Oscar Hernandez never planned on a career in politics. As a student at Paradise Valley High School, Hernandez was drawn to engineering.
It was the mere act of attending college that dragged him into the political realm – if only, at first, to navigate the muddy waters surrounding his admission.
Hernandez is an undocumented immigrant from Tonalá, Chiapas, in southern Mexico, brought to the U.S. at age 8 by his parents, who overstayed their visas. In 2012, he became eligible to attend college at in-state tuition rates thanks to President Obama’s passage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, a partial application of the never-passed DREAM Act that grants a work permit and protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants, renewable every two years, providing they entered the country as minors and pass a background check.
Christened a DREAMer, Hernandez dove into civics, becoming student government president at Paradise Valley Community College. The 20-year-old junior now majors in public policy at Arizona State University, works as a page at the Arizona State Senate, interns at the Veterans Affairs office and serves in ASU’s student government.
“Unintentionally, people who have DACA are politically engaged just because it affects them so directly,” he says. “We’re forced to be more engaged with American politics than most actual Americans.”
With his drive, photogenic looks and passion for public service, Hernandez could be headed for big things in Arizona politics – provided he can aquire citizenship through naturalization. Now, however, Hernandez’s future, along with the fate of more than 46,000 other young people in Arizona, is once again up in the air.
While campaigning, President Donald Trump promised to “immediately terminate” DACA along with DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), Obama’s 2014 expansion protecting DREAMer parents, which remains blocked by a 2015 injunction. But DACA is the one signature piece from the previous administration Trump has left untouched since his election (at a White House news conference, he called DREAMers “these incredible kids”) – although immigration hard-liners continue to pressure him on what they consider a broken promise.
Closer to home, Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) has proposed House Bill 2021 to cut 10 percent of state funding to universities that honor DACA, a status that didn’t exist when Arizona voters passed Prop. 300 in 1998 limiting in-state tuition to students with “lawful immigration status,” which he says differs from the “lawful presence” DACA grants. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich cited this argument in a plea to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to eliminate in-state tuition breaks for DACA recipients. A ruling has yet to be made.
What will happen to students like Hernandez if their DACA status disappears? ASU president Michael Crow, who along with the presidents of Northern Arizona University and University of Arizona has publicly called for the continuation of DACA, has vowed that the school will “rise to the challenge” to protect their scholarships.
ASU has already partnered with the Washington, D.C.-based scholarship fund TheDream.US to secure private dollars. Program president Candy Marshall admits she’s concerned, but adds “there are some potential paths forward if DACA goes away.” One includes an earlier Plan B: Marshall says that even before the Maricopa County Superior Court ruled in favor of instituting DACA at the state’s community colleges and universities, the Arizona Board of Regents considered adopting a policy to reduce out-of-state tuition to 150 percent of in-state.
Marshall urges undocumented youths to continue applying for DACA and get in as much schooling as they can while it’s still in place. “At the very least, Trump seems predisposed right now to take care of those who have DACA and are in college and are working,” she says. “Every version of the DREAM Act that has gone before Congress in the past has required some years of either military service or college from those it would protect. So if there ever is DREAM Act, those who have a college education will be first on that path to citizenship.”
Gaby Pacheco, program director at TheDream.Us, is a “DACA-mented” immigrant herself, brought over from Ecuador as a child. As former political director for United We Dream, she participated in efforts that led to the creation of DACA. Pacheco says she’s seen an inspiring groundswell of grassroots support for DACA students, particularly since the election. Dozens of organizations have formed to fund scholarships for undocumented students.
“That tells a story of the resilience of this community,” Pacheco says. “People see the hunger DACA students have for education, for belonging in this country and wanting to accomplish their dreams. It’s crucial that we let them know we have their backs.”
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