A center of support for undocumented university students

The front desk of Leadership Without Borders, which provides services, support and opportunities of leadership for undocumented students at the University of Washington. (Photo by Marta Gamez)

University life is hard. But students who are undocumented face an even more complex path than many of their peers.

Several issues unique to their situation can raise students’ anxieties. Some financial aid programs, especially private ones, are unavailable to students without immigration documentation. Prospective careers could be complicated by the uncertainty of work under their immigration status. And unlike their university peers, undocumented students face the threat of deportation.

Leadership Without Borders, a resource at the University of Washington, is an example of how universities can help undocumented students get past these problems to succeed at school and opportunities thereafter.

Students don’t have to explain their existence or their struggle to people in Leadership Without Borders. Resource centers like Leadership Without Borders create a space for students to tackle the barriers to their success and embrace their academic dreams.

Harvard University Sociologist Roberto Gonzalez surveyed that an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. Five to 10 percent enroll in college; only one to three percent graduate from college every year.

That’s why it is important that institutions make support for undocumented students a campus-wide issue, said Karen Gamez, Leadership Without Borders center coordinator. Gamez (who is unrelated to the author of this piece) said that universities have to listen to what students need to strengthen their educational journey.

“Listen to what undocumented students have to say [and ensure] there is a plan of action, asking questions like, ‘What are the needs of your undocumented students?’” she said. “[Put students] at the center and forefront of the conversation.”

Leadership Without Borders is the only one of its kind in Washington state and is devoted to offering resources, programming, support and guidance to its community of undocumented students.

Leadership Without Borders, which was started by student activists in 2014, offers a number of services in one location. There is an email ListServ which communicates internship and scholarship opportunities to self-identified undocumented University of Washington students. The center also offers more than 620 books in the Husky Lending Library, which is available to this year’s 175 self-identified undocumented students and saved them $23,000 this academic year.

Many students don’t get this kind of help from their respective departments, as there is often a lack of institutional awareness of the issues that undocumented students face.

“We’re happy to work with and for undocumented students,” Gamez said. “We’re working together.”

One of the programs provided by Leadership Without Borders is a lending library, which allows students in its program to check out books that they otherwise would have trouble affording. (Photo by Marta Gamez)

Leadership Without Borders is housed in the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center. The building is away from campus — and is a safe space for students of color and underrepresented communities.

Gamez emphasized a need for safety measures in any sort of support program for undocumented students.

“We have safety clickers in case of an emergency, and we have several other safety measures — it takes a collective to ensure safety for our students,” she said.

The Seattle Globalist spoke to several students involved with Leadership Without Borders. They requested they are referred to by pseudonyms as protection from deportation or retaliation.

Mia, a student employee, said having a dedicated space on campus is a statement.

“Having a physical space changes the climate around the issue,” Mia said. “Knowing there is a place to go to and meet tells people, ‘they’re there, they exist, they’re not afraid to be seen.’ I think it definitely helps move the cause forward.”

Students involved with Leadership Without Borders said that the services and the sense of community fostered at the center make increased chances of deportation worth risking.

“The benefit of having a physical space is that you know there is someone here in the office that can help you with anything you are struggling with,” said June, a University of Washington graduate student. “To me, that outweighs the risk of having a bigger target on my back.”

Even with the support already offered, students hope that Leadership Without Borders continues to develop its services.

June appreciated Leadership Without Borders, but initially they weren’t sure if the center could meet their needs as a person from an Asian-Pacific Islander country.

Media coverage of undocumented immigrants has largely focused on Latinx communities, even though immigration comes from all over the globe.

“We’re not represented by the media, we don’t feel included in this movement,” June said. “I feel like [Asian Pacific Islander undocumented immigrants] don’t expose ourselves, and that further excluded us.”

Still, the similarities across other students’ experiences and needs helped June feel welcome.

“I didn’t feel much connection but being vulnerable and sharing my story resonated with everyone because of our same struggle,” June said.

Josh, a student employee at Leadership Without Borders, acknowledged June’s concern.

Leadership Without Borders is “currently working on finding ways to connect with non-Latinx undocumented students,” Josh said. “A majority of the students that come to our center are Latinx.”

Leadership Without Borders is funded by the University of Washington’s Services and Activities Fee, which all students at the University of Washington pay. The fee is divided among various services and clubs throughout campus.

Leadership Without Borders also raises money for its resources by offering a training for allies of the undocumented community. The quarterly Undocu Ally Training, which costs $50, is an opportunity for allies to learn about the experiences of undocumented students, policies and laws affecting the community and best practices for providing support.

Students at other schools have tried to establish similar support groups for undocumented students. So far, they have been met with resistance.

Jorge Lara is the club founder and leader of the Scarlet Group at Seattle University. The Scarlet Group seeks to create a safe space for undocumented students to find resources, network with allies and become better informed of their rights.

This student-led club does not have an office and does not have any formal support from the private school’s administration.

Schools that don’t prioritize supporting their undocumented students are “failing to [deliver] their mission, to make sure that people who are in similar situations as undocumented students or refugees receive the education for the whole person,” Lara said. “I don’t think that’s happening. We’re not being prepared for a just and humane world.”

Seattle University alum Carlos Rodriguez, who cited the pressures of being undocumented as his reason for resigning from being student body president in 2017, said undocumented students need tangible support from their schools and campuses.

“For prospective students, knowing which schools do and do not accept undocumented students is very important,” he said. “Once admitted, however, it was also necessary to find resources that would at least mitigate some obstacles in terms of employment, medical care, career options, etc.”

Before Rodriguez graduated in 2017, he tried for two years to establish a center for undocumented students when he was at Seattle University. He received pushback from administrators.

Rodriguez said Seattle University administrators told him that they didn’t want to further expose and silo undocumented students with the visibility of an officially sanctioned group. Rodriguez said he was told administrators believed that they were protecting the identities of students and reducing the likelihood for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to track students.

Rodriguez doesn’t agree that an official group would have increased the risk for students. He thinks that it would instead have helped students deal with many other obstacles and improve their chances of success at school.

“I would argue that we have always been in danger whether or not there is a physical space on campus,” Rodriguez said. “I believe that some students understand that risk and are still willing to advocate for spaces like Leadership Without Borders because the risk is worth the right to a whole and just education, free from the obstacles undocumented students face daily.”

Alvin Sturdivant, vice president of Seattle University’s Student Development, said in an email that administrators are working with Scarlet Group but was not specific about whether the university would provide any direct resources.

“[We] have been in direct communication with the Scarlet Group and their adviser and will continue to work with them to identify solutions that will assist in creating a sense of belonging, connectedness, and safety, particularly as it relates to space, staffing resources, and training for faculty and staff,” he said.

“It is difficult to speculate about what might be adopted in the future,” Sturdivant said. “We however remain steadfast in our obligation to advocate for and work towards policies, practices, programs, and services honoring our commitment to members of our community who are undocumented.”

Lara said that Seattle University’s administration has been slow to change its stance.

“We have some support from some faculty and staff,” he said. “At the same time, there’s not very much. It feels like the support is only spoken. It doesn’t feel like there’s progress.”

Lara said the students at Seattle University need more than just moral and vocal support.

“When you receive the right support, you are being empowered,” Lara said.

“You are able to have control of your story, and you find the tools that are necessary to continue to fight against all the barriers that one experiences as an undocumented student,” he said.

That idea was echoed by Josh and other University of Washington students affiliated with Leadership Without Borders. Josh said the center’s visibility has helped all the students feel supported in the pursuit of their academic ambitions.

“If there was no center, the repercussions would be much greater,” Josh said. “Students wouldn’t know they have support on campus. We have high school students touring our campus all the time, and for some students, knowing we have Leadership Without Borders is the determining factor in choosing this university.”

(Infographic by Marta Gamez)