Fusion followed an undocumented college student during one of the most politically contentious years in American history
Jose Reza is on an athletic scholarship and the honor roll at Allen Community College in Iola, Kansas.
He is also the only openly undocumented student at the rural midwest school.
Reza, 20, is one of more than 200,000 undocumented immigrants enrolled in college across the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Undocumented immigrants make up two percent of all college students.
“I never imagined I could go to college because I’m undocumented,” he said of his status.
Born in Bejucos, Mexico, Jose migrated to the United States along with his mother five years ago with the dream of getting an education. They ended up in the migrant town of Immokalee, FL, picking produce. Jose made as little as $50 for up to 15 hours of work a day, working before and after school, and on the weekends, to help his mother pay the bills.
“When I was in the 9th grade, I thought that I had to drop out of school in order to help my mom out,” Jose said. “I didn’t feel like it was fair for me to study, to be in the classroom, while she was under the sun working for me to go to school.”
Jose discovered running as an escape from his challenges. The sport also created a clearer pathway to college. In 2016, he graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class and was recruited to run for the Allen Red Devils. According to the Department of Education, 54 % of undocumented students graduate from high school, compared to 82 % of U.S. citizens. Even fewer of them, up to 10 %, continue their education.
There’s no federal law that prohibits undocumented students from attending college. However, financial and bureaucratic barriers limit their access to higher education. Although many undocumented students, like Jose, come from low-income families, they are not eligible for any type of federal financial aid, and they are ineligible for most state aid.
Once in college, they also face obstacles that many of their peers don’t, most significantly the threat of deportation. Jose doesn’t qualify for deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, which would give him temporary deportation relief. More than three-quarters of undocumented students fear being deported according to a study by the UndocuScholars Project.
“More than ever it’s difficult being an undocumented college student because of the uncertainty. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. I might not be an American citizen but this is all I have,” Jose told Fusion.
During the first three months of Donald Trump’s presidency, immigration arrests were up almost 40 percent from the same time last year, according to statistics released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“These statistics reflect President Trump’s commitment to enforce our immigration laws fairly and across the board,” wrote ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan of the announcement. Honan said the jump in arrests came after ICE officers were told to focus on threats to public safety and national security. But he added “when we encounter others who are in the country unlawfully, we will execute our sworn duty and enforce the law.”
Since Trump took office, a growing number of student and immigrant allies across the country have called for schools to be declared sanctuary campuses. Born out of the so-called sanctuary city movement, a sanctuary campus seeks to protect its undocumented students by limiting cooperation with federal immigration agents.
“Some of the things that I’ve been hearing from students across the country, particularly undocumented students, is simply that they’re afraid,” said Cesar Vargas, New York’s first openly undocumented lawyer and co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. “We’re seeing agents who are not being held accountable when they are pursuing a warrant or people in courthouses, in schools and in very sensitive areas that they should not be enforcing any type of action.”
Vargas is guiding college students across the country as they petition their schools to become sanctuaries.
California has the highest number of undocumented students in the nation. However, many of its universities have not embraced the sanctuary label, including The University of California system. But its president is committed to helping its 2,500 undocumented students across 10 campuses.
“Our police will focus on campus safety and not become surrogate immigration agents,” said UC President and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, in an interview with Fusion in May.
Napolitano said she would focus on protecting and ensuring that higher education is available for every student. “It is the one tactic we’ve had in our country, historically, that has enabled people to increase their income levels, to increase their employment possibilities, to close that socioeconomic gap that exists.”
Allen Community College also has not adopted the sanctuary label, but administration officials are looking at ways to protect students like Jose in the future.
As he gears up for his second year of college, Jose remains focused on his American dream. He hopes to transfer to a four-year university and one day become a biology teacher.
“I think it’s really important for me to tell my story so that others can see that we just want a better future. It’s crucial that we don’t stay in the shadows.”