News feature

Dreamers face uncertain futures despite temporary protection

MIT provides support services and advocacy for DACA protected students

Around 20 students currently studying at MIT are “Dreamers,” protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to receive a deferral from deportation and be eligible for a work permit.

Dreamers’ lives were turned upside-down last November when President Donald Trump declared he would rescind DACA. This January and February, two federal judges prevented the rescission of DACA, temporarily securing Dreamers’ ability to remain in America, but leaving their futures uncertain. Throughout this process, the MIT administration and community has supported Dreamers in many ways — from providing legal services to setting up phone banks.

Recently, The Tech corresponded over email with Ian Bouche ’21 and interviewed Jose Gomez ’17, Johan Villanueva ’20, and Avital Vainberg ’21, all Dreamers, to discuss the effect of DACA and MIT’s response to its planned rescission on their lives.

A “weight on my shoulders”

At the age of two, Bouche came with his parents to the U.S. from Buenos Aires, Argentina to escape the Argentine economic crisis. Bouche and his family lived in Puerto Rico under a business visa for his father’s company. Then, in 2007, his father traveled to Argentina and found upon return that his visa was no longer valid.

Bouche’s family tried to renew their visa, but unlike previous years, his father’s company was required to make at least one million dollars per year. Unable to meet that quota, Bouche’s family continued as undocumented immigrants.

“The introduction of DACA gave my sister and [me] — both essentially raised in America — lots of breathing room while the visa situation got resolved” and lifted a “weight on my shoulders,” Bouche said.

Bouche recalls his parents calling him when Trump declared DACA’s rescission, and feeling that weight return to his shoulders. Bouche said that as a result, “There’s more stress around my family as we try to prepare for the worst” and he feels less “apt as an applicant for jobs and internships.”

But, the worst part he says, is the uncertainty: “I just want to know what’s going to happen already.”

In search of “a normal experience”

At five years old, Gomez immigrated with his parents from Nuevo León, a state in northern Mexico, to McAllen, Texas, where he lived until he was 18 years old.

Gomez explained that because of the proximity to the border, border patrol had a widespread presence in McAllen. Therefore, even with the high numbers of Hispanic and undocumented people, Gomez had to guard himself from everyone around him and always have “in the back of [his] head” a wariness of border patrol.

Gomez grew up poor, but said that he “made the most of it.” By freshman year of high school, he knew he wanted to be an engineer, and by sophomore year, he was dreaming of attending MIT. However, as an undocumented student, Gomez had extra barriers to applying for college. Since McAllen is inside an interior checkpoint, a checkpoint within the U.S. where motorists are stopped and required to verify their residential status, Gomez could not travel far beyond his hometown to attend college. Gomez also had extra concerns about paying for school, as undocumented students cannot apply for FAFSA or many other scholarships.

Luckily, DACA was instituted in Gomez’s junior summer, and opened for him the opportunity to enroll in MIT’s Class of 2017 — the first class after MIT changed its policy to accept undocumented students.

Gomez says that DACA was critical to his having “a normal experience at MIT,” where, like other students, he could UROP and intern. At one point, he says he even considered doing MISTI after he received Advanced Parole, which allows Dreamers to leave the U.S. without losing their DACA status.

The blocked rescission of DACA has continued to allow Gomez to work as an applications engineer at a local robotics startup.

A conflicted identity

Villanueva’s father first came to the U.S. from Colombia. Then, when Villanueva was one year old, he and his mother flew to Chicago to join his father. They overstayed their tourist visa and have since been residing in the U.S., where Villanueva attended Chicago’s public schools.

Villanueva received his DACA status in high school, soon after its enactment. Villanueva explained that it “opened doors” for him by allowing him to legally work and have other “formalities” like a social security number and state ID.

At MIT, Villanueva has been open about his status as a Dreamer, freely discussing it in dorm lounges and with his friends. He said he hasn’t felt much backlash here but has been disappointed by the ignorance of some members of the MIT community. For example, he said he is often asked questions like, “Hey, why don’t you get your citizenship?” and has to explain that Dreamers are legally restricted from doing so.  

Even with the temporary security of the court blocks, the lack of a path to citizenship has made it hard for Villanueva to feel he has an American identity — he prefers to identify as Colombian and Chicagoan. He said, “It’s hard to think about what you are when [anti-immigration advocates tell] you you’re not that. I’ve been feeling very conflicted. … [A path to citizenship] would make me feel prouder, more confident.”

Finding community

Vainberg, of strong Orthodox Jewish heritage, came to the U.S. from Israel when she was one and a half years old as a result of family issues. Like Villanueva, Vainberg overstayed her visa. Before coming to MIT, she attended a private Jewish school. She has continued her strong involvement with the Jewish community through Hillel, a Jewish on-campus organization.

Vainberg said that DACA allowed her to continue living her life as a regular teenager — like her friends, she could drive and obtain a part-time job. She recalled that for her “sweet 16,” her grandparents called her from Israel and asked what she wanted the most for her birthday. When they told her they would get her a driving permit, she was skeptical, since New York did not allow undocumented people to drive. Her grandparents then said that they would pay the fee for her DACA application (currently $465), and Vainberg broke into tears.

DACA also allowed Vainberg to take a gap year and, through Advanced Parole, travel to Israel, an experience she describes as “incredible” and “amazing,” especially because most of her Orthodox Jewish community travels to Israel. During her trip, she was able to meet her extended family, including her very elderly great-grandparents.

While she was there, however, Trump was elected and declared DACA’s rescission. Vainberg feared that she would not be allowed to return to the U.S. Fortunately, she was able to, but found that her DACA status expired five days after Trump’s declared renewal window, causing her to then fear that she would again be undocumented and unable to work over the summer. Luckily, the court cases have since re-opened DACA status renewals, and Vainberg was able to renew her status over IAP.

During her time at MIT, Vainberg has been proactive in educating the Hillel community here and has invited some friends from Harvard’s Hillel community as well. While many community members were initially surprised, she said that they have been very supportive and willing to learn more about her situation.

Like Villanueva, Vainberg struggles with her American identity. She says she grew up American and everyone in Israel told her, “You’re so American!” But, at the same time, she says all of the complicated procedures — going around to government offices, getting fingerprinted — to retain her DACA status make her feel like the U.S. government is constantly telling her, “You’re not American, you remember that!”

On-campus support and protections

Since DACA’s instatement, MIT has continuously provided support services to Dreamers. Dreamers work closely with Gerardo Garcia-Rios, an associate dean and co-director of Student Support Services (S3). In an interview with The Tech, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, explained that Garcia-Rios provides the students with a “point of contact” and works closely “as a group and one-on-one” with the Dreamers.

The DACA students that The Tech met with viewed Garcia-Rios as a trusted authority. When The Tech first emailed Villanueva for comment, Villanueva forwarded the correspondence to Garcia-Rios, who then requested to speak with The Tech about the article. During the conversation, Garcia-Rios emphasized that the students had control over their personal information and needed to be kept safe. Vainberg said that, overall, everything that Garcia-Rios has done for her has been helpful.

Gomez explained that after Trump’s election, a group of undocumented students met with a group of MIT administration to discuss their concerns about a potential DACA rescission. According to Barnhart, the group included an ad-hoc Working Group on Potential Post-Election Changes to Federal Law and Policy and the Office of the General Counsel (OGC). Gomez explained that students brought up issues such as financial hardship, difficulty getting legal advice, and handling of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests.

MIT was responsive to these discussions. Recently, MIT has declared it will adjust financial aid to meet DACA students’ needs if DACA students lose their work authorizations.

In addition, MIT retained Dan Berger, a partner at Curran & Berger LLP, who specializes in immigration law. Students can consult with Berger in person or over the phone. Berger has also conducted briefings and presentations with the MIT community on immigration issues. In an interview with The Tech, Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo described Berger as an “expert” and “national leader” on immigration and said he believed that Berger “has provided some of the students comfort to be able to reach out to him.”

Vainberg said that she has used Berger as a resource to obtain information and advice. She appreciated that the meetings have been “personal and private” and free for the students.

MIT has long-held the policy that MIT Police do not inquire about individuals’ immigration status or enforce federal immigration law. The OGC has helped clarify guidelines on how MIT Police and the Division of Student Life (DSL) should respond to ICE or other third party requests.

The OGC drafted a protocol with MIT Police and the Division of Student Life (DSL) for responding to those requests. DiVicenzo explained that both MIT Police and DSL are instructed not to provide any student information voluntarily but to take identification of the asking party and then notify the OGC, which will coordinate an “appropriate response.” In addition, all legal process should be served on the OGC. The protocol has been distributed to all desk workers and security.

According to Barnhart, the administration has also partnered closely with organizations like the Undergraduate Association (UA), Graduate Student Council (GSC), and FSILG officers to discuss how best to reach out and inform the MIT community. For example, they recently discussed a letter to the community, which led to Barnhart’s March 1 DACA update discussing recent advances in legislative activity and MIT’s policies and support systems for Dreamers.

Legislative and legal advocacy

Since the declared rescission of DACA, MIT has advocated for students on both legislative and legal fronts through lobbying in Washington, D.C. and submitting amicus briefs in five courts, including for the California and New York cases that have temporarily blocked the rescission of DACA.

After Trump’s election, President Reif wrote an editorial in the Boston Globe urging Trump to not rescind DACA, calling a rescission a “mistake” and “a rejection … of thousands of human beings.” Reif argued that a rescission would remove “productive workers from our economy … costing tens of billions in lost future tax revenues and … deportation” and throw away “a tremendous national investment.”

MIT has partnered with various higher education organizations like the American Council on Education (ACE), Association of American Universities, and Association of Public and Land Grant Universities to inform Congress about the importance of DACA. ACE has a Protect Dreamers Higher Education Coalition, which houses “information and resources to help campus leaders, staff, faculty and students advocate to Congress on behalf of Dreamers.” MIT is also part of the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group dedicated to “increasing public understanding of how immigration policies and practices impact our students, campuses and communities.”

MIT has also utilized its D.C. office as a bridge between MIT and legislators. DiVicenzo said that DACA is “certainly on the agenda” of things discussed with members of Congress.

In addition, MIT students have directly lobbied Congress. A few weeks ago, the UA partnered with the MIT administration to set up a phone bank, in which about 40 students called their representatives to express support for Dreamers.

In an email to The Tech, the MIT GSC’s President Sarah Goodman stated that “finding a permanent legislative solution for … Dreamers has been a top priority for our federal advocacy efforts.” The GSC coordinates with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and has met with over 54 federal legislative offices to advocate for bills supporting Dreamers.

On the legal front, DiVicenzo explained that MIT’s amicus briefs focus less on the constitutional and federal legal theories against DACA’s rescission but more on “the impact if DACA is rescinded … on the students, on our alumni, and also on colleges and universities.”

The brief features students from 19 “distinguished American institutions of higher education,” including California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Stanford University, and Harvard University. Gomez and Villanueva are featured in the brief, which exalts their achievements. For example, the brief states that Villanueva graduated second from his high school class, was the co-captain of his high school’s Math Team, and was involved in Homeland Helpers, a student group that helped the Chicago’s homeless population.

The brief claims that DACA’s rescission “impedes the ability of the undersigned institutions to advance their missions, imposes a direct harm on their current students and alumni, and deprives the United States of the benefit of DACA students’ considerable talents.”

An uncertain future

DACA students have said that they appreciate the variety of services that MIT has provided to them. In an interview with The Tech, UA President Sarah Melvin ’18 said that she is proud that MIT has provided the “gold standard” of institutional support for its students and that the UA will continue insuring that MIT continues to provide these services.

Even as the temporary protections from the recent court blocks currently allow students like Bouche, Gomez, Villanueva, and Vainberg to continue working, participating in UROPs, and driving, uncertainty still surrounds the future of DACA students, as they anxiously await appellate court decisions and congressional action.

Chancellor Barnhart and the students expressed hope that their fellow MIT community members would educate themselves about DACA, call their representatives to advocate for Dreamers, and provide Dreamers with active support. Bouche encouraged, “Even just having open arms for DACA holders can make a difference.”