Undocumented UC Students May Find Paths to Citizenship With New Legal Aid

Undocumented students hold a mock graduation in San Francisco in 2012.  (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

At their weekly meeting, the University of California's brand-new immigration attorneys share notes on how to reach the estimated 2,000 UC students who either lack legal immigration documents or have only temporary protection from deportation.

"I sent out an email to my student listserv with a message in caps and bold like, 'If your DACA is going to expire anytime in the summer or fall ... please let me know ASAP,'" says attorney Habiba Simjee, who is participating in the meeting by phone from UC Santa Barbara. She's referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a two-year protection for young people who came to the United States illegally as children.

The University of California is the first public university in the country to start a legal center on this level, with full-time attorneys to provide legal aid to undocumented students and their families.

UC Davis is also home to an undocumented student center. Pictured here is office coordinator Aurora Garcia.
UC Davis is also home to an undocumented student center. Pictured here is office coordinator Aurora Garcia. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

The UC Undocumented Legal Services Center is based at the UC Davis School of Law, but the attorneys see students at six other campuses, specifically those that don't have their own law schools: Santa Cruz, Riverside, Merced, San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

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The attorneys say they've helped more than 100 students since the center opened in November.

Some students need guidance to apply for the DACA program or renew it. Many students who already have that protection are seeking special permission to leave the country in order to study abroad.

UC San Diego ethnic studies and public health student Alexis Buz was one of them. He applied to go to Vietnam for a five-week course this summer.

UCSD student Alexis Buz got legal help from attorneys to apply to leave the country to study public health this summer in Vietnam.
UCSD student Alexis Buz got legal help from attorneys to apply to leave the country to study public health this summer in Vietnam. (Courtesy of Alexis Buz)

"I'll also be researching and learning at a clinic that treats children in Vietnam who were born with defects due to exposure to Agent Orange," says Buz. "Ultimately, this will also give me the patient exposure, the knowledge and the cultural competency for when I want to apply for medical school."

Buz was born in Mexico, but he's been in the U.S. since he was 2. He says the free legal help from the Undocumented Legal Services Center went beyond his foreign study program. Perhaps even more importantly, the attorney who met with Buz in San Diego asked him a lot of questions about his family history.

"As we were discussing my family's dynamic, there were several things I realized and we realized," says Buz. "There would be a way for me to get an adjustment of status, which means I can probably, if things work out, get residency in the next few years."

This is a huge deal. Most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. don't have a pathway to permanent legalization under current law. But as many as one in four young people can find a way -- if they're able to meet with an attorney, says legal center director Maria Blanco.

"There's a potential there that doesn't get uncovered unless you really screen carefully," says Blanco.

One of those potentials is a U visa, for victims of violent crime who cooperate with police.

Maria Blanco is the executive director of the UC Undocumented Legal Services Center.
Maria Blanco is the executive director of the UC Undocumented Legal Services Center. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

"We were surprised how many of our students were victims of violent crimes," says Blanco. "[But] a lot of students come from high-crime neighborhoods, which makes sense when you think about it."

The UC lawyers can also help students' parents, brothers and sisters with immigration matters. Blanco says the idea behind the legal services is to help undocumented students -- and those with undocumented family members -- to stay in school.

"When you help them emotionally, they do better academically as well," she says. "Just the stress of being in fear of their deportation, but also their families being at risk. Because of the stress, the students often stop and start. They drop out, then they come back. And some don't come back."

Not everyone agrees with the center's work. Student Claire Chiara is director of the UC Berkeley College Republicans. She says if the university is going to provide legal services, they should be for all students.

"Students could get legal help for anything ranging from, my gosh, a divorce they're going through, to fighting any form of trial they might appear in," says Chiara. "So I think this legal aid for undocumented students is really an issue because it doesn't represent the entire student body."

UC President Janet Napolitano disagrees.

"Our undocumented students are in a special place, a unique place," says Napolitano.  She funded the legal center as part of a $5 million investment to support undocumented students. The money is from the President's Initiative Fund, which she is allowed to use to address needs around the UC system.

"It's the public policy of the state of California that they pay in-state tuition, that they qualify for financial aid. All we are doing is recognizing they are a special population," says Napolitano. "They have high needs. So if these students are going to be part of the UC family, and they are … why not also do what we can to provide legal services?"

Napolitano says she wants universities in other states to follow the University of California's lead.