In Defense of Duke’s Interests, DACA Students Challenge Key Congressmen

Duke students meet with Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) to discuss the DACA program. Photo by Jeff Harris
Duke students meet with Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) to discuss the DACA program. Photo by Jeff Harris

In an attempt to press the timeliness of DACA and immigration reform, Duke DACA recipients and allies are challenging key congressmen on Capitol Hill.

Despite finals fast approaching, roughly a dozen Duke students travelled to Washington, D.C., for two days of meetings with legislators and staff to urge Congress to consider a DACA fix in their end-of-year work.

“Our main priority was to share our story,” said Axel Herrera Ramos, speaking for the group Duke Define American. “To show and express that what was decided about DACA and the way Congress is handling immigration right now has truly harmful implications on our lives.”

Define American is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rewriting the debate about immigration reform and American identity. According to the group’s website, they use “the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America.” 

The students met with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) as well as staff for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). They met with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) last week in North Carolina.

“Making our request in person was the most powerful thing we could do,” said Ramos. “We cannot vote, and we cannot make demands that a U.S. citizen can, but we can certainly show that we exist, that we have strived to succeed in this country and contribute as much as we can.

“Our main ask was that congress act on what is now in their hands, to pass a bill that does not place restrictive measures on us in the future or exclude DREAMERS who did not have DACA at the time but were eligible, and that does not jeopardize the lives of our families.”

Although many of their meetings were with DACA and Dreamer “allies” on the Hill, several members of Congress were less vocal in about DACA but offered unexpected color to the conversation on immigration reform.

When given the opportunity, as they had directly with Rubio, Duke’s Define American group did not shy away from discussing immigration reform writ large.

“Although we focused a lot on the humanity of immigration reform and how the lack of reform has affected our families and lives, we also tried to discuss in our meetings how this is a reflection of an overall greater problem in the immigration system,” said Ramos. “We discussed how sometimes a single sheet of paper was the difference between being documented or not in this country and how it often came down to getting lucky in the geographic lottery.”

Duke has an institutional interest in protecting DACA students as well as in clear and responsible immigration reform. On Sept. 6, President Price issued a statement declaring, “In light of the decision to end DACA, Duke University restates its firm commitment to protecting the right of all students to learn and discover here, regardless of their background or immigration status.”

Among Duke’s immigration concerns, DACA and DACA student well-being have taken precedence.

Students also met with staff from Sen. Rand Paul's office. “Even though DACA technically has several more months before it is annulled, fighting for the stability of our students’ lives is a top priority for the university,” said Chris Simmons, Duke’s associate vice president of government relations. “We can’t let the anxiety around immigration reform cloud our students’ ability to just be students and focus on their futures.”

Despite the resources and guidance Duke offers, the incertitude around immigration reform not only clouds legislative action, but also the mental well-being of DACA recipients.

Despite the uncertainty and challenges, Duke’s DACA recipients said they look forward to the next steps in their lives.

“We shared with them our fears about the uncertainty of our post-undergraduate plans,” Ramos said, speaking for the group. “We all have dreams for our future, but without a permanent solution, our dreams that we have worked endlessly for may stay as dreams.”