The Open Door to the Ivory Tower

by Mehves Konuk

Last April was a hard month for Cindy Agustin. Despite massive protests, the State of Arizona passed immigration reforms that the University of Chicago College fourth-year sees as discriminatory. Perhaps worse, Congress voted down the DREAM Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation for which she had been advocating since high school. By the end of September, though, Agustin, the founder of the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigration Reform (UCCIR) had something to cheer about: a statement written and released on behalf of the Uof C administration by Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews stated, “All students who apply, regardless of citizenship, are considered for admission and for every type of financial aid that the University offers.”

Agustin grew up in a Latino neighborhood in southwest Chicago. From childhood onwards, she met a large array of immigrants, with and without papers, and was increasingly moved by the hardships of adapting to life in an utterly foreign metropolis. There are two million undocumented minors in the United States, and each year 65,000 graduate from high schools and are thrust into a unique and devastating form of political limbo. English is their primary language and their closest friends and family members are here, but the vast majority of colleges will not accept them, health insurance and drivers licenses can be denied them, and they live with the constant threat of deportation to countries they may not even remember living in.

Upon matriculating to the UofC, Agustin encountered several undocumented students at the University and noticed that there was virtually no campus-wide dialogue about the issue. In response, she and a small cadre of interested undergraduates attended a rally for comprehensive immigration in Washington. “We came back wondering about the next big issue to tackle, what could we do locally that could yield real results?” Through conversations with University and high-school students, the UCCIR determined that a public statement of support by the University administration could have enormous ripple effects.

For Agustin and her organization, this public articulation of a long-standing policy represented a major breakthrough. After months of effort, the UofC would become one of a few universities to openly enable undocumented students to attend.

In clarifying its position regarding undocumented students, the UofC, which has a tradition of maintaining political neutrality on even the most extreme issues, inadvertently weighed in on a debate that grows both more ugly and more important by the day. It should hardly be worth consideration that a private university, which, even in the midst of the lingering recession has a multibillion-dollar endowment, would choose to cultivate the best student body it can find. But the statement had barely been made before it became clear that many Americans and even other centers of higher learning flatly disagree with that policy.

Less than a week after UofC’s public acknowledgement, Georgia announced that its five most-selective public universities would not accept undocumented students at all. The Board of Regents, the supervisory council for the state’s education system, issued a series of terse, if rational explanations. The purpose of a public university is presumably to educate a state’s citizens in an effort to improve their collective quality of life. No university is immune to the recession, and in a desperate attempt to cut costs, severe scrutiny has been placed on the students that, in the minds of many money-conscious (and perhaps economically embittered) Americans, simply should not be there. As some see it, these students’ parents broke the law, never paid into the system, and now seek to utilize some of this country’s most expensive public services.

The DREAM Act, Agustin says, provides a practical answer that should satisfy both sides of the aisle. It allows people who entered the country illegally before the age of six and have resided here for at least five years to obtain citizenship through two years of college or military service–achieving core liberal aims of incorporating neglected demographics into society while assuring conservatives that the passage into full civil standing will not be a free one. But today’s entrenched partisan divide has made even that seemingly natural consensus impossible.

When asked before the election what the best action a person could take to impact this unanswered crisis, Agustin said, “Honestly, the big thing right now is to vote. The senator we send from Illinois will vote on issues like the DREAM Act and Comprehensive Reform for the next six years.”

Last Tuesday, the late-night verdict showed victories for a number of immigrant candidates, but a decided loss for the undocumented. Nikki Haley, the governor-elect of South Carolina, is the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India, future-Floridian Senator Marco Rubio’s background is proudly Cuban, and the nation added two Latino governors. All of these candidates achieved victory, however, by running on unambiguously anti-immigrant platforms. Closer to home, Agustin’s fears were realized with the election of Mark Kirk, who promised point-blank during his campaign to vote against the DREAM Act. A journey that a significant number of Americans made unknowingly as children will continue to define them into adulthood. For undocumented minors across the country, the prospect of a future with full, guaranteed rights is a dream that has just been indefinitely deferred.

Many Ivy League universities have publicly endorsed the DREAM Act, but the UofC, arguably the most eminent school in a city with the second largest Mexican population and third largest Hispanic population in the country, has chosen not to make a direct political commitment. It simply reiterated a policy intended (albeit problematically) to be apolitical, aimed only at keeping a broad application pool, and thus a high quality of ideas fostered by its community. That this quietest of commitments stands against the political rhetoric of one of the country’s most important debates says something important and sad about the level of that debate. Hopefully it says it loud enough.