Demand for UC immigrant student legal services soars as Trump policies sow uncertainty

Maria Blanco did a double take when the Google alert popped up in her inbox late last week: President Trump had reversed his campaign pledge and decided to continue a federal program temporarily suspending deportations of young people who are in the country illegally.

The news thrilled Blanco, an attorney who heads the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center — the nation’s first and only university system to provide free legal aid to students without legal status and their families.

But her excitement was quashed within hours, when administration officials clarified that they still had made “no final determination” on the program — called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — leaving in question the fate of 750,000 young immigrants under its protection. An estimated 3,700 students without legal status attend UC campuses.

“It’s such a roller-coaster ride,” Blanco said Saturday. “We’re back to where we were, which is not knowing really what the fate of this program is. Everybody’s still in limbo.”

As uncertainty over Trump’s immigration policies persists, Blanco and other attorneys at the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center have become academia’s go-to experts. Should students apply for DACA and give their personal information to the Trump administration? Should they travel abroad and risk being denied reentry?

Can students rest easy with the recent news that U.S. immigration officials actually approved more DACA applications in the first three months of this year than in the same period last year?

The center’s attorneys wrestle with such questions daily — along with a soaring workload. Blanco estimates that cases totaled more than 800 for the 2016-17 academic year, compared with 362 last year. Most of them involve DACA applications, travel permissions, help for students’ families and general consultations.

Other universities across the nation have flooded the center with requests for information on how to set up similar programs. The center’s attorneys have held “know your rights” campus workshops and briefed UC administrators on immigration issues.

“Since the election, it’s been nonstop,” Blanco said.

Students say the center, housed at UC Davis, has been their lifeline. One young man, who asked for anonymity to protect himself, said he sobbed for hours after Trump was elected, wondering if he would be kicked out of the only country he has called home since he arrived unlawfully as an infant.

He researched countries that might accept Mexicans like himself and hatched fallback plans to immigrate to another country. He wondered if he should risk reapplying for a federal work permit under the DACA program.

“One country wants nothing to do with you; the other country you don’t even remember,” he said during a recent interview. “You feel you don’t deserve to belong anywhere.”

But he said Amy Frances Barnett, a center attorney, has calmed his anxieties with her reassuring manner and legal aid. During a recent meeting, she updated him on his application for a work permit and gave him a pocket-sized handout developed by UC on what to do if approached by immigration officers. It advised of the right to remain silent but said to be polite and truthful.

“Keep it in your wallet in case you come into contact with police,” Barnett told him.

“OK, sweet,” he said.

He is working toward degrees in psychology and neurobiology/physiology, aiming to become a neurosurgeon and prove his worth to Americans. “If I work hard enough, maybe they’ll want me,” he said.

Another student said Rachel Ray, a managing attorney at the center, helped him renew his DACA permit and prepared him for questioning last year by U.S. border officials when he returned to California from a study abroad trip to Mexico. He practiced his answers in front of the mirror, terrified he might be turned back at the border. But he got through easily, said the student, who hopes to attend law school after graduating this year with degrees in political science and psychology.

“I don’t know what I would have done without them,” he said. “They are an essential resource for the community.”

The center was launched in January 2015 by UC President Janet Napolitano, who helped create the DACA program as U.S. Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration. She said the idea for the center stemmed from conversations with immigrant students after she joined UC in 2013 and was consistent with the state’s generous policies toward those without legal status. Nearly one-third of DACA recipients live in California.

“Our undocumented students are part of our university community, and they have unique legal needs,” Napolitano said. “They are under a lot of stress right now.”

The UC Davis law school was chosen to house the center because of deep expertise — it created the nation’s first immigration law clinic in 1980 and has the largest immigration law faculty in the nation. Another asset: law school Dean Kevin Johnson eagerly welcomed the project with space and resources.

The center initially provided legal services to the six UC campuses without law schools. Napolitano last year increased funding to $2.5 million over three years, allowing the center to extend services systemwide except for UC Berkeley, which assists students through a partnership with a community legal services center. Today, the center employs nine attorneys who speak English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati.

Critics include Stephen Frank, a senior contributing editor of the California Political Review, who lambasted the center as “a sleazy, corrupt operation providing law violators assistance so they can continue to violate our laws.”

Blanco responds that the legal services reflect the university’s commitment to help students in need, whether immigrants, veterans, the disabled or sexual abuse victims.

She is trying to raise money to sustain the center beyond Napolitano’s three-year commitment. UCLA supports one of the full-time attorneys with its own funds.

Blanco also shares the center’s work with campuses across the nation, including the Ivy League schools, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Oregon, Pomona College, the California State University system and California Community Colleges. The UC Berkeley alumna, who has more than two decades of experience in civil rights legal work for such nonprofits as the California Community Foundation and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, recently spoke to college administrators at a symposium at Occidental College.

She urged them not to be intimidated by threats of losing federal funding or their tax-exempt status if they help students who are in the country illegally.

“Institutions need to have the backbone to do this,” she told them. “It will be a fight…. I really encourage institutions to not be scared immediately by these threats.”

But the toughest issue, she said, is the uncertainty over Trump’s intentions.

How ominous was a tweet from U.S. immigration officials this year saying deferred action on deportations is “discretionary”? How hopeful are new data showing that approvals of DACA applications more than tripled to 125,000 between January and March of this year over the same period last year?

Blanco simply doesn’t know. At the moment, she and her team have altered their earlier advice against new applications for DACA and are now willing to consider filing them for students with “squeaky clean” records.

But that may change — again and again.

“You’re constantly trying to read between the lines, and the lines keep changing,” she said.

To read the article in spanish, click here

Times staff writer Rosanna Xia contributed to this story.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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