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Students, faculty urge University of California system to hire undocumented students

San Francisco Chronicle 10/19/2022 By Bob Egelko
UC Berkeley students demonstrate in support of DACA in Berkeley, Calif., on Sept. 5, 2017. © Scott Strazzante, Staff Photographer / The Chronicle

UC Berkeley students demonstrate in support of DACA in Berkeley, Calif., on Sept. 5, 2017.

New enrollment in DACA, the federal program that allows young undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in the United States, has been shut down by federal judges, cutting off job prospects for thousands of young people, including many University of California students. On Wednesday, students and faculty members asked the university to do something about it.

“UC has a moral and legal obligation to act now on behalf of our undocumented graduate and undergraduate students,” leaders of the Undocumented Student-Led Network and immigration faculty said in a letter delivered to UC President Michael Drake’s office in Berkeley calling on the university to make jobs available to students regardless of their immigration status. They said a study by immigration scholars refutes the university’s contention that offering jobs to the undocumented would violate federal immigration law.

The letter said there are more than 44,000 college students in California who are ineligible to join DACA under the court rulings, and 27,000 undocumented students graduating each year from high schools in the state. As of last December, according to state court documents, there were 1,700 DACA participants attending UC, more than 10,000 at California State University campuses and 156,000 in California community colleges.

California, home to about 2 million undocumented immigrants and a majority non-white population, has gone beyond most states and the federal government in granting equal benefits to undocumented people. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Wednesday the state is providing Medi-Cal health care coverage to 286,000 low-income undocumented Californians ages 50 and older. Undocumented immigrants are also eligible for driver’s licenses and pay the same reduced tuition as other California residents at state universities and colleges.

But Karely Amaya Rios, co-chair of the student network that signed the letter, said the UC system can and should unlock its employment doors.

“I have a job offer, right now, that I’m unable to accept because of my status,” Rios, who is studying for a master’s degree in public policy at UCLA, said in a statement released by the student group. “The University of California has both an opportunity and an obligation to remove barriers to employment for all students, on all 10 of their campuses, regardless of immigration status.”

“I turned down a full ride to Harvard because, at UCLA, I was promised that I was not my status, rather, just a student,” said another network co-chair, Jeffry Umaña Muñoz, who is in his third year at the Los Angeles campus. “UC has failed to uphold that promise.”

Some faculty members said they’d be eager to hire undocumented students or graduates if allowed to do so.

“Some of the finest students in my career have been undocumented students, who have overcome tremendous obstacles to achieve higher education,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. “We would hire these students today if given permission by the University of California.”

DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was established by President Barack Obama in 2012 and is open to those who entered the U.S. before age 16, have attended high school or served in the military and have not committed any serious crimes. President Donald Trump’s attempt to terminate the program was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2020, but in July 2021 U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Texas, in a suit by nine Republican-led states, ruled that Obama had failed to invite public comment and had acted without authority from Congress, where legislation to enact DACA has repeatedly stalled.

Hanen did not order deportation of the nearly 600,000 current participants in the program but cut off new admissions. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling this month but told Hanen to consider new Biden administration rules aimed at bolstering the program’s legal status.

In Wednesday’s push to UC leaders, the students and teachers also attached a letter signed by 28 immigration law professors from throughout the nation contending a 1986 federal law that barred employment of undocumented immigrants does not apply to states and their universities. The law made no reference to state governments or their employees, and, under Supreme Court rulings, a federal law that does not explicitly mention states does not bind them, the professors wrote. They included law school Deans Erwin Chemerinsky of UC Berkeley and Kevin Johnson of UC Davis.

“For nearly 40 years, state entities thought they were bound by the federal prohibition against hiring undocumented students when, in fact, they were not,” said Ahilan Arulantham, co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA. “Based on our extensive legal research, we know that the University of California system has the power to allow the hiring of undocumented students today.”

Drake’s office issued a noncommittal response.

“The University of California has long been committed to supporting our undocumented students,” Stett Holbrook, a spokesperson for the UC president, said in a statement. “These are complex issues that deserve careful and thoughtful review. We have received the proposal and are in the process of determining the appropriate next steps for its consideration.”

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @BobEgelko

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