Eastern Hosts DACA Event

Eastern students viewing an informational poster at Social Action Day.

Eastern students viewing an informational poster at Social Action Day.

WILLIMANTIC, CT — The current national debate on immigration policy — in particular the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order issued by President Barack Obama in 2012 — was the focus of an event at Eastern Connecticut State University on Nov. 14 hosted by social work students.

The students’ annual Social Action Day was held in the Betty R. Tipton Room in the Student Center. Titled “DACA 411,” the event was the result of a collaborative effort of social work students taught by Professors Isabel Logan, Paul Trubey and Pamela Chiang. Local community members were also invited to attend.

DACA was an executive order signed by Obama in June 2012 to grant temporary protection to eligible immigrants who entered the country as minors and received a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation. The policy also allowed the students to obtain work permits, drivers’ licenses and attend college. They are frequently referred to as “Dreamers,” a reference to the Dream Act, first introduced in Congress in 2001. While it has been debated and frequently reintroduced since—as recently as this fall — this legislation to provide a legal path to U.S. citizenship for millions of immigrants has not been passed.

Eastern student panelists speaking at Social Action Day.

Eastern student panelists speaking at Social Action Day.

In early September 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he was rescinding the Obama-era policy, pending a six-month delay to give those students whose DACA status was set to expire before March 2018 one month to submit an application for renewal. There are approximately 800,000 students covered under DACA in the United States; more than 100 attend Eastern.

Without legislative action to provide permanent protections to these undocumented students, they face deportation to countries they have no memory of, nations they have never considered home.

Featured speakers at Social Action Day included State Rep. Susan Johnson, who represents local District 49; Attorney Edwin Colon, director of the Immigrant Children’s Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford; and community activist Renato Calle of the Connecticut Working Families Party. The event also featured two DACA students enrolled at Eastern —Political Science major Yenimar Cortes ’19 and Computer Science major Estefanny Perez Hernandez ’20.

“What we want is for people to have the support from everyone in the community in terms of a clean (immigration) bill with no unfortunate actions, no building of the wall,” said Colon.  “Last week there were a number of acts of civil disobedience around the United States, protests in Washington and even in Hartford. Everyone is anticipating that this will be hard-fought effort. I know this is not going to come easy – we are hopeful but cautiously optimistic about the future. This issue hits very close to home for many.”

Colon, who is also a faculty member at Capital Community College in Hartford and the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, provided a legal aid van through the Center for Children’s Advocacy for students and local community members during the event. The mobile office provides free legal consultation and representation related to immigration issues.

“That people are having to constantly live in fear is not a way to run a country or state,” said Rep. Johnson. “We need to be able to support undocumented people without criminalizing them,” added Calle.

“The word ‘Dreamer’ comes with a narrative that you are an immigrant and a student with a high GPA – a ‘good’ immigrant,” said Cortes. “It tends to indicate that all others that are part of the immigrant community are ‘bad’ immigrants even though they sustain, work hard for their families and contribute to our community. I prefer to call myself undocumented instead of being classified as DACA.”

“DACA was a little bit of hope. I qualified for DACA, but by the time my sister came of age it was already being repealed,” said Perez Hernandez. “We lost everything that we had gained. However, the current issues are also bringing us together. Events like this educate people on the topic — we feel connected. I feel included here.”

Students from the Social Work program presented topics such as “DACA Policy, Now and Then” as well as “State Responses to DACA,” and hosted a mock debate and a discussion of the results of a student survey on DACA that was circulated among Eastern students. Attendees were also given the option to sign petitions to be sent to members of the U.S. Congress and Connecticut General Assembly.

Preparing for the Social Action Day event was an eye-opening experience for the social work students. “I learned about how hard it is to create a policy, especially when it comes to DACA, and then to see the abolition of the policy,” said Brooke Unikewicz ’20, a student in Trubey’s class. “I have been inspired and have been spreading my knowledge to anyone who doesn’t know about DACA. One thing that surprised me was the amount of people who supported the abolition of DACA when we circulated the survey – I expected there would be no one who wants to get rid of the policy.”

“The students were very engaged in several areas including the research study to assess the familiarity and knowledge of the DACA issue on campus,” said Trubey. “These social work students are learning the importance of standing up for social change and against social injustice. The students in the course embraced this challenge and put together an informative program.”

Social Work student Hanna Levesque ’19 of Bristol said, “I hope that the overall message people took away from our Social Action Day is that, above all else, Eastern cares, and we are trying to help our fellow colleagues, friends and loved ones enrolled in the DACA program feel protected.”

Professor Logan concluded, “I think that my students were definitely empowered and I think they took away more knowledge on a topic they were already passionate about.”