Breaking the Stigma – And the Silence: Undocumented Students Rally for UCOP and Community Support


Madeleine Lee

Hundreds of undocumented students from nine of the ten University of California campuses congregated at a recent official UCOP press conference to voice student concerns regarding the two-year-long battle for further aid and representation from President Janet Napolitano and UCOP representatives.

The press conference, held at the UCOP Oakland offices on Mon., Oct. 19, was a public outcry of frustration over what undocumented students across the UC system perceive as a severe lack of transparency in decision making regarding their funds and future.

Since Napolitano’s appointment as UC president in July of 2013, attempts have been made to improve the situation of undocumented students through the appointment of an advisory board, allocation of five million dollars for undocumented student programs across all UC campuses, and a UCOP summit meeting in May of 2014 between undocumented students and administration, according to a press release given by a coalition of undocumented students. The students themselves, however, unanimously claim that these actions have reaped little benefit, calling instead for further action and student driven collaboration within UCOP decision making.

Such individuals include second year political science major Mariel Islas and third year sociology major Kimberly Moreno, two UC Santa Barbara students who attended Monday’s conference in Oakland to ensure that their voices were heard.

“As a severely marginalized minority group on campus, it’s important that as many of us that can make as much noise as possible,” Moreno said.

Like other undocumented students across the UC system, Islas and Moreno insist that access to UC specific loans and grants (undocumented students do not qualify for federal loans) be increased and that Napolitano display a more genuine effort to collaborate with students. Much of the rising disgruntlement voiced during Monday’s press conference was sparked by a canceled cross-campus conference call scheduled for Oct. 2 that would have approved student appointed advisory boards for each campus to enhance individual campus negotiations. Napolitano’s last minute cancellation put plans on an indefinite hold.

But the real issue, Moreno and Islas agree, is much simpler and, unfortunately, far more difficult to overcome.

“People just don’t know what, let alone who, an undocumented student is,” Islas said. “And of the small population that do, they don’t do much to help the cause.”

This lack of community awareness and support for undocumented students — UC enrolled students, most of whom were brought to the U.S. at an early age and have attended school in California for most of their lives — is what led to Islas’s own feelings of marginality on the UCSB campus her freshman year.

“I lived the typical freshmen year dorm life and was too ashamed of my status to reach out to others. I had a roommate with very conservative views who I feared would shun me if she found out. I lived in silence for a very long time,” Islas said.

It wasn’t until a financial literacy workshop, held by Habiba Simjee, the Dream Scholars Program Coordinator in charge of legal aid facilitation and community advocacy, that Islas, by chance, stumbled across the UCSB IDEAS group on campus.

“Prior to meeting with Habiba, I had no knowledge of any resources on campus,” Islas said. “The UCSB IDEAS group finally gave me a safe space where I could talk about my struggles openly with people who really understood.”

With El Centro as their headquarters and working in close collaboration with the Dream Scholars Program, UCSB IDEAS seeks to unite undocumented students on campus and erase the veil of shame that has all too often kept them silent.

“Both UCSB IDEAS and the Dream Scholars program, especially Habiba, have given us a crucial sense of direction for how to advocate for ourselves as undocumented people, and how to proceed with our futures,” Islas said.

However, the benefits of even the few resources that do exist for undocumented students on campus are short lived. Simjee’s position as Dream Scholars Coordinator was established on a tentative budget; despite her necessity to the program, the budget so far allows only for a two year tenure on campus, one that is projected to end at the close of the 2015-2016 school year.

The future of the 2500 undocumented students in the UC system is inherently tentative, resting on the day-to-day ability to pay tuition, rent and daily living expenses without the ease of most college age job seekers. A cash-strapped public university system, coupled with Napolitano’s apathetic display of action, does little to help.

There are ways, however, in which the UCSB community can help. Undocumented student allies like Professor Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval of the Chicano Studies Department advocate ways in which awareness can be better spread through an educational emphasis and study of this particular marginalized group, standing alongside classes on gender, ethnic and sexuality studies already offered at the UCs.

And perhaps, most importantly, much of the frustration can be solved over a simple apology.

“President Napolitano is still very much shadowed by her legacy as Secretary of Homeland Security, a position that allowed her to deport thousands of undocumented peoples during her four year tenure,” Professor Armbruster-Sandoval said. “An apology doesn’t come close to a solution to the greater web of issues, but it is a symbolic stepping-off-the-pedestal sort of action that this movement needs to move forward.”

In the meantime, students like Moreno and Islas remain optimistic, and above all, persistent in continuing the dialogue between the undocumented and UCOP. Both look forward to one day attending grad school and law school, respectively, and affecting change in the world. In many ways, they already have. Whether they have the ability to carry on their dream lies in the hands of the UCOP — and fellow gauchos who are willing to stand up next to them and help them be heard.