Last week President Obama outlined his plan for immigration reform, directly impacting the large community of undocumented students and residents living in Santa Barbara County, who currently make up about 24 percent of the county’s population, according to public surveys completed in 2011.
Obama’s plan centered on continuing efforts to strengthen the nation’s border security as well as cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers. The plan also proposed requiring undocumented immigrants to undergo a number of steps — including completing criminal background checks, paying taxes and learning English — before gaining citizenship.
With a total of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, the president’s new proposals could impact a considerable portion of the population, particularly in Santa Barbara. California higher education will also be impacted, as undocumented students continue to have a presence in the UC system through AB 540 status.
Although undocumented students cannot receive financial aid, AB 540 students, who are also undocumented, can attend four-year universities in the state if they have attended a California high school for at least three years, graduated from a California high school and filled out an affidavit stating they will apply for U.S. residency as soon as possible.
Communications professor Walid Afifi, who teaches a class titled “Uncertainty Experiences Among Undocumented Immigrants,” noted the high level of resilience seen in the community of undocumented residents living in the Santa Barbara area, in spite of the many deportations these individuals potentially face each year.
The Secure Communities Act allows police officers to report any undocumented immigrants they stop and immediately deport them thereafter. However, the act has been increasingly used to deport noncriminal immigrants as well.
Fifth-year history of public policy major Nayra Pacheco, who took professor Walid Afifi’s class and is an undocumented immigrant herself, said she has faced a number of fears growing up in Santa Barbara and now attending UCSB as an undocumented immigrant.
“There’s a general sense of fear of disclosing your status,” Pacheco said. “For me, it’s been an issue getting to college and being able to stay in the university. Prior to this year, undocumented students didn’t have access to any financial aid, so I think that is an issue that has directly affected me as a student, but somehow the issue comes back to being afraid for your family.”
According to Pacheco, the president’s proposal caters to a conservative public and undermines the struggles of undocumented persons by using language that makes applying for citizenship seem like an easy task.
Ashley Schapitl, spokesperson for Congresswoman Lois Capps, supports the framework of the proposal and said Capps will be very involved in passing any relative finalized legislation that reaches the House and the Senate.
“This is clearly a very important issue for this district in particular,” Schapitl said. “I think there are about 40,000 undocumented immigrants in Santa Barbara County alone, which is an issue that has a lot of resonance for her. So over the coming weeks and months, she’ll probably have a lot of meetings with student groups and the agricultural community.”
According to Schapitl, the DREAM Act — which would grant citizenship to anyone before the age of 16 if they enroll in college or the military — has many of the same goals as the president’s proposal and has been a big priority for Capps.
“I think it would be a tremendous benefit to Santa Barbara and UCSB,” Schapitl said. “It would give a lot of immigrants the ability to pursue a doctorate degree in science, technology and math, an opportunity to start a new business and give undocumented students the chance to pursue a full life once they’ve graduated.”
Pedro Leon, third-year psychology major and co-chair of UCSB IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success), said IDEAS devotes itself to providing emotional and financial support for undocumented students. He said the recent increased focus on border control has not worked towards solving immigration issues.
“It’s ridiculous the amount of people who have been deported, the number of families that have been broken up. Eleven million people would have to go to the end of that line, and that would delay the process even more,” Leon said. “This is just the beginning, so hopefully Congress can decide something better, more comprehensive. We’re looking forward to what’s coming in the future and are prepared to act accordingly.”
CAUSE, or the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, has presented a broader solution to dealing with undocumented immigrants. Organizer Anabel Merino said human rights, family unity and equal economic opportunity in the educational sector as well as the workplace should all be taken into account when passing immigration-related legislation.
“In order to have true, comprehensive reform, we need to work on a long-term solution that will delve deeper into the push and pull factors that cause immigration into our nation,” Merino said.