As a young child not much older than 6, Jose Rivas would stare out the window, remembering people and places he left behind. The people were members of his extended family. The places included Texcoco, Mexico, where Rivas spent the first few years of his life.
Rivas was brought to the U.S. in the late 1990s by his family, who settled in Wyoming because there was a need for manual laborers in the energy industry.
Rivas had to learn English and how to fit into an entirely new culture.
“It’s a little blurred,” Rivas said. “But I do remember it being very hard to adjust.”
For the next two decades, Rivas went through the state’s educational system, graduating from a Wyoming high school, then earning two associate’s degrees through the state’s community college system.
He graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2015 — roughly eight years after receiving his high school diploma — with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and is now working toward a master’s degree in school counseling.
“It has taken me awhile to obtain my education just because of all the setbacks I had being an undocumented student,” Rivas said. “Undocumented students do not receive the same financial support that (other) students get. We don’t obtain the Hathaway funding … We don’t get FAFSA.”
Lacking these resources, Rivas paid his own way through higher education with raw determination and hard work.
“I worked multiple jobs throughout my education career,” he said. “I waited tables, I’ve worked in the oil industry, I’ve worked in the pipeline industry. I would work all summer and obtain the funds I need to pay for my education during the school year and I also obtained competitive scholarships with (The Office of) Multicultural Affairs.”
Whenever Rivas achieved a new diploma or degree, he went back to work, taking gap years to save up for another shot at a college education.
“Every time I would complete a milestone, I was hit with a roadblock,” he said.
For Rivas — and more than 787,000 others living in the United States — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA was a “game changer.”
The 2012 executive order allowed eligible people — those who arrived before age 16, before 2007, who are in otherwise good legal standing and who were under 30 at the time of the order — to obtain valid drivers’ licenses, enroll in universities and legally secure jobs, while also requiring them to pay income taxes.
DACA did not magically make Rivas a U.S. citizen, nor did it solve his immigration status or even provide a path to citizenship. But, he said, it allowed him to focus on his education.
“I still worked the summers, but I had more opportunities to work and use the DACA permit to pay for school,” Rivas said. “And right now, as a graduate student, the DACA permit allows me to work as a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming.”
He is far from the only UW student depending on the protections granted by DACA.
“I have two siblings who are on their DACA and I have a lot of friends here at the University of Wyoming who currently hold DACA,” Rivas said. “… We have pokes who are undocumented here at the University of Wyoming.”
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump Administration was rescinding the DACA program, giving Congress six months to take action before beneficiaries of the program start losing their ability to work and study legally in the U.S.
The University of Wyoming community responded swiftly.
UW President Laurie Nichols sent out a message on the university listserv, promising to monitor the situation as it develops and reminding the community UW will not release student information without that student’s consent or a subpoena, warrant or judicial order.
“We have a strong history of welcoming students, scholars, faculty and staff from around the world and have many working and learning on our campus today,” Nichols says in the email. “ … I am honored to belong to a university community devoted to the higher education of all students.”
Nichols said the email was meant to show solidarity and inform members of the UW community about resources available to them, including counseling and legal advice provided by the university.
“We care about them and we want them to know that the university stands ready to support them in any way that we can,” she said.
Adam Severson, who holds the Robert J. Golten fellowship in the UW College of Law, answers questions and offers assistance to students or employees who have immigration concerns.
The University Counseling Center in Room 341 of Knight Hall is also a resource for students who might find themselves stressed or otherwise experience problems and need help.
“I think, at this point in time, people are finding help,” Nichols said. “I’m not going to say they’re not worried or concerned about it — I’m sure they are — but we’re doing everything we can to try to assist them within the parameters we can work at this point in time.”
Student groups also responded Sessions’ DACA announcement — most notably the Movimiento Estuduantil Chicano de Aztlan, commonly known as MEChA, and the United Multicultural Council.
Both groups issued statements Wednesday condemning the decision to phase out DACA.
“Undocumented lives matter deeply to us,” MEChA’s statement reads. “The American Dream has become their dream. Wyoming is their home. The University of Wyoming is their institution.”
Both the MEChA and UMC statements called on ASUW — the UW student government — to recommit to a resolution passed by that body during the last academic year.
Senate Resolution 2552 called on UW to declare itself a “sanctuary campus” by “providing undocumented immigrant students with further resources at UW, including, but not limited to, financial assistance, legal resources, and assistance in areas of housing and employment.”
ASUW President Ben Wetzel said the student government is still bound to the legislation passed by the 2016-17 government.“(Resolution) 2552 kind of referenced our position on the ideology behind sanctuary campuses as well as referenced a change we would like to see on campus: adding immigration status under our protected classes, so that we would not discriminate openly against anyone on campus based off of their status,” he said.
Wetzel said he is in talks with Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Blackburn and Chief Diversity Officer Emily Monago concerning the expansion of resources available to undocumented students and the possibility of creating institutional policy explicitly protecting those students.
The UW administration — including Nichols, Monago and others — is inclusive and supportive, Wetzel said, so the possibility of lasting, meaningful change is good.
“I think we’ll start to progress beyond the level of social justice advocacy to a level of social justice change, where we’re taking that advocacy and in turn continuing on to follow through with institutional change and long-term institutional change,” he said.
Following passage of the sanctuary campus resolution during the spring 2017 semester, it was brought to the Board of Trustees, who took no action, but the resolution could be brought before the board again.
Wetzel said he urged concerned students to reach out to ASUW’s Director of Diversity Hunter McFarland.
DACA beneficiaries face an uncertain future, at UW and in the U.S.
Rivas said he will be able to finish his degree and work for a few months before his DACA permit expires. Once that happens, he will no longer be allowed to work as a counselor in Wyoming’s school system, which was the goal of his master’s degree and the purpose of his internship at Laramie High School.
“It definitely leaves us with a lot of uncertainty of what we can do in the future, other than really push and organize for our reps to push through a permanent solution for undocumented students or students who currently hold DACA,” he said.
He said he does not know what he will do once his DACA expires, but he knows life will be drastically different for him, his siblings, his friends and the three-quarters of a million people in similar shoes.
“We are American in heart, mind and soul,” Rivas said. “We just don’t have the correct documentation that states that we belong to this country.”