Rutgers offers assistance to undocumented students who face legal decision this fall
Rutgers University offers support for students with undocumented or uncertain legal status on campus, such as legal advice, which can be put to good use as the Supreme Court is set to decide on whether to uphold Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, who are undocumented students with protected status while attending college.
Jason Hernandez, a lawyer at the Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP) in Newark, is one of the resources offered to students who need legal advice. RICAP is a pilot project that was established in 2017, months after students petitioned for undocumented students’ rights after the 2016 election.
“When someone is undocumented in the United States, they do not have a valid immigrant or non-immigrant status at the moment. There are some temporary protective status or DACA, which are not defined as neatly because they are temporary actions against removal or deferred action,” Hernandez said. “For example, if someone has DACA, they are residing lawfully within the United States under DACA but they do not have an immigrant status, so to speak. They benefit from something called deferred action which basically is something that is a deferral of enforcement action by members of custom enforcement.”
Hernandez said that undocumented and immigrant students on campus are affected significantly by reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids due to the complex layers of documentation.
Some families hold mixed status. There may be a family where people are citizens, have some immigrant status or have no immigrant status. There are entire families that are undocumented and entire families that are mixed. Hernandez said that hearing about ICE raids affects undocumented students.
In the past month, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal ordered police and law enforcement officials to not participate in the federal immigration program, according to an article on NJ Advance Media.
“There are emotional and mental harms that comes as well with enforcement. Because obviously it’s hard to focus on other parts of your life like studying, working at an internship or working when you have this concern that family members are at risk or you, yourself are at risk,” Hernandez said.
In the former President Barack Obama administration, there was a focus on immigrants who are repeat offenders and individuals with violent criminal convictions on their record. The current administration encompasses this but also anyone with unlawful status in the United States, Hernandez said.
Historically, those who re-entered America illegally multiple times and deported were considered a drain on resources and thus were also a focus. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) prevented many individuals from seeking status due to this new legislation that prevented many people from being eligible for citizenship, Hernandez said.
Asylum is one way that immigrants can achieve status and have suffered persecution, yet it is very specific and difficult. There is also the U visa program, where a person assists law enforcement on a crime they are the victim of, which focus on children who have suffered domestic violence and other domestic violence survivors, Hernandez said.
Hernandez assists students in determining if they are eligible for any of the aforementioned benefits. There, he represents students himself or helps them find another attorney if he is not appropriate, he said.
“I work with faculty from the law school, but in terms of representation, I have been the staff attorney hired by the University to represent students, so I can only help so many people. But legal screenings are available to anyone at the University who needs legal advice,” Hernandez said.
Another resource is through student organization UndocuRutgers. Brenda Codallos, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and president of UndocuRutgers, said the club is a support group and meant to educate and support students.
“This is something that, growing up into this environment, you can’t avoid facing it. Not to face the reality, not to spread education about it,” she said.
Most people do not understand the different statuses people have, Codallos said. The co-founder and former president of UndocuRutgers who has since graduated, Carimer Andujar, told Codallos that even administration and staff did not know what it was like to not have status, which made her want to start something to educate others.
Educating students on what other students are facing, what other students will face is the goal of the club, Codallos said.
There are a lot of students graduating that are currently undocumented with no status and have no hope because of lack of immigration reform, which is the focus for UndocuRutgers, Codallos said. Asylum is something occurring mostly at the border and is very strict, where young people who are applying for citizenship now need to prove they fear a country they were born in but not truly raised in.
“Basically, they are American at heart, but the only thing that doesn’t define them is a piece of paper,” Codallos said.
She said it was really heartbreaking to tell an individual that they cannot do anything to fix their immigration status until there is better reform.
Codallos said that DACA recipients have a certain level of privilege due to this. They have the privilege to have a Social Security number, a driver’s license and a work permit when many other undocumented immigrants cannot.
There are some benefits for undocumented students in New Jersey, which passed legislation in 2013 that allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. In 2018, New Jersey approved financial aid to DACA and undocumented students who needed aid, she said.
“There is still a lot of work to do, a lot of progress. And behind all that progress is education, activism and training others on how to help one another,” Codallos said.
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