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Eleven years after DACA, Nevadans still need immigration reform

Mariana Sarmiento Hernández
Mariana Sarmiento Hernández
Signage as seen at Nevada State College in Henderson on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

As we commemorate the 11th anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) on June 15, I am more certain now than ever that DACA was never enough. Most undocumented students in the Nevada System of Higher Education do not benefit from DACA protections and, because of the litigation surrounding DACA, it’s uncertain if they ever will.

There are an estimated 427,000 undocumented students in U.S. higher education, but fewer than half are eligible for DACA (Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration). Recent trends in immigration status among incoming TheDream.US scholars at Nevada State College over a five-year period indicate the number of undocumented students who do not have DACA is increasing and are now the majority. 

As Nevada grapples with a worldwide health crisis, labor shortages and an uncertain future, it’s more important than ever for our state to reflect on the critical role that undocumented communities already play and could play in moving our state forward. We need immigration reform now.

Eleven years ago, I didn’t know I could go to college. That is until the day a friend’s mom, who was a Clark County School District teacher, gave me the email address to a staff member at UNLV. She said this presenter had mentioned the term “undocumented” in a training. That was enough for me to reveal my status and ask for help. I had nothing to lose. I’d never stepped into an administrative college building, but as I sat in a small cramped office on the third floor of the Flora Dungan Humanities building, I would come to learn a life-altering truth: I could go to college as an undocumented immigrant. 

Eleven years later, I still find myself having those same conversations about the uncertainty of college with high school students. Some conversations happen through students’ tears, some with cautious hope, all with an immense amount of courage. Still, 11 years later, DACA isn’t enough.

As it stands, DACA continues to be unstable after the 2017 recession where first-time applications are no longer being processed. Across the country, more and more undocumented students entering higher education are not eligible for DACA and are fully undocumented, which means they do not have work authorization or protection from deportation. Even so, those with DACA still have to navigate the relentless precarity of its looming termination.

Today, as a DACA recipient, I have the opportunity to empower Nevada faculty, staff and educators to own their role in increasing college access for undocumented communities. I’m grateful for the opportunity to use peer-reviewed best practices and personal experiences to unequivocally affirm that undocumented students belong on our campuses, yet still I know that we must move beyond DACA. 

Through the efforts of the Nevada System of Higher Education All Access Committee (NSHE AAC) and community activism, nearly every system college in Nevada has an appointed advocate providing targeted services for undocumented students, immigrants and mixed-status families with undocumented parents or siblings. These successes are a testament to the commitment of passionate students, families, staff and administrators, representatives and the Nevada community. 

Nonetheless, we find that Nevadans often feel as though they need permission to engage in this work. Whether it is the fear of uncertainty of the volatile immigration landscape or the crushing despair of confronting systemic inequities, we must not allow this to immobilize us.

Here is the permission you have been waiting for. We, us, you, our state needs immigration reform. But to do this we need to show up. We need our legislators to be unrelenting in their support for a pathway to citizenship for all. We need our local leaders, our educators, our co-workers and our neighbors to be invested in this fight the same way that undocumented people are invested in our community.

Mariana Sarmiento Hernández works with undocumented students at Nevada State College and co-chairs the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Undocumented Student Success Council. She focuses on immigrant justice and educational equity for immigrant students.


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