Fighting for their future

Ana Mercado was in fifth grade when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came knocking on her door. They were looking for the owners of the house she was living in at the time with her parents and siblings, not for Mercado herself. But when she looked at her mom, Mercado saw she had turned pale. She watched her mom hold up a finger to her lips as the agents shouted for them to open up, and stayed quiet until they eventually gave up and went away.

“I could see the fear within her,” Mercado said. “She was afraid not just for herself but for her children.”

Students and faculty members gather for a meeting of the USC IDEAS Movement, which stands for “Improving Dreams, Education, Access and Success.” During the meeting, students discussed fearful questions of how to protect themselves and their families from the threat of deportation. — Photo by Trevor Sochocki

Students and faculty members gather for a meeting of the USC IDEAS Movement, which stands for “Improving Dreams, Education, Access and Success.” During the meeting, students discussed fearful questions of how to protect themselves and their families from the threat of deportation.
— Photo by Trevor Sochocki

Mercado didn’t understand at the time that her mom reacted this way because she, her older brother and both of her parents were undocumented. She came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 3 years old, and had lived in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles for her entire life, so she never felt like her American identity was in question. But for Mercado, now a sophomore majoring in contemporary Latino studies and sociology, the memory of this incident stayed with her as she grew up, applied to college and witnessed the topic of immigration play a larger role in American political discourse.

As an undocumented student, Mercado is not alone on campus. The USC Financial Aid Office works with as many as 46 undocumented students, and there could be any number of others who do not voluntarily reveal their status or do not seek aid from the University. However, they are a group that largely lacks resources despite facing unique challenges, from college affordability to the threat of deportation. And with rising anti-immigrant sentiment and open threats of mass deportations from President-elect Donald Trump, many are beginning to fear that the lives they have worked hard to build may be in jeopardy.

Facing barriers

The reasons a student may be classified as undocumented are diverse, as are the demographics of the people that fall into this category. They came to the United States from countries as far apart as Mexico, Brazil and Cambodia, for reasons ranging from fleeing gang violence to seeking better economic opportunities. Some of them tried to apply for citizenship, but found that the process could take years to complete. Others were brought here as children, and didn’t learn about their undocumented status until they had already lived in the U.S. for most of their lives.

Most undocumented students, however, share a narrative of hardship that encompasses the struggles of all immigrants — adjusting to a new culture, learning the language and missing home — while also facing unique difficulties from a lack of legal documentation. Without a Social Security Number, those who are undocumented cannot legally work, obtain a driver’s license or apply for a loan.

This also makes applying to college more difficult. Felipe, a graduate engineering student who declined to use his last name in order to protect his status, immigrated from Brazil when he was 15. He said that when applying to USC, he had questions unique to his situation. Should he apply as an international student? How would he get around having to provide a Social Security Number? None of these had easily accessible answers.

“Navigating school is already hard. You come in as a freshman and you don’t know what to do. There’s all these documents you have to fill out,” Felipe said. “Coming as an undocumented [student] is way harder because you cannot just go get the information. You have to meet people and find [your own] way around.”

Paying for USC is difficult as well, mainly because undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid such as Pell Grants or student loans. The California DREAM Act provides some relief, allowing certain students to apply for in-state public and private assistance, which includes University grants. However, this aid is limited. Though USC promises to meet the full demonstrated need of students eligible for federal funding, this category doesn’t apply to undocumented students, leaving some struggling to fill the gap.

“Financial aid at USC is a partnership between the student, the parent, the University and the federal and state government,” said Thomas McWhorter, the dean of financial aid at USC. “In the case of an undocumented student, they’ve never been able to access federal student aid … which is why we are asking other departments and scholarship providers if we can help these students. Clearly we’re making it possible because there are a number of students who are here.”

These other methods can include merit funding, special University programs like the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, scholarships from outside agencies and “self-help” options, including student jobs. Students who qualify under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act, which applies to undocumented residents who were brought to the United States at a young age after 2007, can receive a temporary Social Security Number, which allows them to work, obtain a driver’s license and apply for loans.

Many undocumented students work several jobs at a time in order to make up the difference that state or University aid doesn’t cover. But others are forced to take a leave of absence because they cannot afford to pay, according to one undocumented student who preferred to remain anonymous.

Reaching for resources

In order to address these challenges, numerous organizations at USC have made a special effort to reach out to undocumented students. While many of the cultural centers on campus are prepared to address these students’ questions, El Centro Chicano is particularly active in this area because of the large number of undocumented students that come from Latin American countries. The center, according to El Centro Director Billy Vela, provides emotional support as well as more concrete resources and connections.

“What they can get is a welcome to the Trojan Family, and love and support and excitement … in effect, some normalcy,” Vela said. “After that, we can go somewhat deeper and find out their particular story.”

Students can also find that feeling of community through the USC IDEAS Movement, which stands for “Improving Dreams, Education, Access, and Success.” Mercado currently serves as president of this organization, which holds weekly meetings on topics specific to undocumented students. And since last year, they can even find a collection of online resources on the Undergraduate Student Government website, thanks to the efforts of Sen. Sabrina Enriquez.

But what many students lack, according to USC Rossier professor Kristan Venegas, is a set of formal resources offered by the University, including specialized financial aid options. Venegas has been helping undocumented students at USC informally for the past decade, passing along information through word of mouth and helping connect students to scholarships or mentors. But she said many students can still slip through the cracks because the University does not provide outreach programs or otherwise acknowledge the existence of its undocumented population.

“If you’re smart enough to get into USC, you clearly have the academic potential to make it just as much as any other student next to you,” Venegas said. “To me, what differentiates you is your ability to access aid and other daily needs. If you’re having to work … you might have to slow down your pace.”

‘Uncertainty and fear’

The need for increased resources has become all the more urgent, Venegas said, in the face of increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric employed by many individuals and Republican politicians. Most notably, President-elect Donald Trump has called for the mass deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. as a central part of his platform.

Students have been affected by these statements as well. Mercado said she is concerned by the number of people that openly support Trump on campus. As a result, she has been afraid to talk about her status in public. Others, like Kimberly Alvarado, a sophomore majoring in psychology, have felt the impact of Trump’s call for a special “deportation force” to round up undocumented immigrants on a personal level. Alvarado, who came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 4 years old, said that she fears what will happen to her family and her future if Trump follows through with his promise.

“I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, putting all stereotypes and expectations aside,” Alvarado said. “And right now, I feel like I’m not a part of this country though I call it home, [because] all of that can be taken away so soon. My two younger sisters look up to me, and what if I’m not here for them? What if all this work here was for nothing?”

Vela, however, is hopeful that the rhetoric employed by Trump and his supporters can serve to unite, rather than divide, the student body at USC.

“The election season has brought up a lot of prominence about the discussion,” Vela said. “I think the response to it has been very fierce and very strong and I feel like has really galvanized people who are both undocumented and allies to push even harder for people to take another look at the community.”

Moving forward

More resources have become available to undocumented students at USC over the past few years. IDEAS was founded in 2011, and USG’s Undocumented Resource Guide was created last year. But students such as Mercado believe that more work needs to be done, starting with formal recognition by the University.

“I feel like there’s a lot [USC administrators] can do, especially now,” Mercado said. “They speak about ‘diversity’ and providing assistance to all these different cultures, and yet they haven’t done much [for undocumented students]. For one, they need to provide legal assistance — we need to have someone here on campus that we can go to to ask our questions, explain our concerns and get some sort of guidance.”

Others, such as Enriquez, have fought to create an Undocumented Resource Center, a model that already exists in the University of California system. Plans to implement such a center were included in the Campus Climate Resolution that USG passed in 2015, but the University has yet to act on them. Administrators also have not yet agreed to declare USC a sanctuary for undocumented students, despite an online petition that has garnered over 4,700 signatures from students, faculty and alumni as of Tuesday. And until they do, Mercado said that the responsibility falls on undocumented students to defend the lives they have built in the U.S. in the face of legal and financial threats.

“I feel like the biggest thing is learning,” Mercado said. “Learning about the laws, ways to protect ourselves, gaining that knowledge of everything we need to ensure that we are ready to fight if we have to, that we’re prepared to defend ourselves against whatever comes.”