The CUNY Dreamers: The Unspoken Account of the Undocumented Student

Her knees were weak, thoughts dizzy and her stomach rumbled out of a dire hunger as she tried to climb the stairs and carry on with her day. Passing by fellow students on campus, whose energy was yearned for by the jealous and malnourished body that was now her symbol of protest. This anguish was not that of circumstance or self-destruction, but rather an act of courage and a statement to those around her that some things are worth pushing the boundaries of comfort for.

Guadalupe Muller, a 19-year

-old urban studies major at Guttman Community College and immigrant from Mexico, took part in a hunger-strike early last spring as a means of shining light on the experience of a not-so-spoken-about demographic of the CUNY student body: undocumented immigrant students.

“I had to just keep reminding myself that it was a good cause. I remember reading something in class saying that people who believe what they are enduring, whether it’s physical or emotional abuse, that if it’s for a greater good, they’re more likely to withstand that pain,” said Muller. “So I kept telling myself that I’m not doing this for myself… I’m doing this for all the undocumented people who are both still in the shadows and out.”

The City University of New York has roughly over 6,000 students who are undocumented immigrants, who travel the same path toward a degree, but face very different adversities both financially and mentally, including the constant fear of deportation and the scrutiny of social prejudices from citizens. These issues are present in their lives within not only their communities, but within the city’s educational institutions. To face these challenges collectively, undocumented students from across CUNY campuses have joined efforts in creating an organization called the CUNY Dreamers – to network, build forums, raise awareness and make an effort to obtain resources.

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education For Alien Minors) is a legislative proposal for a process in which undocumented immigrants can be granted “conditional residency” and who are on a path to permanent residency. As of now, the DREAM Act is only accessible in several states, as the Dreamers are fighting for the legislature to pass it in New York, hence the hunger strike last year, just before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive decision to drop the DREAM Act from the state’s budget.

Luckily for these students, in 2012, President Obama initiated a policy called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allows children who arrived in the U.S. before their sixteenth birthdays to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation, but also allows the recipient to pay in-state tuition at their public colleges, rather than the more expensive out-of-state cost which undocumented students must pay, regardless of actual residence.

“My first year in college, we had to talk about our high school experience, so I brought my DACA card. That was emotional for me because all throughout high school, it was a burden knowing that I was undocumented,” said Muller. “Knowing that even if I did work as hard, some of my peers who maybe didn’t work as hard would be more eligible to go to better schools than I could ever afford.”

The CUNY Dreamers was founded and is chaired by Monica Sibri, a CUNY Baccalaureate at the College of Staten Island, who came to the United States from Ecuador when she was 16 years old. Her own challenges as an undocumented immigrant have sparked a determined passion to help her peers overcome the same obstacles as she.

“Everything we do in a way is based on our experiences. I was told I had to pay $7,000 for one semester and I didn’t have that money,” said Sibri. “So I came back and learned that I qualify for in-state tuition, so I fought for that and then thought about the idea that there are more undocumented students going through the same thing. So that became my first campaign for the CUNY Dreamers.

One of the issues with these students is that whether they have DACA or not, they are coming in from a world where opportunities are very limited. But this gives them an opportunity to build forums and network,” continued Sibri. “So we’re using our undocumented status as not the sad, poor, pity thing, but as our way of empowerment. Some don’t get to make it. And we’re going to fight for those that don’t get to make it.”

Muller started advocating for the Dreamers during the time of the hunger strike, after her cousin at Lehman College, who knew of Sibri, told her of the organization and said, “You’re a dreamer too. You should make your voice be heard.” The hunger strike ended up being a lost cause, as Cuomo cut the DREAM Act funding from his budget, leaving many Dreamers like the hunger-weakened Muller in dismay, after living for a week sustaining only on a head full of optimistic ideals and a stomach half full of water.

But there was still work to be done for the group. Some of what the Dreamers do is host events for other students to provide networking opportunities, but more importantly spread the information on what resources are available to them, which they may not be aware of otherwise, as CUNY does not have a department or point-person to tend to the issues of these students.

“Some people [U.S. Citizens working in CUNY] are willing to listen to what the situation means and learn, and other people completely shut down,” said Linda Munoz, a business administration major at York College and Mexican immigrant who arrived in the U.S. when she was 7 years old. “So there is always that fear. You don’t know if you are going to get acceptance or something else. That’s one of the issues of students seeking help. They are afraid of the backlash on them.”

On top of the stigma behind the word “illegal,” the lack of structured support for undocumented citizens can be crippling in regard to maneuvering through academic policy. The Dreamer clubs on CUNY campuses act as that support system, allowing undocumented students to share experiences, giving them the opportunities to hear specific issues that have come up and how they can be resolved, such as the in-state/out-of-state tuition problem.

Monica Sibri, founder and chair of CUNY Dreamers

Monica Sibri, founder and chair of CUNY Dreamers

“I’m a first generation college student, and it’s so much harder because I don’t know how to navigate the system, which is a huge issue,” said Munoz. “How do you navigate a system that no-one in your family can guide you through and an institution that’s not willing to help you?”

Because these students are being made to pay thousands of extra dollars in out-of-state tuition, undocumented students are flocking from neighboring states for the sole purpose of connecting openly with others and in the possibility that they can tap into the resources available at CUNY. Such is the case for Munoz, who is originally from New Haven, CT.

Isaac Montiel, now a computer information systems major at City Tech, moved to New York City to attend CUNY from New Haven, CT as well. Montiel moved to the U.S. at the age of 14, three years after his mother left him to work in the U.S. to save money for her family, where she hoped to return. When her endeavor proved unsuccessful, she sent home for her son to begin his new life in America, where she pushed him hard to get the education she never could, but Isaac soon learned of the challenges entailing having no papers even if he did obtain a degree. “I felt like a lost hope. I felt there was no point in doing this because I still wouldn’t be able to get a job.”

Before reaching college, these students described experiences of opposition from people both in school, as well as on the street. One incident included speaking out at an undocumented citizens rally in his hometown, where afterward he was threatened by members of the Minutemen Project, a radical anti-immigrant group, leaving him paranoid and fearful of his life, and even lashed at by his guidance counselor, who heard his remarks about his high school experience.

“I was with my guidance counselor who rejected the idea that I was going to be able to go to college. She discouraged me from going to college because I was undocumented,” said Montiel. “So I went into hiding and got two or three jobs to save up for college because I just didn’t want to bring up this issue and be rejected again. But I was able to pay my way into school with the support of my family.”

Montiel ended up graduating at the top of his class, third highest in his school, and with several scholarship offers, all of which he could not receive because he had nothing to write in the box that said “social security number” on the application. He then spent five years working and attending community college until graduating with an associate’s degree, eventually moving to New York City, where he knew of the Dreamers network, the pursuit of educational opportunities and where he would soon meet Sibri.

“I was told I was illegal and was yelled at by my counselor in high school. So I had to go back and talk to my parents about it. ‘They are telling me I’m illegal and unwanted…what is that?’ I became an adult when we came here and I had to help take care of my sisters. I grew up so fast, which is why I just can’t detach myself from these issues that I care about,” said Sibri, as her voice became stern in sincerity. “Your parents brought you here and they don’t know about the system or how they can even get you through college. So what do you do, have a fight with them, yell and blame them for what happened? Or do you grow up at that point and become responsible about your own future….”

This soon became the mission of the Dreamers as according to them, their goal was not to protest and make noise for the media, or solely seek scholarships and grants, but rather to just connect with one another on the common ground of how they felt and what they have to experience.

“Undocumented students would tell me the same story – I had to say ‘don’t worry, you will grow and it will be a hard process’ – but if they get shut down right in that moment, that could be the end of someone who has a very bright, bright future,” said Sibri.

Difficulties paralleled both on campus and in the communities in which undocumented students live, as most reside in neighborhoods with high populations of other immigrants. So alongside educational issues, another priority of the Dreamers is raising awareness of the communities they are a part of. One example of this outreach is a “coming out of the shadows” event, where they hand out packets and fliers in immigrant neighborhoods providing information of services accessible to the immigrant. But there are still conflicts to be resolved within the community.

“We’re seen as [if] we are taking resources. And I have never taken anything from this government or my community. That’s the thing that gets me the most. We are seen as these people who ‘take, take, take,’ and contribute in no way. But we are contributing,” said Munoz on the perception of undocumented people in their communities. “I’ve been here since I was seven. I mean, I work in my community. I help my community. It just seems like because of that little thing [the word ‘undocumented’]. I’m not looked at as part of the community, but I have been all along. And that bothers me the most.”

The issue itself is so significant that it is brought up in political conversations at dinner tables across the country and on television screens in every living room. Immigration policy will shift in the near future undoubtedly as all presidential candidates have views on the topic ranging across the entire political spectrum, most publically from Donald Trump who has aggressively threatened to deport all illegals and “build a wall” to keep them out. But according to the Dreamers, one substantial aspect is critical in understanding the reality of it all.

“These are humans, they’re your peers. They are people you live with, grew up with and your next-door neighbors. But then this subject comes up and there is just this shift. People start to look at you different, and these are people you grew up with,” said Munoz resolutely. “When people find out that small detail, it makes a huge difference. And it shouldn’t. We are humans, just like everybody else. We grew up here and we want that human side to it. We are not criminals – we are your neighbors – and we are fighting for that equality.”

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