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Rushing to defense: Cal Poly expresses support for undocumented students amid nationwide uncertainty 

As President Donald Trump initiates broad plans to escalate deportations of undocumented immigrants, Cal Poly is moving forward to open a center that will support its undocumented student population.

The Cal Poly DREAM Center is set to open in early April in the Hillcrest Building, and it will provide a “safe and welcome space” for undocumented students to “gather in community to receive support from staff, access resources, and draw on the strength of their peers.” 

In a statement to the campus community, Cal Poly Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey called the center, “a visible manifestation of Cal Poly’s commitment to being a welcoming campus for students of all identities.”

While the exact number of undocumented students attending Cal Poly isn’t known, the university estimates there are likely around 200. Currently, 176 of the undocumented students benefit from state and federal laws such as AB 540 and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). AB 540 offers in-state tuition to undocumented college students who have lived in California. DACA is an executive order that provides temporary protection from deportation and the ability to obtain a work permit and driver’s license for who those who came to the U.S. as youth.

Trump’s recent executive orders, though, have instilled fear and uncertainty in undocumented people across the state and country—including college students.

Nury Baliterrez, a recent Cal Poly graduate from Nipomo and staff member in Student Academic Services, was an undocumented college student until she applied for DACA in 2012. She said the tone of the Trump administration has young people wondering if that information will be used against them.

“It’s a lot of moments of anxiety, fear, not knowing what’s going to come next,” she told New Times. “They provided all this information maybe by applying to DACA that now government has access to, and they will be able to target those individuals.”

While the fate of DACA is unclear, a Jan. 25 Trump order calls for the deportation of any undocumented immigrant who has been convicted of, charged with, or is believed to have committed a “criminal offense,” in addition to those who have engaged in willful misrepresentation in connection to “any official matter” or pose a public safety risk in the eyes of an immigration official.

“What these changes mean for Cal Poly, we don’t know yet,” Sarah Bridger, a Cal Poly history professor and trained ally for undocumented students, told the Cal Poly academic senate at a Jan. 24 meeting. “But it’s clear that our current political climate is a source of enormous anxiety for our undocumented students and their families. This anxiety has implications for student success.”

Bridger is the author of a Cal Poly academic senate resolution—the “Resolution in Support of Cal Poly’s Undocumented Community”—that was approved by the 56-member senate on Jan. 24. 

The resolution calls on the university administration to bolster its immigration policies to refuse “all voluntary cooperation with federal immigration authorities,” including barring physical access to campus and sharing student information “unless required to by law or court order.”

“This resolution is not calling for Cal Poly to violate the law or obstruct any kind of legal proceeding,” Bridger told senate members. “Rather, it’s to protect students that we have here to the fullest extent that we legally can.”

In addition to tightening the policy language, the resolution asks the university to allocate legal resources and staff support to undocumented students.

Student Affairs Vice President Humphrey responded favorably to the resolution at the meeting. He said Cal Poly is hiring a full-time staff member as a coordinator for the DREAM Center and that the university is soliciting donations to help undocumented students get connected with legal resources.

Over the past few years, Central Coast educators have begun broader support efforts.

In 2015, educators and staff from Cal Poly, Allan Hancock College, Cuesta College, and K-12 schools teamed together to start the Central Coast Coalition for Undocumented Student Success, which has the mission of “creating and sustaining” a support system for the undocumented student population.

A few months later, the same Cal Poly faculty/staff members launched a Cal Poly Undocumented Student Working Group, which works with undocumented students and the Rising Immigrant Students for Education club, as well as administers a five-hour training program for students, staff, and faculty in how to be an effective ally for undocumented students. More than 150 community members have completed that five-hour training.

“When we started this work, we did not envision this exact political environment, but there were already so many needs,” said Jane Lehr, a founding member of the working group and chair of the Cal Poly Women’s and Gender Studies Department.

Lehr said that navigating the complexities of immigration law and how the regulatory system affects them can be daunting for undocumented students and their families. Some of the work the Student Working Group does is advise university offices and departments on how to make that information readily available to undocumented students.

“We have high variation in terms of what types of laws and regulations apply,” Lehr said. “A lot of times students feel as if they need to disclose their status in order to access resources. That’s a tremendous risk.”

Student access to legal counsel will be paramount going forward, Lehr said, as well as any efforts that schools, cities, counties, and states can make to communicate that they support undocumented individuals pursuing an education and career in this country.

“Students need to know we are with them,” Lehr said. “Universities cannot see ourselves as neutral in this situation. We need to be there and take the actions that are necessary as things continue to develop.” 

You can reach Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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