Feature Stories

Dream becomes a Reality for Immigrant Students in Florida

United We Dream students hoping to attend USF.

                                                United We Dream students hoping to attend USF.

Dr. Elizabeth Aranda, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Sociology, and her research assistant, Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, are deeply involved in community-based research about the lives of immigrants and undocumented young people. Aranda regularly shares her research findings to help guide the political discussion of immigration reform.

Most recently, during the week the Florida Senate was debating legislation that would permit undocumented young people, commonly referred to as "dreamers," who attended high school in Florida, to access in-state tuition rates for their college education, Aranda published an informative and forceful opinion piece, one of several she has written on the topic.

She said, "You don't know what impact it [the op-ed] has" on public opinion and lawmakers. She shared her research on the devastating effect that denying young people access to in-state tuition has on them, their families, and the country as a whole because of what she referred to as "wasted talent," (also the title of her opinion piece). She said her editorial is "not just an opinion that I have, [it's] rooted in my research. Research that can benefit the community."

Her moral support spoke volumes to her students, Sousa-Rodriguez, and other young people who went to Tallahassee to engage in the political process. They participated in mock graduation ceremonies and other grassroots techniques to demonstrate what young people miss when they are unable to further their education due to cost-prohibitive out-of-state tuition rates, despite having lived in Florida for much of their lives.

Sousa-Rodriguez, along with approximately 200 other students, was in Tallahassee every day during the final week of the legislative session. "Everywhere [the legislators] turned, there were kids in caps and gowns." He said it was finals week, so he was awake every night until 3am completing his coursework. He feels certain the students' perseverance had a very real impact on the legislative process.

The bill passed, was signed by the Governor on June 9, 2014, and went into effect on July 1st. It will surely take years before we can fully discern the effect this important law will have on the lives of the dreamers; however, Aranda and Sousa-Rodriguez's research will surely shed light on the law's impact. Sousa-Rodriguez said he is currently getting calls every day from people in their late twenties who were never able to afford to attend college and are eager to take advantage of the new law.

In fact, the research showed that these young people were being treated like international students when they applied to college, despite the fact that they were often unfamiliar with life in their home countries, have no family there, and do not speak the language. Thus, they were functioning as children without a state to call home.

In the fall, Aranda and Sousa-Rodriguez will begin to assess "to what degree the access to reduced tuition improves [the students'] emotional well-being."

United We Dream students lobbying at the Capital.

                               United We Dream students lobbying at the Capital.

Beyond issues related to tuition, other difficulties exist for young people who lack documentation. Without legal status, they are always in limbo. Many have experienced barriers to obtaining a driver's license, which affects their ability to get a job and to form relationships. Aranda calls these the "ripple effects" of a lack of documentation.

Aranda said she first "stumbled upon the [research] project" in 2010 when she showed a short YouTube video called "Trail of Dreams" to her USF students in her Latina/o Lives class. One student in the course said she recognized Sousa-Rodriguez, who was one of the students who walked from Miami to Washington D.C. to draw attention to the plight of the Dreamers. She said, "I know him. He goes here." The rest is history. Aranda asked Sousa-Rodriguez, a youth organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition and a USF undergraduate, to come to her class as a guest speaker.

Sousa-Rodriguez came to the US from Colombia at the age of six with his entire family. The family was warned by a neighbor that the children were in danger of finding men with guns outside their home, part of the long-standing instability in Bogota in the midst of conflicts between the government and guerilla groups. They never went back to their home; and they arrived in Miami with the clothes on their backs.

After seeing news coverage of a young student, Juan Gomez (later a Georgetown graduate), who was detained by immigration authorities, and was released when his friends advocated for him, Sousa-Rodriguez decided it was time for him to get involved. He said, "It was a wakeup call for me." He continued, "I felt like I could have been him. I could just disappear. Unless I build a support network, I'll just disappear." He also felt that college was "just not an option."

Sousa-Rodriguez worked his way up through the Florida Immigrant Coalition and began working full-time, organizing young people to vote on college campuses during the 2008 elections. At that time, Sousa-Rodriguez met administrators at Miami Dade College who helped him apply to the Honor's College. He learned that having a support network helps make it possible to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Later, he transferred to USF.

In a positive ripple effect, after guest speaking in Aranda's Latino/a Lives class, Sousa-Rodriguez enrolled in her research experience course and later an independent study to help her design and implement their project examining the lives of undocumented young people through interviews and focus groups. They are engaged in participatory action research, which means collaborating with the affected community to bring about a clearer understanding of social problems, in order to change the causes.

Aranda and Sousa-Rodriguez compare young people who have connected to the dreamer movement to those who are more socially "isolated," and found that "organizations are [the dreamers'] life line."

They have also studied the impact of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Executive Order signed two years ago, which gives the dreamers a provisional status. Aranda and Sousa-Rodriguez have been interviewing the young people who have qualified for DACA status to learn about the impact it has had on their lives. If they qualify, they are able to get a driver's license, apply for jobs and for a credit card, all of which would have been impossible for them without DACA.

Aranda and Sousa-Rodriguez have also found in their study that even those who have qualified for DACA are still "so worried about their families" and live in constant fear that family members could be detained or deported. They exhibit "survivor's guilt." DACA costs $465 each time one applies for a deferral, must be renewed every two years, and as Rodriguez says, "it only temporarily postpones deportation."

United We Dream students holding mock graduations in Tallahassee.

                   United We Dream students holding mock graduations in Tallahassee.

Aranda said of their research, "it depends on what drives you" and really boils down to "how people see their academic identity." She personally believes "whatever we study should be used to bring about social change. I just do what I think feels right. I write about issues that I have expertise on and [can] contribute a valid point to the debate."

With regard to some of the other issues relating to immigration policy, Aranda said, "militarizing the border is not the answer; it doesn't reduce undocumented migration, [it] shifts migration patterns." She believes a lot of animus toward undocumented immigrants stems from "racial fears of growing populations that seem foreign to people." She feels that the desire to stymy immigration is couched as an effort to "preserve American culture."

Too often policy can be driven by a lack of information and an emotional response, but community-based research has a role in unpacking political issues. Aranda speaks directly to those who will be impacted by immigration legislation and policy changes; and the research adds to the dialogue the point of view of those who are not otherwise brought to the table.

Aranda said that you "don't have to have citizenship to be a good citizen." Many of the dreamers are very active in the political process and are working for the public good.

Sousa-Rodriguez is among the finest examples. He feels very strongly that he wants to "convey through the research broader perspectives about the emotional well-being and mental health" of this population who live in fear of deportation. "I think they open up so much to me because I've lived it," he said. He continued, "I have been really privileged to play that role. I need this to be more than just some paper sidelined on a shelf." To that end, he intends to continue doing research, pursue a master's degree in sociology, present the findings of the research to members of Congress, and ultimately to assume leadership of the Florida Immigration Coalition.

Aranda and Sousa-Rodriguez's community-based research benefits dreamers, who, despite different geographic origins, are here forging a new sense of community based on their shared experiences. Additionally, through their stories, the dreamers are lending their voices to this very important discussion that speaks to our national identity.