SALT LAKE CITY — The presidents of Utah’s eight public colleges and universities, along with the state Commissioner of Higher Education , called on Utah’s congressional delegation Wednesday to “pursue a lasting, long-term solution” to immigration policies that allow “all students to be able to realize their dreams."
The open letter to congressional leaders comes the day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration was rescinding work permits and protections from deportation extended by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Sessions said they had been unconstitutionally put in place by the Obama administration.
The program has benefited undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States when they were 15 or younger, allowing them to work in the country legally if they have met certain other requirements such as a clean criminal history.
The educators' letter takes note of Utah colleges' long practice of “providing access and opportunity for all of Utah’s students, no matter their background or circumstance.”
A decade before the deferred action program was created, the Utah Legislature in 2002 passed legislation that extended in-state tuition college rates to students who graduated from a Utah high school after attending the school for three years.
“This year, over 1,200 students will qualify for in-state tuition at Utah’s public colleges and universities under these circumstances,” the letter states.
Since the creation of DACA, “these students have been able to work to help pay for college — making their dreams more achievable — and also to contribute to Utah’s workforce after graduation,” the letter continues.
The letter also reflects on the Utah Compact, signed in 2010, which outlined principles to guide the immigration debate, urging federal solutions and policies that did not separate families. Nearly 5,000 people signed the document.
Between the Utah Compact and the in-state tuition law, “Utah leaders have shown foresight in addressing these difficult issues. It is imperative that we continue to make it possible for all students to be able to realize their dreams," the letter states.
"We urge you to support a legislative solution as soon as possible to enable all students who have grown up in the United States to continue contributing to their communities and classrooms in ways made possible by higher education."
Also Wednesday, Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham issued a statement to students' families, saying the district "embraces and supports all of our students, regardless of background, race, ethnicity, or any other factor."
"During these uncertain times, we appreciate the support of our teachers and our parents in having conversations with students about current events and reassuring them that school will always be a safe space," Cunningham's message stated, later adding, "don't be afraid to talk to children about recent events that appear in the news and on social media."
The district adopted a resolution earlier this year indicating it would protect students from any inquiries by immigration authorities as much as it legally can.
Utah college student Patricio, who asked that his last name not be used, told the "Doug Wright Show" on KSL NewsRadio on Wednesday that the deferred action made it possible for him to work and pay his way through school.
"It opened up a huge door of opportunities. I was able to work. ... I was able to get scholarships, I was able to get loans," he said. "I was able to get a Social Security Number. I was able to buy my first car, which I am the proud owner of. I was able to get and start my career of my choice and plan on moving forward."
Putting the program in limbo has changed everything, Patricio said.
"You have to understand the anxiety that 800,000 people just like me are going through every single day ever since the Trump administration decided that they were going to take a look at DACA," he said, referring to the number of program recipients nationwide. "Because we knew right from the very beginning from his campaign promises that it was not going to be looking very good for us."
Statistics provided by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services indicate about 10,500 applications have been approved in Utah for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Just hours after the Tuesday announcement, more than 200 people gathered at the Centro Civico Mexicano in Salt Lake to regroup and get answers as to how their families might be affected in the coming months and years.
"It was definitely a difficult conversation with community members," said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas/Communities United. "People had a lot of questions, legal questions."
Some there met with counselors for help dealing with their despair from the announcement, Garza said. His organization tried to help with more general questions that couldn't be answered by a counselor or immigration attorney, he said.
"I think overall it was pretty successful. I think overall it created a strong sense of community," Garza said.
By Wednesday afternoon, Comunidades Unidas had gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition that will be delivered to the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asking for him to support legislation that offers the same protections as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Hatch, who co-sponsored an immigration reform bill dubbed the DREAM Act in 2001, is now the "main focus" of the group's lobbying efforts, according to Garza.
"Because of his record ... we know it's definitely something he's passionate about," Garza said.
Hatch said in a statement Tuesday that he called President Donald Trump last week, imploring him not to rescind the deferred action program "because I believe it puts Dreamers, who were brought here as children through no fault of their own, in an extremely difficult position."
However, he added that members of Congress now "have a real opportunity for bipartisan solutions and compromise on issues including border security, high-skilled immigration and a path forward for our Dreamer population."
Garza said a rally in support of codifying the federal program's protections will be hosted by multiple organizations at noon Sept. 16 in front of the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake.
Consulate offers help
The Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City, an official diplomatic body from that country, said in a statement Wednesday that Mexican leaders are disappointed by Sessions' announcement.
"Mexico deeply regrets the decision taken by the U.S. administration to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," the consulate said. "The beneficiaries of the DACA program (known as Dreamers) are men and women who came to the United States in their childhood, who have lived a good part of their lives in that country, and who contribute in a very significant way to the economy and society of this country."
Under the terms of rescinding the program, recipients whose current eligibility status was set to require renewal through March 5, 2018, will still be able to apply for such a renewal by Oct. 5. The consulate promised to give financial support to anyone from Mexico applying for renewal who doesn't have the financial means to pay the $465 fee.
A workshop addressing concerns about the announcement will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the consulate, 1380 S. Main. Beginning Monday, immigration attorneys will be on hand there on Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon to assist with individual cases and assess "possible access to some migratory adjustment or relief" for those from Mexico who are affected.
Immigration attorney J.J. Despain, of the Wilner & O'Reilly office in Salt Lake City, said there has been a big influx of renewal applications, since everyone who would need to re-up in the next six months now needs to do so by Oct. 5.
"There will probably be some early mornings and late nights at the office to try to get these renewals out," Despain said.
Despain characterized the immediate prohibition on new applications as unnecessarily callous. He said he wasn't shocked that the Trump administration did away with the program, but "it is kind of a surprise that it's ending now and so suddenly."
"It's just such a harsh, quick action for people that frankly don't deserve it," he said. "If you want to be tough on immigration there are other ways to do it that make more sense."