What’s Next for Undocumented Students?

When Thomas* was applying to colleges, his first choice, Columbia University, denied his application, inaccurately labeling him as an international student. Thomas is an undocumented immigrant whose family left the Dominican Republic just before his 6th birthday. He considers himself American, but due to his lack of citizenship, not everyone shares his sentiments.

“When Donald Trump first announced his bid for the presidency, I thought it was laughable. When he won the primaries, I thought, ‘What does this person have that allows him to exceed expectations?’” Thomas said.

President-elect Donald Trump spewed hateful rhetoric towards undocumented immigrants during his campaign. Students like Thomas are worried about the future of their education and of their lives in this country. After 9/11, immigration policies tightened, and Thomas’s parents, who had been trying for years to enter the U.S. legally, brought his brother Rick, 23, and him to the United States. He is in the U.S. illegally, as are many other undocumented students who were brought here by their parents.

“All I remember is I got on a plane and came here,” Thomas said. He is currently pursuing a computer science degree at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Undocumented students are at risk of not being able to complete their education under a Trump presidency. Trump has promised to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy President Obama’s administration introduced in 2012. DACA allows undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors a two-year time period when deportation is deferred. Thomas renewed his DACA this year. It will expire in 2018, unless Trump’s administration terminates the program.

Due to the uncertain future of DACA, lawyers are advising their clients not to submit new applications. Elizabeta Markuci, the director of an immigration project at Volunteers of Legal Service in New York City, is among those advising their clients against applying for DACA.

“I want to see if the current administration is going to cancel the program. By helping new applicants with DACA, we might be exposing them,” she said, by giving the government their personal information.

When Thomas applied for DACA in 2012, he underwent a tedious process of filling out applications, waiting in line at the Department of Homeland Security in Manhattan and filling out more forms there. His father, Roberto*, 55, saved money for months to pay the $465 fee.

The process was a revelation for Thomas. Up until his junior year of high school, he was unaware that he was undocumented. Growing up, his parents never wanted him to tell his classmates he was an immigrant. It was not until he began applying to colleges that he realized he was different than his peers.

“I thought my parents were embarrassed of being immigrants. When we would watch the news and there would be something on having to do with undocumented immigrants, my parents would pay a lot of attention. They would say, ‘Oh it’s a shame what is happening to them,’ but I was very disassociated,” he said. “Looking back, I realize why they were so transfixed. It was literally us.”

When Thomas’s high school counselor explained to him his options for college, he became aware of his status as undocumented. His counselor explained to him that he could qualify for in-state tuition from public colleges, but receive no federal aid from private universities. He could only receive need-based aid from private universities. Because of this, Thomas mostly applied to public state and city colleges. However, he felt he could get a better education at a private university and decided to apply to Columbia and NYU.

“Columbia didn’t even look at my application. They denied me outright. I am very grateful of NYU’s consideration of me during my college application process,” he said. As long as undocumented students applying to NYU complete the Undocumented Student Financial Aid Application and the CSS profile, they will be considered for need-based NYU scholarships, said Robert Zsifkov, a financial aid counselor at the NYU StudentLink Center. Thomas declined to comment on the amount of aid the university gives him.

NYU has taken several post-election measures to reassure its students. NYU will continue to provide funding to undocumented students and they will continue to be treated exactly as all other students at NYU with regard to housing, privacy and all other matters, according to a letter from NYU President Andrew Hamilton,

However, despite Thomas’s gratitude for NYU, his time at the university has not been without a downside. The day after the election, Thomas recalls a hate crime that was directed at Muslim students in Tandon.

“It could be someone I know that did it, it could be someone I don’t know. I’m scared of something like that happening to me,” he said. “All of my friends know I am undocumented, but I am scared of the wrong person finding out.”

Prior to November 8, Thomas had hopes of working at a startup or creating his own startup. Now, he is looking at other countries that will accept computer science or technologically savvy people for jobs because he fears he will not be able to use his degree legally when he graduates in 2018—midway through Trump’s presidency.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’m scared of getting deported. My dad told me it’s going to be okay, but I know my family also fears deportation. This election has really made me lose faith in most Americans.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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