‘Dreamers’ at Dartmouth Wait, Worry

  • Valentina Garcia Gonzalez, a student at Dartmouth College, leads her cheerleading team while kneeling for the national anthem during a game between Dartmouth and Yale on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Garcia Gonzalez said that she organized the kneel and wanted to make sure the whole team was behind whoever decided to kneel. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valentina Garcia Gonzalez, a student and cheerleader at Dartmouth College, embraces a teammate after Dartmouth scored a winning touchdown against Yale on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Garcia Gonzalez is on DACA now, but it will expire next year. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valentina Garcia Gonzalez, a student at Dartmouth College, cheers during a game between Dartmouth and Yale on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Garcia Gonzalez is on DACA, but it will expire next year. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, October 08, 2017

Hanover — As the Dartmouth College football team limbered up for its Homecoming Weekend game on Saturday against Yale, junior Valentina Garcia Gonzalez was on the sidelines in her cheerleader’s uniform, shouting encouragement to the team and firing up the crowd of more than 8,000 fans.

But despite her participation in this uniquely American pastime — and even though she grew up in Georgia — Garcia Gonzalez’s status as a United States resident is uncertain because she is one of 800,000 people brought to the country as children who lack citizenship and legal documentation for residency.

Now, as the fate of Obama-era legal protections for people like her are being openly debated, Garcia Gonzalez and others in her situation are left wondering whether their lives will be uprooted by being sent back to countries they barely know.

“That’s something that I think about daily,” Garcia Gonzalez said in an interview last week. “I don’t know how I’m going to mentally and emotionally be present during my senior year when all my friends are enjoying their last few terms and I’m like, ‘I hope I survive.’ ”

In September, President Donald Trump announced that he would begin winding down Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program known as DACA that shields participants from deportation, in six months.

Although some people enrolled in the program were able to renew their status one last time for two years, Garcia Gonzalez says hers will expire in the middle of her senior year.

Garcia Gonzalez came to Georgia from Uruguay when she was 6 years old. Now 21, she could become the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college.

Her dream, she said, is to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemiologist studying viruses and diseases, giving people “the information they need to survive and be healthy.”

For years, Garcia Gonzalez said, her family has been planning to visit Hanover for graduation ceremonies next June — a moment that would have shown that “everything we gave up was worth it.”

But now, with the dangers of traveling during the ongoing immigration crackdown, “we can’t even do that,” she said.

Roadside checkpoints in New Hampshire have led to the detainment of dozens of immigrants this year.

A checkpoint on Interstate 93 in Woodstock, N.H., took in 25 undocumented people late last month. In August, U.S. Border Patrol agents boarded a Greyhound bus in White River Junction and, according to a passenger, checked the IDs only of people who had accents or were not white.

Garcia Gonzalez also serves as co-director of a campus support network for undocumented students known as Dartmouth CoFired, or the Coalition For Immigration Reform, Equality and Dreamers. (The “Dreamer” name for childhood arrivals comes from the Dream Act, several never-passed pieces of legislation that would have protected them.)

Trump, who prior to his DACA announcement had expressed sympathy for its beneficiaries, calling them “incredible kids,” added to the confusion over their fate last month by appearing to keep the door open for the program.

“Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do),” he tweeted on Sept. 5. “If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”

Later last month, he engaged in talks with Democrats about the possibility of a legislative deal on immigration that could preserve DACA.

Where that stands is unclear. Shortly after the discussions, Democratic Party leaders said they had reached an agreement with the president, but Trump sent mixed messages, at one point saying there was “no deal” on DACA.

In some ways, the fog around DACA’s future is nothing new to the people enrolled in the program.

“My whole life has been uncertainty, and my whole life has been one that I’ve lived through fear,” Garcia Gonzalez said.

Growing up in Georgia, she was taught by family members to leave home only at certain times of day, to be on alert for loud noises, to be afraid of flashing lights that could signal police or immigration agents.

“I’m used to instability,” she said. “I’m used to uncertainty.”

Dartmouth has publicly expressed support for DACA recipients and offered them assistance in filing for renewal under the program, but Garcia Gonzalez and other undocumented students have pressured administrators to go further.

In a campuswide email after the announcement of DACA’s cancellation last month, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said he was “deeply disappointed in President Trump’s decision.”

“Given that most of these students came to our country as young children, America is the only home they’ve ever known,” Hanlon said. “To deny them the opportunity to continue to advance their studies is to deprive our country of the innovation, determination and diversity of human talent that make America the greatest and most prosperous country in the world.”

Soon after the election, members of the campus coalition sent a letter to Hanlon requesting that he declare Dartmouth a “sanctuary” school for immigrants, meaning the college would not assist or comply with law enforcement attempts to deport or detain undocumented noncitizens.

Hanlon replied in a statement that the college was willing to “work within the bounds of the law” to help students affected by “possible revisions to DACA and other immigration policies.” He did not designate Dartmouth an immigrant sanctuary.

In December 2016, the Hanover Friends Meeting, a Quaker society on Lebanon Street, decided to offer physical sanctuary. Other Upper Valley congregations later followed suit, but aren’t making their names public, Hanover Friends member Shawn Donovan said in an email last month.

Despite the unpredictability of their situation, students at rich, prestigious universities are among the best positioned in the undocumented community to survive.

“I’m very privileged, in a sense, that I sit in this position,” said Oscar Cornejo Casares, a co-founder of the campus coalition who graduated from Dartmouth this spring and is now working toward a doctorate at Northwestern University.

Cornejo Casares, who moved to Illinois from Mexico when he was 5 years old, said he grew up with other undocumented immigrants who are now out in the world, “not protected by the walls of academia.”

“What are they going to do?” he said in a telephone interview last month.

That question still extends to Cornejo Casares, who is studying sociology and, in order to fulfill his dream of becoming an academic, will have to resolve his residency status.

“The future’s so precarious,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re going to do. You really have to take it step by step, day by day. ... It’s just so uncertain as to what’s going to happen.”

New twists and turns have only added to that uncertainty.

Just last week, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official told Congress that the Trump administration supported providing lawful permanent residency and a “path to citizenship” to DACA recipients.

Undocumented students met with wariness this latest apparent change of direction.

“I’ve read many a similar article and nothing concrete comes out,” Garcia Gonzalez said. “So I just brush it off until I see active steps being made.”

Cornejo Casares said the development was evidence of what he called Trump’s “incompetency.”

“If he really wished to address the issue of undocumented immigrants, particularly ‘Dreamers,’ he would not have rescinded DACA, and ended it so abruptly ... disrupting the lives of nearly 800,000 people,” he said.

Cornejo Casares also said he didn’t want the focus on childhood arrivals to obscure the need for solutions for the whole population of undocumented immigrants, which is estimated to be at least 11 million.

“While I would likely benefit from policy that solely targets Dreamers, it still excludes my parents,” he said. “It still fails a whole lot of other people.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.