College dreamers in Trump's America | WVIA

College dreamers in Trump's America

Last Updated by Sasha Aslanian and Catherine Winter on


Young undocumented immigrants fighting for better opportunities to go to college in the United States have had a tough road, even with federal protections the past five years. Some states charge them higher tuition or block them from state schools. Federal loans are off-limits. And high school counselors can be discouraging.

Plyler v. Doe

In 1977, four immigrant families sued the Tyler, Texas, school district after their children were kicked out and required to pay for a public education. Five years later, the court ruled in their favor. Learn more.

When Donald Trump became president, the obstacles grew.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump promised to end an Obama-era program that allows the children of immigrants to apply for temporary relief from deportation.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, benefited nearly 800,000 young people since 2012 and propelled a small portion of them toward a college degree, allowing them to compete in the American job force and build a life in the only country they've known.

One day after Labor Day and a little more than seven months into his presidency, Trump challenged the legality of DACA and ordered that it gradually end.

Calling it a "body blow to the nation," Thomas Saenz of the Mexican American Legal and Educational Defense Fund criticized the move for endangering families, employers and communities. A day later, 15 states and the District of Columbia sued to block Trump's recision.

Trump, who at times expressed sympathy for the young immigrants, called for Congress to come up with a solution, which could include a bill that shields DACA recipients from deportation or creates a path to citizenship.

Faces of the Shadow Class

Ivy Leaguer worried for family
College afar reduces expense
Focusing on school, not politics
Training with an eye on deportation
Humor and resilience

The evening of the announcement, Trump tweeted, "Congress now has six months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can't, I will revisit this issue!"

APM Reports began interviewing college students with DACA before the election. We followed them through spring semester, talking with them periodically as the Trump administration gave mixed signals about Dreamers.

The students talked about their experiences through high school being undocumented, their fears and fleeting joys, the barriers to advancing to college and the safety of families. We updated the story with their reactions to Trump administration's announcement it would end DACA.

Below are five of their stories, edited for length and clarity.

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Valentina Garcia Gonzalez
Junior, Dartmouth College
Major: Geography. Minor: Global Health

Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL) told Valentina's story on the Senate Floor in November 2016. Durbin first introduced The Dream Act in 2001.


Valentina Garcia Gonzalez overstayed a tourist visa from Uruguay when she was 6 years old and settled with her family in Georgia.

On learning DACA was rescinded

We knew it was going to happen and we were just kind of numb. We live in constant fear. My family's garage is full of boxes ready to move and leave. We have that mentality of readiness and preparation for the worst. I thought it was dumb.

Maybe I was optimistic, but I thought that nothing was going to happen. But now it's here. It's in our face. It's concrete. Now it's kind of like a waiting game. Do people really care about us? And do they care about us enough for something concrete like legislation to pass? There's so much uncertainty after DACA expires.

My biggest thing is traveling. How am I going to get home now? I just realized my family might not come to my graduation. I was going to drive them up here because I'm the only one that has a license. I don't even know if my family is going to be able to witness me graduating from Dartmouth.

The road to college

I always wanted to go to college. I had this mantra in my head: It's not how I start, it's how I finish. Maybe I would start in community college, but I could finish at an Ivy League or somewhere amazing.

I found out about Freedom University, and I joined. [Freedom University offers undocumented students free, college-level courses and help with college applications.] That's where I saw the potential I had, not just to go to college, but to be a leader and have my voice heard. I had felt so hopeless and helpless. In my high school, I was the only (known) undocumented person. I spoke with the principal and other adults in the education system and asked how I could get resources. They didn't know.

I had to find out for myself. I started doing protests and rallies and speaking out. I found a passion for protesting, social activism and trying to personalize the plight of undocumented students trying to achieve higher education. I went to speak at the University of South Carolina, which was the first time I'd ever been on a college campus. I kept saying: Why is this not me? Why am I not here? Why can't I be here? I am just as capable and just as qualified. I went to the same classes, had the same grades. I thought it was completely unfair.

I took a gap year and applied to out-of-state schools that accept undocumented students and provide financial aid and scholarships for undocumented students. I applied to nine schools. The only one that accepted me was Dartmouth. Dartmouth was my reach school. I didn't think I was going to get in. I thought that I wasn't Ivy League-qualified. I'm just an undocumented girl. Who would want me there?

After attending Dartmouth for the past year, I realized that there's a lot of students, especially undocumented students, that feel the way that I felt: I'm not Ivy League-worthy because I'm undocumented. Or that I can't get there. Coming back to Freedom University, I tell students that they need to apply to as many Ivy League colleges as possible, because you are Ivy League-worthy.

Arturo Martinez
First year, Eastern Connecticut State University
Intended major: Computer Science

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Arturo Martinez crossed the border from Mexico with his family when he was 8. After high school, he spent five years working construction with his dad because he couldn't afford to pay the higher tuition Georgia requires. He's now part of a federal lawsuit challenging that policy and meanwhile has won a scholarship to attend college in Connecticut.

Losing DACA

I don't feel sad or that I want to cry. I feel like I was betrayed by the same country that tells me to be this person that I need to be. We have done so much for this country. We are contributing. About 90 or 95 percent of us go to school or work. And 100 percent of us don't have a criminal record, which is one of the biggest requirements for DACA. We're not bad people. We're students, we're workers. And we're contributing to the country as much the person next to us.

For my education, right now it has no effect. We were assured that we were going to be able to keep our scholarships. But for the future, I really want to continue my education and that complicates things. I will not have DACA if Congress doesn't do anything. I'll become undocumented again and it will certainly make it difficult to find a career or a job after school.

Mum about college

I wasn't comfortable disclosing my immigration status to my high school counselor. One time, she asked me if I had a Social Security number for applying for college, and I told her that I didn't. She didn't know what to say.

Many high school students are undocumented. They don't really come out because they don't know what's going to happen if somebody finds out. I tried to avoid the college talks with my counselor because I just didn't feel safe talking to somebody who wasn't in the same situation as me.

Winning a scholarship

I was on my computer, working on some pieces. I don't know why I decided to check my email. I saw an email from the Opportunity Scholarship, which is a scholarship designed to help students like me who live in states such as Georgia, which prevent you from attending in-state colleges. The first thing I thought was that I got rejected because it's an email. Sometimes you get letters or you get something fancy that tells you that you got accepted. But as I started reading, it said: Congratulations, Arturo, you have been awarded a scholarship to Eastern Connecticut State University.

It was surreal. It was something that I had been fighting for since 2012. I kept applying, applying. Just the fact that the hard work paid off was overwhelming. I went to my dad and told him that I'm going to college soon. He got up and started jumping out of happiness. We started hugging each other, and you know it was something I will never forget.

Higher education affordability for undocumented students
A 1996 federal law prevents states from offering higher education benefits to unauthorized residents unless they offer the same benefits to citizens from other states. States that extend in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants typically use requirements such as graduating from a local high school.

States in white have taken no action, allow institutions to decide, have an exception for DACA, or have passed laws barring in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants.Data sources: National Conference of State Legislatures and Ulead

Julio Martinez
Second year, Minneapolis Community and Technical College
Major: Human Services


Julio Martinez crossed the border with his family from Mexico when he was 8 and settled in Minneapolis. He wants to be a county manager.

Feeling hated

I feel that all the hard work and all these achievements that I have done so far just went down the drain. I feel that the American dream died. I feel like they hate me. This country hates me so much to do something like that to us.

I was debating if I should just take a semester off. But no, I'm already enrolled this semester and I'm going to finish strong. I'll finish my degree. I just have to work hard. My education, no one can take it away either.

Watching the election returns

My parents were crying, and it broke my heart because we have worked so hard. We have been good citizens, and I'm very scared of my future now and what's going to happen to me and my family. I'm glad that my parents came to this country to offer us a better future. I just feel very ashamed of Latinos who voted for Trump. I feel ashamed of my race. I'm very hurt by everyone who voted for Trump because I can't believe they believe in a man who has dehumanized everyone. Hopefully, the American dream for me has not ended.

Estefania Navarro
Formerly Minneapolis Community and Technical College
Partially completed major: Community Development


When Estefania Navarro was 3, she walked across the desert from Mexico with her grandmother to join her mother in Minneapolis. She was finishing her second associate's degree but now she's decided to take a year off from college. She serves as a program adviser for other undocumented students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Hard to make plans

I'm taking this year off from college just because I'm not sure about pursuing a bachelor's. And that's a decision outside of DACA. This announcement also makes me nervous to start a bachelor's next year because of the loans and being able to pay it back. With all this uncertainty, it's hard for me to make plans.

My contract [for student advising] ends in December. We are preparing to ease the transition in case I do need to resign. Even deportation at this point is a very real thing. It always has been, but now more than ever. It's one less thing that I have control of. We are preparing a plan in case I get put in deportation proceedings.

Fighting the system

They don't want people like me to dream. They just want working hands. Doing something that I love, that's still my resistance. That's my way of saying screw you, Trump. Here's an undocumented brown woman still fighting and still resisting. I can't let fear take over me.

How the election has changed her work advising students

I must convince them that it's still worth it to go to school. I can't lie and tell them that you're going to be able to work and everything is going to be OK. If I'm struggling with comprehending how I'm going to feed myself, I can't even imagine what they're going through.

Olga Ruiz
Sophomore, University of California-Los Angeles
Intended major: Education

Olga Ruiz, center, spoke on the first alumni panel for an undocumented student club at Alliance Patti & Peter Neuwirth Leadership Academy.


Olga Ruiz came from Mexico when she was 9 months old.

DACA announcement came as a surprise

I was so positive and oblivious because I didn't think Trump would go through with it. Finding out about it left me shocked. I thought about my work permit. I have a job. What am I going to do without my permit? Honestly, I don't really know what it means to me.

Anything could happen now. I'm not protected anymore. I was so scared, I didn't want to go out of my house. My mom is worried now that Trump really did take DACA away, he's going to do anything possible, anything that would hurt us.

In February, she went back to her old high school in South Los Angeles and offered advice to the undocumented student club.

Telling her classmates

I'm not trying to hide it or anything. I honestly tell people: Oh yeah, I wasn't born here. I'm different from you guys in this sense. Especially when my friends go out and do certain things. I say that I can't do that. Like Tijuana for the weekend or something. I say, I'll go with you guys, but I'm not going to come back! I like to make jokes about it because I'm not trying to hide it. It's all out there. Everybody should know to support me. That's all I can ask for.


I would be assigned readings and not understand anything. I would read it again and still not understand it. I honestly felt so dumb, so stupid. When I was in high school, I felt so high on myself. I'm so smart, I'm getting A's and B's. In college, you take one test and if you fail it, too bad. During those times, I thought I couldn't do anything. But I thought: If I go home, what am I going to be teaching my siblings? Once you can't do it, it's over. That's honestly what brought me up, thinking about my younger siblings, my baby brother who's just starting elementary school. If I teach them that it's too hard, that you shouldn't try, that's what I'm going to bring upon them. That's what has kept me going forward.

Sasha Aslanian
Catherine Winter
Catherine Winter
Emily Hanford
Stephen Smith

Josie Fan
Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis
Lila Cherneff
Josh Marcus
Suzanne Pekow

Craig Thorson
Chris Worthington

Stephen Smith
Andy Kruse

Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis
Eva Dasher

Emily Hanford
Liz Lyon

Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Image at top: Protesters rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, during a Labor Day rally in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.Richard Vogel | AP


We're interested in hearing what impact APM Reports programs have on you. Has one of our documentaries or podcasts changed how you think about an issue? Has it led you to do something, like start a conversation or try to do something new in your community? Share your impact story.


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