At Harvard, The End Of DACA Brings Pain To The Surface

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Bruno Villegas and another student speak about DACA before a crowd in Harvard Yard. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Bruno Villegas and another student speak about DACA before a crowd in Harvard Yard. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

As Harvard Yard bustled with back-to-school energy Tuesday evening, hundreds gathered to hear from classmates affected by the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

For years, Harvard has not considered immigration status in admissions decision. Today, it's home to at least several dozen students in the country illegally, at least 40 of whom are enrolled in the DACA program. That program, and the university's wealth and security, have helped foster an environment where students in the country illegally can speak out.

But after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of DACA, some students were wondering aloud about whether that program was worth the trouble.

At the rally this week, the crowd listened quietly as affected students took turns at a megaphone. Many expressed pain, even teared up, as they spoke about the future and their families back home.

Then Harvard junior Bruno Villegas spoke in a different tone of voice: "DACA was a half-assed decision, but it helped us. And even now that was taken away. It's insane."

Villegas was born in Peru, and moved to California at age 6.

DACA was designed to target students like him, who represent a sympathetic slice of the more than 11 million people in the United States without papers.

So-called "DREAMers" were brought here as young children; they have integrated into American society and the program requires them to keep a clean criminal record on their way to school and work.

That targeting has helped to make DACA popular, even with many Trump supporters — polls say more than two-thirds of them want beneficiaries to be allowed to stay in the country.

But the program also implicitly blamed parents for bringing the DREAMers into the country, and left them vulnerable to deportation.

At the rally, Villegas asked whether that stigma was worth it, given that the policy may die after just five years. Hearing your parents "demonized," he said, "scars people... It's hard to deal with."

Villegas recognizes the irony of criticizing DACA at a rally planned to protest its end. But he says it's part of how he's come to see the problem, even as a beneficiary of the policy. "Being able to cross the country to come to school here — that's a huge blessing. But the reality of it is most people are left out."

Bruno Villegas, a junior at Harvard College, was born in Peru and came to the United States when he was six. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Bruno Villegas, a junior at Harvard College, was born in Peru and came to the United States when he was 6. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Villegas isn't alone in feeling that way.

Many DACA students who enroll at elite universities feel the weight of expectations, and see academic success as a way to reward their parents' sacrifice.

So says Gloria Itzel Montiel, who studied DACA recipients and other immigrants at prestigious schools. She says she understands why they might be feeling conflicted. "They've been given some stability and now it's being ripped from under their feet."

Montiel is an advocate for immigrants in California, but she lived this story, too; she was born in Mexico and got two degrees from Harvard before receiving DACA herself in 2013 as she sought her doctorate.

Montiel remembers a feeling of loneliness at Harvard in the years before the immigration movement, and DACA protection, helped students like her "step out of the shadows."

"I thought I was the only one there — so I didn't have the resources to sort of help me understand being undocumented," Montiel said.

That, at least, has changed. The Harvard rally was put on by Act On A Dream, a student group of immigrants in the country illegally and their allies.

Harvard President Drew Faust has prominently defended the DACA program, and called the order to rescind it "cruel." And after the election of Donald Trump, the university hired a full-time immigration attorney to handle the concerns — and possibly the cases — of students in the country illegally.

That attorney, Jason Corral, attended this week's rally, and made a pledge: "What I'd like to do is to talk to every undocumented Harvard student and look to see if there's any underlying legal remedy that goes beyond DACA."

Harvard doesn't keep formal data, but Corral estimates that there could be as many as 100 students who are in the country illegally studying at the university this year.

That makes for a lot of personalized legal consultations — another reminder that DREAMers at Harvard are in a privileged minority of a privileged minority. And if that privilege has come with some peace of mind, it's also focused activists on the need for more comprehensive reform.

Now that DACA is under threat, Villegas hopes Americans can move beyond black-and-white stories of "illegal aliens" and "DREAMers" and see immigrants on more human terms. "People like me," he laughs, "we're just another human being, with flaws, with good things and bad things about them. Showing the diversity of that humanity is what's really important."

Villegas and others at the rally say they'll be using their voices in the weeks ahead: calling to ask lawmakers to vote for a permanent replacement to the DACA program — for a start.


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Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin was an education reporter for WBUR.



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