Trump Administration's DACA Decision Will Affect Wisconsin Students

Sep 5, 2017

The Trump administration has announced an end to DACA, an Obama-era law that protects undocumented children brought to the U.S. as minors from deportation. And the decision could have a serious impact on a number of immigrant students in Wisconsin schools.

What is DACA?

More than 800,000 immigrant children are protected by a law called DACA -- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That program, put into place by through executive action by former President Barack Obama, protects kids who entered the country illegally as minors – allowing many of them to study in American schools and stay in the country once they graduate.

Since his election last fall, President Donald Trump has had immigration reform in his sights -- and many have speculated about the president’s plans for some of the youngest undocumented immigrants. Ahead of Tuesday's announcement, Trump had been considering an end to DACA for months.

Tuesday marked a very important deadline for that decision. Officials from ten states had urged Trump to end the program. That group – led by Texas’ state attorney general -- sent a letter to Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in late June, threatening legal action if the administration didn’t act by September 5.

READ: Letter to Trump from 10 state attorneys general, threatening suit over DACA

Wisconsin was not one of the ten states involved in that threat – but Trump’s decision will affect the whole country.

Since DACA was created through executive action, Trump has the power to overturn the policy.

What's the plan?

Attorney General Sessions said Tuesday afternoon that President Trump plans to phase DACA out over the next six months. 

NPR's Politics team reports:

"Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke said the administration, facing legal challenges to the program, "chose the least disruptive option," letting the program wind down in six months, and placing the onus on a sharply divided Congress to enact former President Barack Obama's executive action into law."

In the past, Trump had sent some mixed messages about DACA. He’s made many sweeping statements about immigration reform – both during the election, and once he entered office. But DACA has been one of the programs he seems to have softened his tone on.

“We are going to deal with DACA with heart,” Trump told reporters back in February, during a period of intense scrutiny on the president’s impending immigration reform decisions. “I have to deal with a lot of politicians, don’t forget, and I have to convince them that what I’m saying is right…But the DACA situation is a very, very difficult thing for me.”

Many leaders in Congress have said they’d like to be involved in a decision on DACA – including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The Wisconsin representative has been getting a lot of attention from immigrant rights’ groups, like Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera.

And last Friday – before the holiday weekend – Ryan told his hometown radio station in Janesville that he’s working with congressional leaders on a legislative fix for DACA -- and that it’s not something the president should try to deal with just yet.

“These are kids who know no other country – who were brought here by their parents and don’t know another home,” Ryan said. “I really do believe that there needs to be a legislative solution, that’s one we’re working on.”

What's the impact in Wisconsin?

We don’t know exactly how many undocumented immigrants study in Wisconsin’s K-12 schools. The state Department of Public Instruction doesn’t collect information on kids using DACA in the state’s public school districts.

"No matter if it's said that you're safe, you don't know what's going to happen next...What's the other move they're going to want to do?"

But several students have stepped forward in recent months, to identify themselves as undocumented immigrants and share their story – including Fernanda Jimenez.

The 16-year-old is a senior at Racine’s Horlick High School, and she’s pretty actively involved in the fight for immigrant rights. She’s among the leaders of “YES” – Youth Empowered in the Struggle, the student arm of Voces de la Frontera.

LISTEN: An extended interview with DACA student Fernanda Jimenez

Fernanda says she’s worried about what could happen should DACA be phased out.

Fernanda Jimenez, a 16-year-old DACA student from Racine
Credit Rachel Morello

“We don’t know whether they’re going to say, ‘okay, you guys are all out,’ or ‘you’re safe.’ But no matter if it’s said that you’re safe, you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she explains. “What’s next? What’s the other move they’re going to want to do?”

“People may think, ‘that’s just a child, who cares if she gets deported?’ but it’s more than that,” Fernanda adds. “If it happens to one person, it’s going to happen to another person.”

Just like students, school officials are very much in limbo right now, and will be watching for guidance following the Trump administration's decision.

Like many colleges and universities, the faculty and staff at Milwaukee’s Alverno College work with DACA students like they would any other student. They don’t require undocumented students to self-report.

But Wendy Powers, the school’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, says Alverno’s campus would notice if these students were to suddenly be removed from their community.

“Students are just part of the lifeblood of the institution, so if these [undocumented] students have to leave, that’s just going to be really heartbreaking for the campus community,” Powers explains. “They’re pretty vital to what our environment’s about and what that sense of vibrancy and connectivity is among students and with faculty and staff.”

Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the UW System's largest campus in Madison, released a statement following the White House announcement Tuesday. She voiced her opposition to the decision, and pledged to communicate with congressional leaders on a "positive resolution."

"These 'dreamer' students seek only what we all want for our children: the opportunity to pursue an education and a fulfilling career," Blank wrote. "To threaten them now with deportation is unfair and indeed not in our country's best interest as businesses in Wisconsin and beyond continue to struggle to find workers in almost all occupations."

Despite affording students several protections – protection for deportation, work permits -- DACA still doesn’t assure federal financial aid for undocumented college students. State financial aid is also out of reach for DACA students in Wisconsin.