Colleges rush to protect immigrant students

Colleges rush to protect immigrant students
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Colleges and universities are on the front lines of the immigration battle in Washington, pushing the administration and Congress to preserve a program for young people illegally brought to the United States as children.

Known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program lifts the threat of deportation from undocumented immigrants under the age of 35 who came to the United States before age 16. Participants in the program, which provides only temporary relief, must meet a series of conditions.

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President Obama instituted the program in 2012 via executive action, and its future under the Trump administration is uncertain.

In 2016, more than two dozen schools and higher-education organizations listed lobbying on DACA or the legislative version of it, known as the Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act.

Institutions that reported lobbying on DACA last year included Stanford University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ohio State University, Rutgers and Princeton University, among many others.

“The issue has essentially boiled down to colleges going out of their way to stand with these students,” said Juan Escalante, the community engagement manager for immigration reform group America’s Voice. “Regardless of where they come from, they are peers to some of our best and brightest, getting scholarships or paying their own tuition, and we can’t back down from supporting them.”

“The main [reason], to me, that comes up is the investment that universities have made in these students; they recognize their talents,” said Escalante, a Venezuelan-born DACA beneficiary. “I think it’s reflective of what the deferred access program is.”

While many universities told The Hill they had been advocating for keeping or strengthening the program for years, the presidential election brought a new sense of urgency. 

Georgetown University, which has made immigration a key policy priority for a decade, recently hired the law and lobbying powerhouse Covington & Burling specifically to work on the DACA issue.

“There was a time period where DACA was in place, and it wasn’t seen as at risk,” said Scott Fleming, the associate vice president for federal relations at Georgetown. “It’s not surprising that as something reaches a point where a decision needs to be made, we ramp up our efforts.”

“I suspect that when you see quarterly reports come out in April, for the first quarter, you will see even more,” he said.

President Trump vowed during the campaign to eliminate DACA, but in recent weeks has expressed sympathy for the so-called Dreamers in the program, calling them “incredible kids.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration would be crafting a careful plan for dealing with their immigration status. 

“His thinking is: ‘We don’t have to deal with this right now. I want to hear more. I want to plan how we deal with this,’ ” Spicer said. “Let’s not start to create a problem that doesn’t exist right now.”

Most colleges and universities that have disclosed lobbying on the immigration program reported doing so in the last three months of 2016, around the time that Trump won the election and the BRIDGE Act was introduced.

The American Council on Education — which includes the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and more than 1,000 others — sent a letter last month to BRIDGE Act original co-sponsors Sens. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSupreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Protecting the future of student data privacy: The time to act is now Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (D-Ill.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) expressing support. 

The re-introduced legislation has eight co-sponsors in the Senate and 17 in the House. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working to boost those numbers, reports say.

Lobbyists have been meeting with policymakers and staff on Capitol Hill, including bringing students in to meet with staff.

“One of the things I have tried to do, we have tried to do, is to get these stories in front of decisionmakers. We have lots of them, we have been sharing them, our students are willing to put their stories out there,” said Fleming. “It helps get beyond the stereotypes that some are portraying about immigrants in our country.”

“We have been encouraged by the president’s sympathetic comments of this particular cohort of immigrants, but we also feel like there are others who have another view within the administration, so that internal process is still ongoing,” he said. 

Advocates from several universities are attempting to navigate the new administration and secure meetings with officials — one reason Georgetown has hired additional firepower.

Lobbyists told The Hill that reaching out to the Trump administration has proved difficult, as many mid-level positions have yet to be filled.

“A lot of the initial work is trying to get a sense for what the plans are. ... That’s the kind of thing where a lot of us in the higher education space talk to one another: ‘What are you hearing? What are you hearing?’ ” said Jim Gelb, the assistant vice chancellor for federal relations at the California State University system, a 23-university network with 475,000 students.

There are thousands of DACA beneficiaries in colleges and universities nationwide, including an estimated 8,000 in the California system. The numbers are hard to pin down, as students in many cases are not required to list their involvement in the program.

Overall, there are an estimated 740,000 young immigrants able to obtain work permits and remain temporarily protected from deportation under the Obama-era program. The BRIDGE Act would extend those benefits for three more years if they were revoked. 

Advocates note that there are no permanent protections in place for DACA recipients; the program also doesn’t offer a path to amnesty or citizenship.

“The analogy I like to draw is the Affordable Care Act: What we would like to see for DACA is not repeal without a replace. Ideally, we would like to see a permanent solution. Even DACA was a temporary fix,” said Matthew Shick, the director of government relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“If you look at the demographics for these students, not only for the numbers that will eventually be eligible to apply to medical school, but their backgrounds — they’re individuals that are often bilingual, underrepresented minorities, and from currently underserved areas. All of those factors indicate that they’re more likely to go return to those areas to treat those needy populations,” Shick said.

Also, “training with these individuals has an impact on their peers and on the educational environment in general,” he added.

For the higher-education sector, the young immigrants are seen as a way of boosting the communities where they study.

“In Iowa, we have a population and workforce issue. We need more skilled and degreed professionals in our workforce,” said Randy Pilkington, the director of business and community services and federal relations at the University of Northern Iowa. 

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“I’m not trying to get into whether it is the right thing or the wrong thing. In general, in a slow-growing state, we need immigrants, especially those who are educated as a part of the future workforce,” he said.