An immigration rally in Chicago. Credit: Darryl Holliday/DNAinfo

NORTH PARK — Northeastern Illinois University is hosting a town hall focused on the experiences of students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.

At the event, which begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the alumni hall on the university campus, 5500 N. St Louis Ave., panelists from schools will talk about the educational challenges and opportunities of DACA recipients. The town hall is part of “DACAmentation: Humanizing Our Stories,” a podcast series produced by Northeastern students and alumni airing on Spanish Public Radio.

Speakers include: Tanya Cabrera of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Illinois Dream Fund; Dr. Miguel Angel Saucedo of Chicago Public Schools; Maureen Fitzpatrick of City Colleges of Chicago; Joseph Saucedo of Loyola University and Melanny Buitron, a current NEIU student and CPS alumna. 

Tuesday’s town hall will be conducted in English with Spanish translations for attendees. 

Northeastern is one of 10 institutions nationwide to be awarded a $35,000 grant from the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. Northeastern’s DACAmentation project aims to break myths about undocumented students and shed light on the challenges they face in the United States.

“It’s really powerful,” said Edie Rubinowitz, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Theatre at the school. She applied for the grant because she recognized that undocumented students needed a voice in higher education and the media.

“It’s hard to get to class on time and do the work you need to do if you’re feeling like you shouldn’t be here at all,” Rubinowitz said. “This idea of change, that we actually can make a change by making our voices heard, that’s part of the goal.”

The podcasts are recorded and air in Spanish but organizers hope to provide English transcriptions of the podcasts soon. Episodes focus on topics like LGBTQA DACA recipients, how to be an ally to undocumented students as well as the experience of high school “Dreamers” clubs. 

Seven former or current Northeastern students are working on the podcast and are dedicating about four to five hours a week to the project.

DACA is an Obama-era program that allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children to get work permits, driver’s licenses, and other official paperwork. More than 886,000 people have enrolled in the program since it began in 2012 and nearly 80 percent of the DACA recipients are from Mexico, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Monzerrath Gaytan, a DACA recipient, is one of the Northeastern reporters helping to produce the podcast.

“DACA really became something for me to think about around the time that I was thinking about applying to colleges my senior year,” Gaytan said. 

She came to the United States when she was five-years-old and went through most of her early education unaware of her legal status. But when she was a senior in high school, her status as an undocumented person meant that pursuing college was going to be almost impossible because she’d be unable to apply for financial aid.

“Everybody I knew was applying to their dream schools for college but I was focusing more on what school can I afford,” Gaytan said. “I was turned down by a lot of schools because they would look at my grades and it would be like, ‘Yes, we want you here.’ But as soon as I would tell them I had DACA, I would find out I wasn’t eligible to apply for financial aid.”

She was eventually able to work two jobs while being a full-time student in order to afford her classes, first at Harold Washington College and then at Northeastern where she completed her bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in journalism.

“As a first-generation student, I quickly became aware of the difficulties of getting a post-secondary education,” she said.

Tuesday’s DACAmentation town hall was inspired by what event organizers say is the “constant misinformation that is being spread in this country” about undocumented students.

President Donald Trump ended the DACA program on Sept. 5, 2017 which led to then–Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke issuing a memorandum directing her department to reject all initial DACA applications and associated applications for work authorization received after that date.

After his decision to end DACA, Trump argued the federal government’s “failure” to enforce federal immigration law burdened the nation’s education and health care systems, and allowed illegal drugs and “criminal cartels” into the country. 

But a series of lawsuits and U.S. district courts has forced the government to continue to accept DACA renewal applications for the foreseeable future.

“People need to be open to these stories. I think that a lot of people just believe the stereotypes that they see on TV, what they hear about other people based on their legal status,” Gaytan said. “We have to humanize these stories and really make them understand that a person is so much more than just their legal status.” 

As a response to Trump’s attempt to end DACA, Northeastern’s board of trustees enacted a policy on Sept. 14, 2017 to protect DACA recipients at the school while also offering continued support of students at the school regardless of immigration status. As part of the policy, Northeastern was the first university in the state to provide undocumented students in-state tuition. 

“Regardless of whether a student is undocumented or has DACA, they do not qualify for federal or state aid in the state of Illinois,” said Luvia Moreno, director of undocumented student resources at the school.

The position is the first of its kind at a public university in Illinois, according to Moreno, who was one of the first people interviewed for the podcast.

Moreno told Block Club Northeastern’s progressive policy wouldn’t have happened without undocumented student activists pushing the administration to support students in 2011 and 2012.

“We probably wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” Moreno said. “This student group triggered the need to research our policies and figure out what needed to change. And little by little we’ve been making those changes and we keep on working with our students to figure out what needs to change at Northeastern.” 

More information on Tuesday’s town hall can be found at the event’s Facebook page and the flyer below.

Credit: Submitted

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