New UC President Janet Napolitano’s announcement of a $5 million aid package for undocumented immigrant students appears to have done little—well, make that nothing—to assuage those most fiercely opposed to her appointment. If anything, it has sharpened the attacks. Characterizing the aid as an insincere response meant to deflect criticism, they continue to demand she simply resign.
Napolitano, who is distrusted by many undocumented immigrants and their allies because of her record as former head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, insists she is committed to helping undocumented students secure legal status.
“Let me be clear: UC welcomes all students who qualify academically, whether they are documented or undocumented,” she said last week as she outlined the aid plan. “Consider this a down payment—one more piece of evidence of our commitment to all Californians. UC will continue to be a vehicle for social mobility.”
Her plan sets aside $5 million in university money—“right now, for this year”—to support the estimated 900 undocumented students on University of California campuses with resources including trained advisors, student service centers and financial aid. Her staff says the money would come not from state revenues or tuition, but from extra reserves in discretionary accounts such as a home mortgage assistance fund for faculty.
But Napolitano’s reassurances were not enough to satisfy Ju Hong, a recent Cal political science graduate and an undocumented immigrant. Hong was arrested with four other protestors at UC San Francisco in July when the Board of Regents confirmed Napolitano.
“First, she clearly remains unsympathetic to undocumented youth,” Hong says. “The (aid package) was obviously motivated by self-interest. She’s trying to defuse the controversy. She’s trying to salvage her image, nothing else. She’s a politician, and her motivations are political— they have nothing to do with ‘concern’ for undocumented students.”
Second, says Hong, $5 million hardly represents a meaningful commitment to undocumented immigrants. “It’s chump change,” he says. “You divide $5 million among the 10 UC campuses – what real good is it going to do?”
Siti Rahmaputri, an undocumented Cal undergrad studying molecular and cell biology, and a member of the San Francisco-based group Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE), also expressed misgivings about the aid package—and Napolitano.
“It’s just a Band-aid,” Rahmaputri says of the $5 million. “It does nothing to address the real problem, the real pain that undocumented youth experience every day. A group of us met with Napolitano on her second day of office. It was clear she was seeing us because of the pressure that was on her—but it was also clear she had no real interest in us. This money—she just throws it at (undocumented students) and expects our issues to go away. But they won’t go away. She doesn’t understand what’s going on with us, and she doesn’t want to know.”
Both Rahmaputri and Hong emphasized the stress of negotiating student life as an undocumented immigrant. Both are temporarily protected from deportation because they are enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, which freezes deportation proceedings for two years. But that hardly engenders a feeling of transcendent relief.
“I didn’t even know I was undocumented until I was getting ready to enroll for college and I asked my mother for my social security number,” says Hong, who emigrated from South Korea. “She told me I didn’t have one because I wasn’t a legal resident. It was devastating. Ever since then, I feel like I’ve been looking over my shoulder. My house was burglarized, and we didn’t call the police. Why? Because of Homeland Security’s 287(g) program, which Napolitano authorized. That allows local police to function as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents. We were worried that if I called the cops to investigate the theft, I’d get deported.”
Rahmaputri came to the U.S. with her family when she was 11, and says that the threat of deportation has overshadowed her life ever since. “At one point, I received my deportation papers. I have one year left to go on my Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals exemption, but what then? At times, I feel like people are watching me. It affects your studies, your work. Everything.”
Responding to the criticism of Napolitano, her office’s media relations director Steve Montiel points out that she was an early supporter of the stalled federal DREAM act, which would provide a path for citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
“On her first day as president of the University of California, she told Gov. Brown the Trust Act (a state act that significantly eases restrictions on undocumented immigrants) would be good for California,” Montiel writes, “and she was happy that he signed it into law later that week.”
Referring to the meeting that Rahmaputri attended, Montiel adds that his boss “met with a group of undocumented students and UC’s two student regents the morning of her second day on the job. And she has met with dozens of students, undocumented as well as documented, during visits to UC campuses.”
But Hong insists it’s too late for Napolitano to make amends.
“If she really ‘cares,’ she should do three things,” he said. “First, bring back the undocumented families she deported when she was with Homeland Security. Second, she should apologize to them. Third, she should resign.”
Montiel demurs. “People will make their own judgments,” he writes. “It’s worth noting, however, that President Napolitano’s fiercest critics across the country continue to be those who oppose giving documented students the same opportunities as other students. She will continue to do everything in her power to ensure that all UC students have access to the financial aid and services they need to thrive and succeed.”
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