My love for higher education is rooted in my personal history. I am a mixed-ethnicity Mexican American woman from El Paso, Texas, and of modest background. My family has a long history of migration that spans several generations. Today, one of my cousins from Mexico lives in California with his family. Another was living in El Paso, but after being deported twice, she made her home again at the border in Ciudad Juárez. My mother was born in Mexico City but grew up in Chihuahua. She worked as a maid in California and spent several summers in the canneries of Illinois before she started working as a cook in a hospital. She married my father, a white American man, but their marriage didn’t last long. When my parents divorced, my abuelo decided that he would help my mother raise me, and he filled my childhood with love and laughter. I must have seemed spoiled to my cousins from Mexico, especially those in Ciudad Juárez, where they did not have these opportunities. I was an only child and I had access to public education.
At 18, I left my working-class home to attend Tulane University. Navigating my daily life at an elite private institution was alienating and difficult, but I found excellent professors who were supportive. Admitted as well into graduate school at Tulane, mentors held my hand as I sought to understand how literature and film represent migration. After earning my PhD, I sought an academic job at a university where students were more like me, and I was fortunate to have found the University of Houston, where I teach and write about narratives of Mexican migration to the United States that feature in literature, film and music.
While UH has a large Latinx population, the immigrant experience is something that connects a larger portion of our students beyond national identifications. Many people speculate about the future of the United States because of rapidly changing demographics across the nation. At UH and in the city of Houston, we already live in that future—we are a community that is diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, nationality, culture and class background. A regularly-cited factor is that our campus is a Hispanic-serving institution with more than a quarter of our students classified as Latinx, but we are also an Asian-serving institution. Despite UH’s diversity in every classroom, segregation still plagues our city and divides immigrant populations.
Houston is currently the deportation capital of the United States. Central American and Mexican undocumented immigrants are repeatedly targeted for detention and deportation, but we know little of how much this affects our student population. Based on personal narratives many students write for my courses, I can tell you that they endure the trauma of living in a society regulated by law enforcement. When I first arrived to UH in 2005, I was startled to find how many undocumented students were willing to disclose their status. While students looked to me because of my research on cultural representations of migration, national tensions were already brewing within our campus.
A former student of mine left Monterrey when he was 14 years old so as to be with his older brother who lived in Houston. He put himself through school and was an excellent student even though he didn’t have his parents to support him. By 2006, our students were openly disclosing their status on campus despite the possible consequences that they could face. In that context, these students inadvertently found a refuge at the university. One student told me that he had completed his bachelors but decided to continue with a second major in Spanish because he had limited prospects for employment. What strikes me most about these youths is their courage and their dedication to learn and to excel in the classroom.
I fear that our educational protection is in jeopardy. In 2012, after the possibility of immigration reform was clearly impossible, President Barrack Obama passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allowed young undocumented immigrants to work legally without the threat of deportation.
The executive action temporarily eased the burden for undocumented students, but President Obama essentially created a nation-wide registry of young undocumented immigrants. Over 700,000 people have received DACA across the country. During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to end the executive action. President Obama is openly requesting his successor to continue the policy, but it is unlikely that he will. The repeal of DACA would expose our students to immigrant detention and deportation.
For this reason, the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump should be of utmost concern to leadership at the University of Houston, one of the most diverse campuses in the United States. Any attempt to normalize the new administration’s past rhetoric of antagonism toward a pluralistic society would severely compromise the values of our university, even if it is already garnering opposition in Washington. In order to fulfill our educational objectives, we must declare the University of Houston a sanctuary campus—albeit as a symbolic gesture that demonstrates our unambiguous curricular investment in the hearts and minds of our students.
The Obama administration deported between two and three million people over the last eight years, but Donald Trump promises to deport as many numbers during his first year in office. DACA shields our students from deportation, but it also protects our campus. The number of students that could be impacted by the threat of deportation is unknown because many students have mixed-status families. Despite assertions of alarmism, we must contemplate the worst-case scenario. How are students to engage in open learning under the persistent threat of campus intrusion by officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?
As an immigration scholar, I can attest that history instructs us to be cautious. We cannot rely on the legal protections that currently keep ICE agents off our campus. The incoming administration is in the process of dismantling those protections. DACA can be used to the detriment of our students because the government has access to personal information that can lead ICE directly to our classrooms. And DACA students are not the only ones at risk. A number of students are first- and second-generation immigrants with mixed-status families already feeling the potential effects of detention and deportation. Second- and third-generation households will also suffer the effects of racial profiling that paints immigrants, especially those who are Mexican, as criminals. Added to this dynamic, our Muslim population on campus is suffering from pervasive anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The majority of students at the University of Houston are people of color and immigrants originating from more than 140 nations. University and community stakeholders would do well to consider the value of a college education at institutions, like ours, that believe in equity and access as sufficient evidence to defend our students from the looming consequences of potential deportation. If and when the first ICE agent steps foot on our campus, our mission as a university will have ceased. Panic and fear will have compromised curiosity and engagement.
Instead, we can stand together and protect our institutions of higher learning by providing educational refuge for our students.
If you believe that UH has a moral imperative to protect its student population, I urge you to sign your name to the following petition.
Christina L. Sisk is the author of Mexico, Nation in Transit: The Cultural Representations of Mexican Migration to the United States (University of Arizona Press, 2011). She tweets from @borderculture.