Undocumented PCC students thankful for school's support
For many students, paying for a college education is a constant struggle.
But about 700,000 students in the United States have to study for their degree and pay for it while they wonder if the federal government will allow them to stay in the only country they've ever known.
Students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, known as DREAMers, have been able to work and go to school under a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected them from deportation if they met certain requirements and passed a background check.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, educators, community members and students gathered at Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus to raise scholarship funds and show support for undocumented students during the college's first annual "DREAMers Breakfast." The fundraiser was sponsored by multiple local organizations, including the Hillsboro Hops baseball team.
It was a timely event — the day before, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments that will determine the fate of DACA. The program, which was created by an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in 2012, has been tied up in the federal court system since 2017, when the Trump administration decided to end it.
"We're here today to demonstrate our support for our DREAMers and all of our undocumented students to ensure that they have the same opportunities as everyone else," said Chris Villa, PCC Rock Creek campus president. "And that is equity."
Villa told the audience about how his father earned citizenship by serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.
"This document enabled my parents to tell me that anything is possible in this life," Villa said, pointing to a projected image of his father's naturalization document. "That I could even be president of the United States of America. Well, I may not be the president of the United States, but this document enabled me to be president of the PCC Rock Creek campus."
The college is home to Oregon's first DREAMers Resource Center. The center was established in 2017 to help undocumented students, who can't receive federal financial aid, access higher education by providing support services and scholarship opportunities.
Students at the event told stories about their experiences coming to the United States, growing up with an uncertain future and aspiring to work in some of the most highly-educated fields.
"My parents told me if anyone ever asks you where you're from, you'll want to say the United States," said Julio Morales, who spoke at the event and recently received a DREAMer scholarship at the college.
Morales crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with his family when he was 14 months old, he said. He applied for DACA when he was 15 years old and looking for his first job.
"I realized my path was not guaranteed," Morales said. "I felt like I had to show everyone that I belonged."
In high school, Morales said, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and addiction led to him being expelled from school, he said. He was admitted to a treatment facility for youth, and with the help of counselors, Morales ultimately graduated high school and enrolled at PCC.
He worked two jobs and started a 10-week accelerated emergency medical services program, which led him to work as an EMT, he said.
"But the fall of 2017 was eventful," Morales said. "President Trump wanted to end DACA, and I was terrified. I was working so hard to go down this path as an EMT, and it could all be taken away at a moment's notice. If I lost my DACA, I'd lose my driver's license, which means I couldn't work."
When DACA got held up in the courts, Morales went right back to striving for more, enrolling in PCC classes again, he said. Shortly after, he found himself in his own medical emergency.
"During what should have been a routine procedure, my artery was cut and I nearly lost my life," Morales said. "I couldn't breathe, I couldn't speak and I was intubated and put on life support on a ventilator. I had never been more scared."
But the experience solidified his dreams of higher education, he said. "I knew I wanted to save lives. I wanted to be an advocate for my patients even if they don't have a voice.
"Two weeks ago, I found out I was accepted in the paramedic program here at PCC," Morales told the audience before it erupted with applause.
While the atmosphere at the event was joyous as students like Morales spoke about how the DREAMers Resource Center helped them access education, the mood was contrasted by a palpable feeling of uncertainty about how the Supreme Court will rule on DACA. Reports have suggested the court's conservative majority is likely to allow the White House to end the program.
"We're upset. We're mad. We're sad that we have to constantly yell and scream to prove our existence, to prove that we're worthy, to prove that we are human," said Bianca, another DREAMers scholarship recipient who preferred not to give her last name due to her citizenship status, in an interview.
Bianca said she participated in a rally in downtown Portland earlier in the week to advocate for DACA to be upheld. If it weren't for the DREAMers Resource Center, Bianca wouldn't have had the guts to go to the rally, she said.
"I can't really explain it, but it's comforting," she said. "I've always had a voice, but it was hard for me to use my voice at the right times."
Undocumented students at the event said the resource center is more than a place to get help navigating how to pay for school and renew DACA applications.
They said they've felt a growing sense of animosity toward immigrants broadly, while they've watched white supremacist groups become more mainstream.
The resource center has given them a place to meet other undocumented students, talk openly about their struggles and feel safer, they said.
"Their lives are very complicated," said Luz Maciel Villarroel, who recently became the resource center's first full-time coordinator.
Villarroel has spent 45 years advocating for immigrant rights, she said, working alongside labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who sent a video recorded message to the college to play at the breakfast in which she encouraged students to keep fighting for their rights.
Villarroel said students who use the resource center are asked to volunteer there, but that they're unwilling to accept the help for free.
"I think what drives them is family," she said. "That's what I see in all of them. My family, my family. One student comes to work (at the resources center) every day with her little sister. Some of them have to leave early because they have to pick up their brothers and sisters. They have like three or four lives. Work, another job, the DREAM Center, their school and then their siblings and family. It's teaching me to be more patient."
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