Op-ed: An open letter to President Spellings

By Barbara Sostaita

President Spellings:

Not only am I a doctoral student at UNC and a longtime resident of North Carolina, I am also a former undocumented immigrant. This last marker of identity has shaped my life more than anything else. Growing up sin papeles (without papers), I collected awards, honors and degrees to prove myself as worthy of belonging in this country. Even still, I was not safe. Despite all of my academic achievements, my future was (and, to some extent, still is) in jeopardy.

In an internal memo you sent the UNC systems’ Chancellors on December 8th, you seem to sympathize with my struggles and fears. Your memo partly reads:

“I have met some of these students in my travels across North Carolina, and they are among the most promising young people in our state. Often overcoming significant challenges to pursue higher education, they are the future leaders, researchers, innovators, and educators of our great state. It is my firm belief that we should do all we can to support and educate them.”

Although it has never been easy to be undocumented or an immigrant in America, the next four years are going to be even more dangerous. Not only has the President already signed executive actions that put all immigrants at risk, a leaked draft of an executive order titled “Ending unconstitutional executive amnesties” suggests Trump will end DACA, a program that has protected more than 740,000 undocumented students from deportation since 2012. DACA databases, which include highly personal information about applicant's’ identity, immigration status, and place of residence, could be used to target and deport undocumented immigrants--including UNC students. Following Trump’s Muslim ban, an NYU graduate student was detained at the airport and barred from entering the country. How much more is it going to take for you to speak up?

Immigrants — particularly those who are Brown, poor, undocumented, and/or Muslim — are more vulnerable than ever, which is why I urge you to make your support for us public. Your memo asks UNC Chancellors to unyieldingly support and educate undocumented students. You go on to say:

“The University cannot control federal law or national policies, but we can affirm our commitment to being a welcoming and supportive environment for all students. And I will continue advocating greater opportunity for all based on my deep conviction that a better-educated state benefits all of us.”

President Spellings, although you cannot control federal law, it is within your power to release this internal memo as a public statement. I urge you to expand on your words of support and make it known that you will fight for all of us, regardless of our immigration status or country of origin. Tell the state of North Carolina what it means to be a “welcoming and supportive environment.” Let us know how you will advocate “greater opportunity for all.” Announce concrete steps you and the Board of Governors will take to push back against national policies. Make it know whose side you are on.

Following Donald Trump’s election, I worked with a group of faculty members to write and circulate a petition asking UNC to protect undocumented students. That petition garnered over 3,700 signatures from students, alumni, faculty, and staff. We received a vague response from Chancellor Folt reaffirming UNC’s committed to “diversity.” Simply put, this response is not enough. Your inaction is not enough.

I agree with you that undocumented students are among the brightest in our state. I am convinced that immigrants are the future of our state and our nation. We have made America great all along. But, our greatness will not protect us from deportation. Immigration agents won’t accept our diplomas as documentation. Our GPA’s are not social security numbers.

Our undocumented students wake up every day fearing an executive order will take away the few protections they have. Immigrants are being demonized and criminalized by an administration that wants nothing more than to see us defeated. All I’m asking is that you make your support for us public. Hushed words, secret dissent, and private memos do nothing to help our case or assuage our fears. Make a public statement that shows all North Carolinians you are committed to our safety and wellbeing. It’s the least you could do.


The full memo 

Dear Chancellors:

In recent weeks, there has been much concern and discussion about the future of undocumented students studying and living at colleges and universities across the country, specifically those eligible for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policies enacted in 2012. DACA policies were meant to offer some measure of certainty to young people who were brought to the United States as children by their parents or others.

Our campuses are home to some of these young people, many of whom have lived in North Carolina since infancy. They have grown up in our communities and graduated from our public schools. They have earned admission to our institutions as out-of-state students, they pay out-of-state tuition, and they do not receive any state or federal financial aid.

I have met some of these students in my travels across North Carolina, and they are among the most promising young people in our state. Often overcoming significant challenges to pursue higher education, they are the future leaders, researchers, innovators, and educators of our great state. It is my firm belief that we should do all we can to support and educate them. Their hopes and dreams to learn, graduate, and contribute positively to our society are exactly what we wish for all of our children.

The University of North Carolina welcomes and supports all students who earn a place in our public universities. The University cannot control federal law or national policies, but we can affirm our commitment to being a welcoming and supportive environment for all students. And I will continue advocating greater opportunity for all based on my deep conviction that a better-educated state benefits all of us.

Thank you.

Margaret Spellings

President

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