Fresno Unified School District educators are continuing to face tough questions from undocumented students about their futures, but now fears of deportation could be leading to a decline in college applications.
Applications in the district for the California Dream Act are down from 153 in 2016 to 115 this year. Statewide, applications for the program, which allows undocumented students to receive financial aid for college, are down by nearly 60 percent since last year.
Gretchen Saldana, the head counselor at Roosevelt High School, says she has been scrambling to call the homes of Fresno students to get them to apply for the aid program, and that the reasons for the drop in applicants is clear.
“We’re calling their houses and parents are saying, ‘I don’t want to give you my information. I don’t want you to put anything in the computer. I don’t want you to document that I don’t have a Social Security number,’ ” Saldana said.
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“This is a genuine fear that they are living with. We have students who have worked really hard academically and they want to go to college, but they’re discouraged because they’re undocumented, thinking why should they bother.
“I don’t think there’s anything you can say to take that fear away. You want to tell them that it will be OK, but I can’t say that with 100 percent certainty.”
Living in a nightmare
Several undocumented students at Roosevelt High spoke with The Bee but asked to remain anonymous, citing fears of deportation.
A 17-year-old-girl cried talking about her recent admission to Fresno State, saying her excitement is clouded by worry after a neighbor told her last week that an officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement was on her street in Fresno.
“The fact that you could come home from school one day and your parents won’t be here because they got deported, it’s so frightening,” she said. “We are literally living in a nightmare.”
One student said two of her friends in college have chosen not to reapply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – a federal program created by President Barack Obama that temporarily protects immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
While President Donald Trump has said he does not plan to end DACA, concerns remain because of more aggressive immigration policies. On Tuesday, Trump said he was open to granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.
The fact that you could come home from school one day and your parents won’t be here because they got deported, it’s so frightening.
Fresno Unified student who is undocumented
“They’re already giving up on their dreams because they’re undocumented,” the girl said. “They feel like its going to be a waste of time.”
One Roosevelt senior, who is a U.S. citizen, burst into tears talking about her sister, who is undocumented and attending college in Los Angeles. She worries that her sister, or their mother, will be deported, and she won’t have a chance to say goodbye.
“She just renewed her DACA. I know she’s scared, but she doesn’t say anything because my mom’s already scared enough,” the teen said through tears. “Knowing that they’re in that situation and you can’t help them … oh, God. You’re just standing there watching it happen.”
The students paint a picture of constant anxiety at school and home. Some say their parents have contingency plans in place in case of sudden deportation, and have designated a legal citizen who would get custody of their children. One student says her parents are sending money back to Mexico, preparing a house just in case.
They asked: ‘Are federal funds more important than we are?’
Yadira Gonzalez, Roosevelt High teacher
The teenagers say the Trump presidency has changed their entire school environment – even in a district at Fresno Unified, where nearly 70 percent of students are Latino. A 17-year-old boy started to cry retelling an experience he had walking home from school recently.
A man in a truck rolled down his window and shouted racial slurs at him, saying, “build a wall” and “pack your bags and head back to your ranch.”
“I keep telling myself that it won’t happen – that it can’t happen,” the student said about deportation. “But it’s always haunting me. You wake up and it’s here in your head: When is that day going to come?”
‘Fresno Unified has your back’
The Fresno Unified school board will vote next week whether to make the district a “safe place,” following in the steps of schools across the state and country that have vowed to protect undocumented students.
Yadira Gonzalez, an English teacher at Roosevelt High, cries along with her students when she hears their concerns. She says she is not accustomed to not being able to answer their questions. One question especially shook Gonzalez: Are federal funds more important than we are?
“Usually when kids ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to, I’ll research it. But you can’t type that into Google,” Gonzalez said. “Fresno Unified has to become a safe haven school district because there’s this fear. What I want to be able to do as an educator is to tell my student, ‘I know you’re fearful, but Fresno Unified has your back.’ Because that speaks volumes. It gives kids courage and the ability to say, ‘You know what, everything around me is in chaos, but my school district is taking a stand.’ ”
Alejandro Trevino, who teaches English as a second language at Roosevelt High, says that for many of his students who come from countries like Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, the U.S. was meant to be a safe haven. Now, they feel unsafe here, too.
“A lot of them came here seeking political asylum. They left to escape gangs. They’ve had their lives threatened. They’ve watched people die in front of them,” Trevino said. “Now they’re like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ”
Fresno Unified trustees will outline the proposed safe haven resolution at a news conference at Roosevelt High at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.