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Petaluma undocumented students fear shift in immigration policy


Hector Jimenez broke into a smile as he talked about his dreams of working as an immigration lawyer, a career he feels will allow him to continue his crusade to advocate for his peers and pursue social justice.

Like many students at the Petaluma campus of the Santa Rosa Junior College, the 20-year-old is on the cusp of his future, gearing up to transfer to a university next fall. But as one of the undocumented immigrants that make up a small slice of the college’s population of more than 30,000, he’s finding that his future is clouded with uncertainty as President Donald Trump’s policies send waves of trepidation and anger through the campuses.

Jimenez is among the more than 1,600 undocumented students at Santa Rosa Junior College, about half of whom officials say receive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) benefits, part of an Obama-era program that offers legal protection to children illegally brought into the country by their parents. As Trump checks campaign promises off his agenda, DACA recipients worry that he might soon follow through on vows to reverse the program, which allows them to legally remain in the country, work and get a driver’s license.

Jimenez dedicates much of his energy to organizing immigration workshops and other events, and splits his time working at the Dream Centers at the Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses. He’s the sole employee of the Petaluma center, where he’s worked since it opened last fall to help undocumented students understand the DACA processes, the California Dream Act and other resources.

Though he’s concerned about his peers, his own undocumented parents and about the future of medical care for his young brothers, who are U.S. citizens but suffer from heart defects that require frequent medical attention, he balances that fear with advocacy.

“For me, it’s looking at things in a positive manner, and doing something that’s contributing to helping the situation,” said Jimenez, whose parents brought him to Sonoma County from Oaxaca, Mexico when he was 1. “To constantly organize makes me feel better, and it’s not just because I want to feel better, but because I also want to see change.”

Jimenez is among a vocal group of students, staff and faculty that have urged the college’s administration to adopt a “safe haven” status to add another layer of security for the undocumented students from around the globe and for other marginalized populations. Officials across Sonoma County have adopted similar measures to protect undocumented immigrants in various communities.

The SRJC Board of Trustees is set to consider approving the “safe haven” resolution at its Feb. 14 meeting. The statement declares that the college won’t release personally identifiable student information, including immigration status, without a warrant or other court order or student consent, and sets guidelines for cooperation with U.S. Immigrations and Customers Enforcement officers.

Among other things, the resolution precludes campus police from detaining students based on suspected or known immigration status and states that faculty and staff will be trained on challenges faced by marginalized communities.

SRJC President Frank Chong said the resolution avoids the “incendiary” language of the “sanctuary” campus concept while still establishing a safe space for all students. President Trump has threated to withhold federal funding from communities who adopt the controversial “sanctuary” status and “willfully refuse” cooperation with immigration agents.

“(The resolution) maintains our commitment to being an open access institution. We want to serve all students,” said Chong. “Our strategic plan and mission statement say that we do value diversity and we value inclusivity. And so many of the things that President Trump is proposing are counter to those values.”

Board of Trustees President Maggie Fishman of Petaluma indicated her personal support for the resolution, which she called a “unity measure.”

“I can only speak for myself, but I am supportive,” Fishman said. “The primary reason we exist is because of the students. The primary concerns are for the students and looking out for them.”

The discussion comes in the wake of Trump’s freshly-inked executive orders to construct a border wall, hire 5,000 new border patrol agents, increase numbers of immigration officers who conduct deportations and restrict travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. A bipartisan group of senators in December introduced a proposal to extend key legal protections for young immigrants receiving DACA aid should polices be revoked.

For SRJC Petaluma student Yngri Romero, 21, whose parents brought her to Marin County from Mexico at age 5, the shifting immigration policy is unsettling. Now in her fourth year at SRJC, the DACA recipient is set to graduate in May, and plans to get a bachelor’s degree in education.

“Some students feel like it’s not going to work, and that everything is going to go down the drain,” she said. “I think we need to realize that we have to keep pushing for change and we have to continue our education and that’s the best way we can help ourselves and our communities.”

Amanda Morrison, coordinator of the Petaluma campus’ Intercultural Center, which houses the Dream Center, said she fields a wide range of concerns from undocumented students. She said she encourages students to speak out and attend events, such as a social justice fair at the Petaluma campus and a Feb. 8 town hall meeting about the safe haven status and other timely issues.

“One aspect is self-care and trying to impart skills on how to deal with anxiety,” she said. “And encouraging students to come together and speak out more … we’re sitting upon a new era of activism and struggle and resistance and we’re trying to make opportunities available to engage politically and civically.”

Edelweiss Geary, chair of the Sonoma County Republican Party, has a different outlook on the president’s recent actions.

“He follows through,” she said. “Now is everything going to be absolutely great and perfect? Who knows, but this man tends to follow through on what he says he’s going to do.”

But Matthew Long, dean of student services at the Petaluma campus, reinforced Chong’s message.

“Students are very scared, sometimes they’re in tears,” he said. “It’s a discouraging situation and it’s difficult. The college has really adopted unequivocal support and provided educational services for undocumented students ... We are in it with them and we are supportive of their right to have an education.”

For Jimenez, the pursuit of his education is another aspect of his own defiance.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve been pushed in the direction that I’m not meant for college ... for me it’s a personal belief to challenge that,” he said. “I’m not who you tell me to be, I am who I want to be.” (Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. Press Democrat Staff Writer Martin Espinoza also contributed to this report.)