As chancellor of the University of Merced, which enrolls the highest percentage of undocumented students of any campus within the UC system, I am deeply concerned about the fate of these hard-working, contributing and inspirational members of our campus community.
UC Merced may be the youngest of the UC campuses, but we are mighty and growing. This year, our campus enrollment topped 7,300 students, 60 percent of whom are the first in their families to attend college. While UC Merced sits in the San Joaquin Valley, 25 percent of our students come from Los Angeles County. Increasingly, high school students from beyond the Valley are listing UC Merced as their number one choice on their UC applications. We believe that in addition to our ranking among the best public universities in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, our commitment serve a diversity of students is a beacon of welcome and respect.
It’s been more than four months since our president decided to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children from being deported and allows them to work, go to school, and serve in the military.
Since that time, the nearly 600 undocumented students at the University of California, Merced, have completed a full semester of studies, lectures and exams despite living under a cloud of fear that their lives and their families could be uprooted at any moment.
For those 600 undocumented students, this is not about politics. Their lives and futures — and those of their families — are at stake.
Time is running out, and some students will lose their DACA protection as early as March unless Congress chooses to act quickly. The onus now is on legislators who understand how dire this situation has become and who can lead a bipartisan coalition to a just and humane resolution.
Each of us must now step up and do our part to convince Congress to make this an immediate legislative priority and act in a way that protects Dreamers, and the California Dream. Our economy depends on the contribution of all our talented and motivated young people and squelching them is cruel and short-sighted.
I am proud to be a founding member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which formed in November to increase public understanding of how immigration policies and practices impact our students, campuses and communities. I was in Washington last week with Boe Mendewala, an undocumented immigrant from India and a Ph.D. student in physics at UC Merced to advocate on behalf of our students and of undocumented students throughout the U.S. Our appeal must be shared and amplified in California, where the impact of students like Boe is profound.
College is difficult. This is true for students who come from affluent backgrounds with highly educated parents who can help guide them through this labyrinth. It’s truer still for first-generation students, whose parents are supportive but who often lack the educational background and/or resources to give the timely support they need. Students who come from low-income families, who often must work one or more jobs to support themselves and their loved ones, have it even harder.
Undocumented students shoulder all of these burdens and more, and what they accomplish in the face of these challenges is truly remarkable. Imagine their desire to make the world a better place. Imagine a student working with drones to improve the efficiency of water use in agriculture, while his parents spend their days picking crops just to afford the barest essentials in life. Imagine an undocumented graduate student researching the biological mechanisms behind heart failure, and then not being able to stay in and contribute her knowledge to the country where she completed such important work. These stories are not imaginary — they are the lives of students here at UC Merced.
This is not the future our nation deserves, and it is not the future our students deserve. It is time, now, to put politics aside and protect the American dream.
Dorothy Leland is chancellor of the University of California, Merced.