As a predominantly white institution, Vassar has historically excluded a great deal of oppressed bodies, including people of color, women and LGBTQ students. Lately there have been some incredible efforts to alleviate the tensions that oppressed students suffer from, but there is one group of students who has not received much attention in recent years: undocumented students.
According to Pew Research there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., although this number continues to fluctuate due to mass deportations initiated by the Obama administration. Undocumented immigrants belong to all races, and represent several nationalities. Many of these immigrants come to the United States from countries devastated by U.S. foreign policies, thus forcing them to immigrate in order to escape violence or starvation. They come here to seek a better life, but xenophobic immigration policies do not allow the majority of those who need to migrate the right to enter the country lawfully. Due to restrictions on immigration, a great deal of people have to go through great lengths in order to arrive in the United States only to then live in fear of deportation. A great deal of those who immigrate are young children, who later grow up in the United States, identify with American culture, and have little recollection of their lives in their natal countries. By any other definfinition of the word, they’re American.
Structures exist in this country to oppress immigrant bodies and continuously endorse white supremacy in U.S. society. Undocumented immigrants do not have access to many government services such as welfare and food stamps even though they do pay sales, property, and in some cases, even income taxes. Additionally, a lot of undocumented immigrants cannot work in this country legally, putting them at risk of exploitation in workforce, and thus are often victims of human rights violations which often go unreported and unheard in order to avoid deportation. The United States government meanwhile prioritizes citizenship to millionaires, celebrities and those who just happen to be born in the country. In many cases, citizenship is determined by pure circumstance, yet the government has created barriers for working class immigrants and immigrants of color to be considered for citizenship. Our country is built in a way that privileges and idealizes citizenship, and those who are not citizens are marginalized and dehumanized. We ultimately live in an environment that gives citizens the right to exist, and those who don’t fit are forced into hidin. They are also forced to become invisible in order to escape incarceration, criminalization deportation and even death.
The oppression towards undocumented students manifests itself differently than for non-student immigrants. Aside from living in a country where being non-white and being a non-native English speaker is already an incredible disadvantage in academia, a person’s status as undocumented can deny them of many educational benefits too, regardless of academic ability and merit. A person’s immigrant status can be enough to deny them a livable salary, acceptance to a college, or a financial aid package that would make higher education more accessible.
Vassar is a school that continuously alienates undocumented immigrants. Vassar does accept undocumented students and allow them to enroll. Their applications, however, are considered by Vassar Admissions as international students and not as domestic students, despite the fact that they’ve attended American high school and may even identify as American. As international students, undocumented applicants to Vassar are evaluated on a need-sensitive basis, putting them at an incredible disadvantage, as many immigrants need significant financial aid in order to attend Vassar.
Additionally, undocumented students, who are often disadvantaged within U.S. academic systems, are put in the same application pool as international students who frequently come from far more privileged, elite schools abroad. Aside from maneuvering the institutional barriers that the American public school system has against undocumented students, they are still expected to outperform their competitors when applying to an “elite” liberal arts college like Vassar.
Initiatives do exist to attempt to alleviate the tension between the marginalized and make the certain students on campus feel more at ease. Affinity spaces like the ALANA Center, the Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center and the various faculty members tasked to assist Posse Foundation fellows help students transition into life at Vassar, and give them the resources that they may need. Although many would argue that these initiatives are imperfect, they at least exist. Several University of California campuses also have centers to aid students while attending colleges that privilege U.S. citizens. These centers provide legal, academic, financial, medical and emotional support that many undocumented students need, but no such support center exists for undocumented students here. Vassar is an unsafe place for undocumented students, considering the general apathy or ignorance concerning immigration at this campus. Although we often create spaces where privilege and oppression can be discussed, albeit imperfectly, there are very few spaces that attempt to cope with the issue of citizenship, and how that is a privilege that often goes overlooked.
Here at Vassar, many of us have been brainstorming ways to make this space more accessible and inclusive to marginalized people, but in the struggle for inclusivity, we instead create more spaces taht exclude undocumented students. We talk about the intersections between class, race, gender and sexual orientation, but how often is the idea of citizenship included in these conversations? Inclusivity towards undocumented students needs to be conducted at multiple levels. On the administrative side, Vassar needs to evaluate undocumented applicants on a need-blind basis, just like other students who live in the U.S. A team of administrators need to be better educated on immigration policy, and be available to assist any undocumented student who feels unsafe in this country. Additionally, students need to be more proactive in creating a space where undocumented students do not feel alienated or in danger. All initiatives to create inclusivity without addressing issues of immigration and citizenship critically will ultimately remain flawed and marginalizing.
—Guillermo Valdez ’15 is a geography and Latin America and Latina@ Studies double major.