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Arizona State University Graduate Students Create Safe Space For Undocumented Students

In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, Joshua Montano, left, and Deborah Robles protest in front of the Capitol the day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, in an executive order reaffirming Arizona state law denying young illegal immigrants driver's licenses and other public benefits in Phoenix.

CREDIT: AP/Ross D. Franklin.

While Congress has yet to provide sweeping comprehensive immigration reform, states and communities have taken the lead in providing access to higher education for undocumented immigrant students.

The majority of efforts have centered on providing in-state tuition for undocumented students. In the last few years, several states have passed Dream Act legislation to provide this benefit, which include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

While in-state tuition reduces the barrier to higher education, undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid, a critical source of support.

Amidst the progress of these efforts to help undocumented Millennials finance their education, Arizona is home to a growing movement in higher education to provide support within higher education for these students.

Since 2012, Arizona State University graduate students Jesus Cisneros and Davier Rodriguez have been leading efforts nationally to create institutionalized support for undocumented students.

During an April 2012 meeting with faculty, staff, and graduate students, collectively called the DREAMer Research Initiative, there was an identified need to increase university awareness about the issues undocumented students face while attending Arizona State University. The group’s discussion focused on how to foster a positive campus climate for undocumented students.

The result was the DREAMzone Ally Certificate Program—a four-hour training designed to “create inclusive and supportive campus environments conducive to the educational success of undocumented students.”

“DREAMzone is a comprehensive, professional development program. What it aims to do is raise practitioners’ competencies for working with undocumented students. Our focus is on staff, faculty, and student leaders,” Cisneros said. “We realized that there was a lot of anxiety among practitioners in helping undocumented students and supporting them through college.”

Over a year after its inception, the program has “evolved to safe zone program, where it’s not just about referring students and making practitioners aware of the resources available but also changing the campus climate and addressing some of the messages that we hear on campus and hear within our positions within the community,” according to Cisneros.

Rodriguez, co-founder of DREAMzone, grew up in Miami, FL, in a Cuban family.

“I entered from the movement from a place of tremendous privilege, not only because I am documented but also because my family were immigrants but never had to experience this,” Rodriguez said.

While a student at the University of Florida, Rodriguez slowly began to become aware of immigrant issues through a student organization.

“The a-ha moment was when I discovered that my fraternity brothers in Phoenix, who I didn’t know were going to be deported. That was the moment when I said something needs to change and I need to prioritize this as a piece of my work,” Rodriguez said.

After college, Rodriguez moved to Phoenix, AZ, at the time of SB 1070.

Initially engaged in community-based work, Rodriguez pursued his education further as a graduate student at Arizona State.

Upon entering the university, Rodriguez said, “What I had noticed was that issues regarding undocumented immigration and DREAMers were not something most people are aware of at the university level. Many don’t know what being undocumented means let alone understand the complex experiences of immigration and navigating the United States as a DREAMer.”

DREAMzone celebrated its one-year anniversary in October with over 500 Arizona State University faculty, staff, students, and community members completing the program thus far. The program’s presence on campus continues to grow as evident during a walk through campus, where DREAMzone placards are on display and say “I support DREAMers” or “DREAMzone ally.”

“There’s more programming on immigration issues and on the intersection of different identities with an undocumented status. With more programming, there’s more conversations, more forums, more guest speakers and lectures that talk about these issues and how they impact Arizona, the economy, and institutions of higher education,” Cisneros said.

“More people now understand undocumented immigration and the needs of DREAMers. Additionally, I think that it’s created ongoing dialogue so not only do we just understand the experiences but we’re continuously revisiting, we’re becoming more aware about policies that are coming out. It’s also created a space for undocumented students to feel that they can voice their perspective that they can be unafraid of speaking out,” Rodriguez said.

Beyond Arizona State, DREAMzone trainings have expanded to Northern Arizona University and future trainings are planned for the University of Arizona and University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Cisneros and Rodriguez have taken DREAMzone across the nation as well. They have presented at 10 conferences catering to higher education administrators and other professional associations. As a result, universities have been reaching out and asking for the curriculum in order to create similar DREAMzone programs. These include University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Riverside.

“At the end of the day, regardless of one’s values or beliefs about this population, these are tuition paying students,” Cisneros said. “It’s our duty as higher education professionals to assist all students.”

Jude Paul Dizon is a reporter with Generation Progress.

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