When Yadira Hernández Pérez graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2015, she encountered many common questions among recent graduates, such as how to save for retirement, how to apply for graduate studies and what health benefits to choose.
But Hernandez Pérez, an indigenous Mexican from Puebla, also found herself questioning a whole host of other issues regarding her undocumented status in the United States: Should she disclose her lack of a green card during job interviews? How do you find mentors? As a first-generation college graduate, she could not turn to her family for advice.
So in 2017, I created the UCLA Undocumented Alumni Association to help other undocumented alumni overcome the unique challenges they face in adjusting to life after college. The association organizes social events for undocumented alumni, connects alumni with faculty and provides guidance on legal issues from visa status to getting a job without a work permit. The association also facilitates meetings between undocumented graduates and potential employers and provides career advice and information about graduate programs. Most importantly, Hernandez-Perez said, the association allows undocumented alumni to share their struggles and stories with each other.
Thanks to the support of the group she helped found, Hernandez Pérez entered City University of New York Law School in August.
“One of the reasons I found the association was certainly to respond to the anti-immigrant political climate that was happening” after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Hernandez Pérez said. “At the time, it was also my own experience of being an undocumented graduate that sailed through my life after graduation and created structures that would be useful for future generations.”
The association is currently working on mentorship programs between alumni and current UCLA students. During the pandemic, she said, the association has collected emergency COVID-19 grants for more than 100 unregistered families — some alumni, some from the greater Los Angeles community — who did not qualify for COVID-19 stimulus payments.
“We wanted to provide a community and a network when students graduate and are no longer students, still feel connected to a community where they can come and be part of this space and connect with others,” Hernandez-Perez said.
Since creating the UCLA Undocumented Alumni Association, Hernandez-Perez has worked with other institutions—including the University of California, Santa Barbara, and California State University, Long Beach—to establish their own undocumented alumni groups.
The struggles of undocumented students have received national notice in recent years, said Hyein Lee, director of measurement and assessment at TheDream.US, the largest US college and career success program for undocumented immigrants with or without Deferred Action for Protective Arrivals (DACA). or Temporary Protection Status (TPS).
“The DACA has been brought to attention for the past four years, particularly with the Trump administration, and everything is happening and I think this particular group of students has been brought into the spotlight,” he told me. “It certainly moved the needle forward in terms of the conversation about raising awareness about who these students are and their special needs.”
TheDream.US Alumni Survey 2021 Report, released last month, found that of the nearly 1,000 TheDream.US scholarship alumni surveyed, 92 percent had undocumented status, and 88 percent held DACA status. He told me that the majority of respondents were recent graduates. The survey found that since graduating from college, only 8 percent of the graduates surveyed have been able to adjust their status to conditional, permanent residence or citizenship in the United States. Two of the graduates immigrated to Canada.
Lee told me that undocumented alumni have faced a particularly difficult application process this year, given that USCIS reported a significant class backlog in the influx of new applications from December 2020 after the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s crackdown on DACA recipients.
“We constantly remind people that provisions like DACA and TPS are only temporary,” he told me. “It puts constant pressure on our graduates about losing their standing. I know, especially this year, with [the Department of Homeland Security] Receiving applications for the first time Again for the first time in four years, there has been this rush of applications submitted, resulting in a long backlog in processing renewals for our graduates who already have DACA. “
He told me that the DACA application process creates “unnecessary pressure and constant anxiety” for recent graduates because they do not have a sense of continuity. A survey last December by the UC Collaborative to Advance the Rights of Immigrants and Students (UC PromISE) and the Undocumented Student Rights Project (USEP) found that of the 1,300 undocumented students studying at California State University or the University of California campus, 39 percent reported that, a member of Family or a friend for detention, deportation, or other participation in deportation proceedings. 65 percent said they had access to legal immigration services on campus, and 67 percent admitted they were distracted in class because they were concerned about their immigration status.
David Sun, associate director of diversity programs at UCLA’s Office of Alumni Relations, said some alumni – especially those from marginalized communities – feel “cut off” from their network after graduation, and undocumented alumni in particular miss the various services that they provide. Provided by institutions of services to students. UCLA has a program for undocumented students that provides free and direct immigration legal services to undocumented students and their families, or to undocumented family members of students with legal status.
“I think for many of our historically excluded groups, it really works as a way to let them know that UCLA, in fact, really cares about them, that there is a community for them, that they are wanted,” Son said.
In the report by TheDream.US, 85 percent of graduates reported being employed, and 76 percent of them worked in essential or frontline jobs. And although undocumented graduates have a keen interest in attending graduate school, only 17 percent of undocumented graduates said they were actually able to enroll in a graduate program or completed graduate school.
The report indicated that securing funds to pay for graduate studies was the biggest obstacle to attendance. While other graduates may choose a graduate school based on the strength of the program or the professional development opportunities it offers, Lee said, for undocumented graduates, the biggest factor is cost.
“The predominant concern for our graduates is really the financial one, because they are not eligible for any kind of help,” Lee said. “They are not eligible for graduate loans. For the most part, it becomes very difficult to pay for graduate school.”
On top of everything else, a high percentage of undocumented students also face food insecurity or mental health issues. In the UC PromISE and USEP survey, 96 percent reported worrying about not having enough money, 59 percent reported food insecurity and 53 percent reported using a campus food pantry.
Student participants also reported experiencing mental health issues, with 72 percent saying they felt the need to see a professional during the 2019-2020 school year due to issues with their mental health, emotions, or nerves. However, only 48 percent reported that they had sought support.
Hernandez-Perez said issues surrounding food insecurity, mental health, and health care are at the heart of the mission of the UCLA Undocumented Alumni Association. The group recently hosted an event called “Undocumented Decolonization and Resilience” that focused on mental health and how people contribute to exploitation, violence, and trauma to undocumented immigrants when they say things like “undocumented people are extremely resilient,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the way the United States does not provide resources to undocumented individuals, we have had to be able to provide those resources, whether it’s navigating the resources available to the undocumented community or advocating for policies that might be able to bring resources to the undocumented community,” She said.
Son said the reaction of UCLA alumni to the Undocumented Alumni Association has been positive.
“We are the first alumni network dedicated to the undocumented community,” Sun said. “So I think for our graduates, it also helps alleviate a lot of the concerns that they have about student well-being.”
Lee noted that associations like the UCLA Undocumented Alumni Program and others create an alumni community during what could be a tough time.
“Having someone like TheDream.US or other alumni who really care about what they’re going through was really important for non-graduates, especially in college, but also after college,” he told me. “In some ways, college is a protected environment. And then once you leave, you have to fend for yourself, and there are a lot of questions about your finances.”
Hernandez-Perez said that within the next five years, the association hopes to expand its membership, create endowments that will generate scholarships for undocumented students, expand the board of directors and possibly create an advisory board.
“We’ve heard that when people feel connected to a place, they feel safe, they feel like they’ve been able to find others and they don’t feel lonely on the journey,” Hernandez-Perez said.