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Colleges, students prepare for DACA demise

Colleges are offering legal help and counseling to students who could lose their right to study at local colleges and face deportation.

A protest rally outside the Philadelphia offices of the Justice Department. The group marched along Chestnut Street to the Federal Detention Center at Eighth and Arch Streets.
A protest rally outside the Philadelphia offices of the Justice Department. The group marched along Chestnut Street to the Federal Detention Center at Eighth and Arch Streets.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Jason Hernandez's phone was ringing a lot and his email pinging, more than any other day since he started working for Rutgers University on Aug. 1.

Hernandez, an immigrant rights attorney, was hired to help students who have immigration issues get their degree, and his work Tuesday took on even greater meaning.

President Trump ordered an end to the program that protects from deportation young people brought into the country illegally as children, including those who are now college students. Congress has until March 5 to develop a replacement for it, or it dies. The program is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Rutgers, one of the few campuses locally that has tracked or was willing to release its number of DACA students, estimates it has roughly 500 enrolled at its three campuses in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden.

"There are a number of uncertainties that loom for them," Hernandez said. "We've been trying to determine what all the information provided by the Trump administration means."

For students, the decision was chilling.

"It means that DACA is really over. I have to bring myself to say those words," said Daniela Velez, a Burlington County resident who came to the United States from Venezuela at age 9 and is a junior at New Brunswick's business school.

Trump's action brought swift and firm condemnation from local university leaders, who braced for the impact on their campuses.

"This is a heartbreaking day for our country," said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania. Trump's decision "threatens hundreds of thousands of young people who were raised in America, love this country, and are an integral part of the American dream."

College leaders vowed to do all they could to protect their students and ensure their chance of completing a degree.

"We recognize the stress that this decision is having on our undocumented students and their families," wrote Rutgers president Robert L. Barchi in an email to the campus community, "and to these students we want to be very clear in saying that nothing has changed for you in regard to your relationship with Rutgers."

Rutgers Law School launched the "Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP)" that employs Hernandez. The university previously helped students through its law clinics but found that with the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration the demand was too great, Hernandez said.

"After the election results came in, there was a student outcry for information," he said. "It became clear the clinics would not be able to support all of that need."

He is working to help students whose DACA status will expire by March 5. They have until Oct. 5 to submit their applications for renewal, he said. He also is offering legal consultation and may be involved in legal representation, he said.

"It's a great move," Velez, 23, said of Rutgers' decision to employ Hernandez. "It showcases the support that Rutgers has for" DACA students.

Velez, who belongs to UndocuJersey, which advocates for DACA students, said she's focused on the fight ahead.

Other students are preparing, too.

"It's a mix of emotions," said Maria Castaneda, a political science major at Swarthmore College who is under DACA. "I feel angry, but at the same time I feel anxious and sad."

She came to the United States from Mexico when she was 3. Her parents had her two brothers after the family arrived here.

"Our family is very mixed, where my parents are undocumented, I have DACA, and my two brothers are U.S. citizens," she said. "We encapsulate everything. They are going to have to do something."

Officials on most local college campuses, including Penn, Pennsylvania State, Drexel, Temple, and Lehigh, said they couldn't provide an estimate of how many DACA students attend because there is no official requirement that they report it. National estimates of all people under DACA are around 800,000.

Several campuses in addition to Rutgers reported offering counseling and other services to students.

"Every student at this university has earned the right to be here based on their academic talent and hard work," Penn State president Eric Barron said.

Staff writer Jenice Armstrong contributed to this article.