U.S. State Department lifting of travel restrictions on international students, visa processing last week began a slow but hopeful return to normal.

In Beijing, the U.S. embassy said it would be able to conduct 3,000 student-visa interviews a day by mid-May, once it ramps up consular operations. It got as many applications in the first hour its website reopened Tuesday. 

Some lucky students were able to snag appointments….

…while many found themselves stuck in a lengthy queue.

Based on past application volume and the backlog caused by a 15-month coronavirus closure, consulates in China alone could have to handle 150,000 applicants over the next three months, the typical student-visa high season.

Attempts to playfully promote the return to visa processing backfired after the U.S. embassy included a video of a dog in its post on student visas. The social-media oops riled nationalist sensitivities in China and was criticized as racist.

Meanwhile, NAFSA is asking the State Department to revise the national-interest exemption for international students to remove a condition that it only apply to academic programs that begin after August 1. The provision may be causing problems for current students who want to return to the U.S. to resume their studies or to participate in OPT, the work program for international graduates.

In a second letter, to the director of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, NAFSA asked the agency to clarify and expand its pandemic-related student-visa guidance. Among the requests, the group asked that SEVP make clear the procedures for the return to “normal operations,” eliminate the 12-month validity for paid SEVIS fees, and do away with the distinction between new and continuing students, such as the prohibition against new students coming to the U.S. for online-only study. It also asked that SEVP work with other agencies to permit students to apply for OPT from outside the country.

A Q&A on Mental Health

The past year has held a lot of grim milestones. The latest data from Stop AAPI Hate show more than 6,600 reported incidents of anti-Asian discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic.

I talked with Katie Koo, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University at Commerce and an expert on international students and mental health, about the impact of the pandemic and anti-Asian racism on students’ wellbeing and how colleges can do better to support them in culturally responsive ways. Read more of Koo’s insights in our Chronicle Q&A. (Free registration required.)

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Around the Globe

A group of Republican senators are warning the U.S. Department of Justice not to give amnesty to researchers who come forward to report previously undisclosed sources of foreign funding.

Higher-ed associations have asked for a meeting with the State Department to share their concerns about the raising of travel advisories for U.S. travelers.

In a letter to its Senate sponsors, the American Council on Education said that a bill to safeguard American research against foreign threats could impede international partnerships, discourage international students from coming to the U.S., and complicate efforts to insure transparency of foreign funding.

The governor of Washington and the president of the University of Washington are asking the government of Egypt to permit a graduate student formerly detained there to return to his studies in the U.S.

Institutions that took part in Generation Study Abroad, a commitment to increasing and diversifying study abroad, tripled their growth in participation compared to other colleges, a new Institute of International Education review found.

The UK and India have agreed to a plan for investment in joint research and to increase student mobility.

Medical students in India have suspended their studies to help respond to the Covid crisis.

Belgian universities were among those hit in a nationwide cyberattack.

The University of Hong Kong severed ties with its student union, saying that it “strongly condemns” the student group’s “radical acts and remarks.” Student unions have been targeted in the national-security crackdown.

The U.S. should commit to vaccinating every international student as a way to begin restoring its status as a worldwide destination of choice, education leaders argue.

I joined fellow journalists from NPR and the Washington Post for a Future U. reporters’ roundtable on vaccines and visas. Listen to the podcast here.

And finally…

Ahead of Mother’s Day, the Times asked a dozen moms to write about their secret strengths, from instilling confidence in their kids to doing all the voices for their daughters’ stuffed animals. My own mother’s not-so-hidden power is as a grandmother. No place is as cool to hang out at as G’ma’s apartment; no one is as up for being the utility player, inhabiting parts from Captain America to Narcissa Malfoy, in games of make believe; no one is as reliably in the stands for baseball games and soccer matches and hockey practices and fun runs and ballet recitals and…

So, happy Mother’s Day to my own mom and all the other super-moms out there.

‘Til next week —Karin

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