If you have been paying attention, you have by now heard that President Trump has ordered an end to the Obama-era Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation (often referred to as Dreamers). As far as I can tell, this is a very unpopular decision, from both sides of the political spectrum, puts about 800,000 young people at risk of being deported (people who don’t remember living in any other country and might not speak anything but English), and could heavily impact the economy. My Bates colleague Christopher Petrella wrote a great column for the Washington Post, arguing that “ending DACA isn’t about the rule of law. It’s about race.”
Many people have been pointing out how most Dreamers have made great contributions to the economy and American society, how they are mostly model citizens, and how they are everywhere — they are our classmates, our doctors, our firefighters. In this post, I will share with you the writing of a dear friend and exceptional mathematician who was herself an undocumented child. I have edited the post to hide her identity, as she is understandably worried about repercussions, not just for her but her extended family. Still, I applaud her bravery — sharing any of this is not easy, especially not this week.
Before her story though, I want to mention that we should not just limit ourselves to worrying about “exceptional” Dreamers — they all need our support, especially the undeserving. I will quote Bryan Stevenson here from his book Just Mercy. The book (which is wonderful) is about mercy in the context of criminal justice, but the sentiments apply here too.
“Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
Dreaming of the professoriate, by a Dreamer
While teaching, I often tell my students to be brave and come up to the board to explain
their mathematical work to their classmates. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how hard it
is for them to feel comfortable enough with each other, and with me, to value making mistakes in the learning process. They must fight feelings of insecurity, and thoughts that others might judge them negatively based on what they share, especially if their idea does not lead to a correct solution. There are times when they hesitate to come up to the board, but often a few seconds of silence, and my plea to be brave, leads to finding a volunteer and from their ideas we then work together to reach a desired result.
Well today is my day to be brave. It is my time to come up to the (virtual) board, heart on
my sleeve, hoping for minimal judgment and repercussions, all with the longing that as a
mathematical community we will work together to reach a desired result: that regardless
of immigration status, our students, in particular our Dreamers, are provided with a real
opportunity to pursue higher education.
My family immigrated to the United States (a second time) in late 1995. I began 7 th grade
that spring and was placed in bilingual education taking English as a Second Language
(ESL) courses. Throughout my middle and high school years I excelled academically
and I graduated near the top of my high school class. I worked hard and believed that I
would be able to go to a good college. But this was not a real option for me, as I was an
“illegal alien.” No, not undocumented nor a dreamer, these terms are much too recent. I
simply was considered “illegal.”
What I most remember from my senior year of high school was the constant fear that I
would never have the opportunity to attend college. The thought that my academic merit,
community service, school leadership positions, and my participation in extracurricular
activities would never open the door to attend college was debilitating. Halfway through
my senior year, I stepped down as co-president of the honor society and I stopped
participating in student government altogether. Instead, I began hiding in the basement of
the high school where the art studios were located. This was my safe haven.
To make matters worse, I couldn’t trust anyone with this secret, even if I thought they
could help me. The repercussion of the wrong person finding out my and my family’s
immigration status could mean deportation for us all. A risk I did not want the
responsibility of bearing, and one for which silence was the only answer. Sadly, teachers
and counselors lacked resources and information on how to help students in my situation.
I took it upon myself to research what options existed and through this work, I discovered
that my only option to attend college was to apply as an international student (with a US
high school diploma!). However, I would need a sponsor to cover the international tuition
cost fully. This was clearly not a real option.
What I did instead was the bravest and scariest thing I have ever done in my life. I
applied to the local community college and used my taxpayer identification number as
my social. I didn’t request financial aid, and I paid my tuition in full every semester, so no one ever questioned my identifying information. Five semesters later I had earned two
In the last semester as a community college student my immigration status changed,
when at the age of 19 I married my high school sweetheart, a US citizen by birth. Our
marriage afforded me the opportunity to become a permanent resident, and with my new
and improved immigration status, I transferred to a local private university where I earned a full merit scholarship to complete my bachelor’s degree. From there, I attended the
nearby state university to complete a master’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics.
My first job was as an assistant professor at a service academy. I consider my time there
my service to this country. The military personnel I worked with taught me many
valuable life lessons, and the impact the academy had on my professional development
was immense. Now I am a tenure-track assistant professor of mathematics at a prestigious college and I constantly reminisce on what I have overcome in my journey to the
professoriate and wonder how many more students would reach their goals if they were
only given the opportunity.
Although my journey to the professoriate was (is!) not easy, I was extremely lucky that
my marriage provided a path to citizenship, not only for myself, but also for my
immediate family. This is certainly not the case for most students in similar situations, as
there are very few options for children and young people who were brought to the United
States by no choice of their own. These children and young people are being prevented
from fulfilling their potential solely based on their current immigration status. Moreover,
recent events have shown me that students who had temporary legal deferment from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) may suffer greatly in the coming months.
As educators, we have a responsibility to help our students fulfill their academic potential and at this moment our Dreamers need our help and our advocacy. I urge you to find ways that your campus and community could help these students. Here are a few examples on how you can help:
- Educate yourself and your colleagues on resources for undocumented students. Here is a resource guide provided by the Department of Education.
- Help your college/university become a sanctuary campus. Here is a link to a list of current sanctuary campuses nationwide.
- Sign petitions for the continuation of the executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Such a petition can be found here.
Let’s continue fighting for all of our students and for the opportunities they need to reach
their full potential. Together we can shape academia into an environment that promotes
the success of all of our students, but this fight starts with us.
It also hurts my heart to know that marriage to a US citizen, which gained this remarkable person a path towards citizenship, is no longer sufficient for undocumented folks to open a path towards legal status. In other words, the exact same story today would not have the same happy ending of citizenship because marrying a US citizen does not allow an uncocumented person an opportunity towards legalized status. Indeed, DACA is the only way a student with the same story could achieve a college education.
Thank you for sharing this remarkable person’s story.