When she was just six months old, Ana Ramirez was brought to the United States from Mexico by her father, who, seeking a better life for his family, entered the country as an undocumented immigrant and settled in Washington; as a result, Ramirez was raised in the United States without documentation. Now, the nineteen-year-old sophomore at Fairhaven College, a branch of Western Washington University, is making history. In April, Ramirez was elected as the vice president of governmental affairs by her peers; in doing so, she became the first woman of color to accept the position, and she also became the first undocumented student to win any position in Western Washington’s history.
What Ramirez found out, however, was that being elected did not necessarily mean she had won the race. In late June, it was revealed that her elected position may be taken away from her due to her citizenship status. Ramirez was informed indirectly that the university’s administration believed that they could hold another election, or even replace her outright.
The conflict with Ramirez’s position lies with her current lack of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, which protects the children of undocumented immigrants if the children meet certain qualifications. At the time of her election, Ramirez was not protected by DACA, as she had never previously applied to the program. She was soon informed, however, that in order to hold a paid position at Western Washington, an undocumented student must have an updated DACA membership. As a result, she has begun the process of applying and hopes to be approved within a period of weeks, but in the meantime, her fate as the vice president remains uncertain.
Ramirez is not alone in her trepidation about registering for DACA, as signing up for the program means admitting your existence, as an undocumented immigrant, to the federal government, a decision from which there is no return. In Ramirez’s case, she feared signing up for the program only to have the organization be dismantled by the Trump administration, thus leaving her in a vulnerable position in which the government now has her on record as residing in the country and can proceed to prosecute her for doing so, even though her application would have been submitted, at the time, under the assumption of mutual trust.
“Earlier this year, a DACA recipient was deported for the first time, and a few were taken by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] and placed in detention centers,” Ramirez told me in one of several phone conversations. “If ICE started acting that way toward those with DACA, I could only imagine what they would do to someone like me, who qualifies for DACA, but doesn’t have it. That was really hard for me to deal with.”
Ramirez is correct in saying that the election of Donald Trump has provoked a wave of attacks on the undocumented community. According to CNN’s Tal Kopan, Texas’ Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with nine other state attorney generals, have issued an ultimatum to President Trump: Rescind DACA, or they will challenge it in an unfriendly court. Trump himself campaigned heavily to cancel the bill immediately prior to the election, but has since backed off slightly.
“I remember after the election results, I didn’t go to class for almost a week afterward, because I was so scared the DACA program would end. I wanted to drop out, because I knew that if DACA ended, then my hard work and my degree would be for nothing,” Ramirez says. If DACA is repealed, more than 780,000 children and young adults who are protected by the program will face potential deportation. Ramirez says, “My academic advisor and I have talked about how, if this happened during Obama’s presidency, we’d be seeing a very different response. I definitely feel like this past year has been more difficult than others.”
Even with the heavy opposition to the bill’s survival, there remains a persistent effort to ensure DACA’s permanence. In August, marches took place across the United States to protest the potential cancellation of DACA, and, in comparison to the ten state attorney generals who oppose DACA, there are twenty attorney generals who have publically supported the bill. The division amongst those who decide the fate of bills like DACA is the root of Ramirez’s, and other undocumented students’, hesitation to commit to such a program during Trump’s presidency; while no direct action has been taken to repeal the protection program, there is an uncertainty from all sides about what the president actually plans to do with the bill.
The fear of being outed as an undocumented citizen, which could lead to Ramirez’s prosecution, combined with the possible cancellation of the bill, both led to her failure to apply for a DACA membership in time. After learning that she may lose her elected position, the conversation transitioned toward what can be done to prevent the worst-case scenario. According to Paul Cocke, the director of communications and marketing for Western Washington University, the university has looked into every possible solution to Ramirez’s case, but they have found that it would be impossible for them to offer Ramirez a paid position without infringing on federal law.
“After careful research and significant review of both creative alternatives and the existing law regarding the possible means by which we can legally compensate our undocumented students who have not received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, we have not found a viable option that would allow for payment or even a way to allow for a student to engage in volunteer service when the work involved would otherwise be considered paid work,” Cocke said in an email.
While volunteer service may seem like the most likely alternative to accepting a paid position, it appears that Ramirez would not be able to accept the position, even if it was without pay. According to Cocke, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) views volunteering for a position that is normally paid as “work,” even if it is just for the time leading up to Ramirez receiving her DACA membership. In this rare case, volunteering would require the same employment authorization as accepting a paid position.
“Any enrolled student should not be denied or restricted as to the leadership opportunities and mentoring that the university provides.”
Ramirez’s academic advisor, Dr. Lawrence Estrada, believes that Ramirez’s situation represents a larger problem that takes place on college campuses across the country. “Ana has accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time, only to be told that she can no longer hold the office, due to a technicality that she had no control over,” Estrada said in an email. “She won her election in a fair and impressive fashion. She is an example to other students in the same situation. Any enrolled student should not be denied or restricted as to the leadership opportunities and mentoring that the university provides.”
If the university knew that undocumented students would not be allowed the same employment opportunities as students who are United States citizens, is it fair to say that they are receiving an equal opportunity education? Unlike a meal plan or housing payment, the price of tuition is meant to reflect the cost of the opportunities that the university provides to its students. If a college student is not allowed access to all that the university offers, they should not be asked to pay the same amount as those who are, regardless of the reasoning for the difference in said opportunities.
Western Washington University believes they are protecting their students and themselves by not allowing anyone to be put in a situation in which they may be prosecuted for their employment. No matter how much the university values the inclusion of undocumented students, they are unwilling to put a student at risk of breaking federal law. Cocke continued, “The university values and seeks to encourage strong student leaders. Despite Ana’s clear talent and leadership, the university is obligated to separate the individual talent and contributions from legal requirements, as the law makes no exceptions based on those personal characteristics.”
When an unprecedented situation arises, it creates the opportunity to set the precedent for how situations like it will be handled in the future. As a result, Ramirez’s case has the chance to influence how undocumented students are treated on college campuses. Western Washington’s mission statement purports that they intend to bring together students of diverse backgrounds in an inclusive, student-centered university; Ramirez’s situation is a perfect opportunity to stand by their beliefs, and fight for change on the behalf of a student who needs support. If it turns out that Western Washington is unable to confirm Ramirez’s position in student government, Estrada believes it could send a negative message to not only the enrolled students at the school, but to minority groups in general.
“It would send a negative message to all students, especially to those students who are undocumented and of Latinx background,” Estrada said. “What is going on in this country is not only aimed at undocumented students, but to Latinxs in general. The country, as in past historical cycles, is attempting to make Latinxs and other diverse population groups the scapegoat for all the problems that are occurring.”
He hopes that the university will stand true on its values of safe and open inquiry, academic freedom and nurturance of all students, regardless of their cultural background or social position. At the same time, Dr. Estrada feels as though the majority of the university’s community, including the faculty, students and administrators, stand in support of Ana and her accomplishments.
Since the details of her case were made public, Ramirez has been the victim of some very negative attention. She has received a fair amount of hate online, as people have even begun commenting on her personal Facebook posts about the case to spew hateful opinions directly at her. Ramirez is aware that a sizable portion of the U.S. population have negative opinions of the undocumented community, but she is unaffected by the opinions of anyone who does not sympathize with her situation.
For Ramirez, and many others, the time following the presidential election has been extremely frightening. The first six months following the election saw a 20 percent increase in hate crimes across the country in comparison to the same time period in the previous year, according to NBC News.
“Before I came to Western Washington University, I lived in a small town in Eastern Washington, which is a fairly conservative area. Because of that, I’ve never discussed my undocumented status with anyone, and my parents barely even talked about it. Due to the results of the presidential election, and the increased pressure that was placed on undocumented people, I was forced to start talking about my citizenship; I needed to come out as undocumented. It’s definitely a hard time to do that for the first time. My life now revolves around my undocumented status and the work that I do for the undocumented community,” says Ramirez.
The response has not been entirely negative, however, as Ramirez has found solace in those who choose to see the situation from her perspective. “I have had a lot of strangers reach out to me. I’ve had students from across the country offer information from their universities, which has been really nice,” she says. “All of the people that have reached out to me want to offer support, which has been amazing. It makes me happy to know that there are so many people who support me and my community, especially in these difficult times, when the undocumented population is under constant threat from President Trump and ICE.”
At the time of this article’s writing, the school administration has failed to reach a definitive conclusion as to whether or not Ramirez will be allowed to accept her position. As a result, during a time in which undocumented immigration is one of the most debated topics in the United States, Ramirez’s historic achievement, one that should be celebrated, has unfortunately been clouded by controversy.