Episode 28: Dreamers and Immigration Policy: Past, Present, Future


​​​​​​​dotEDU returns for a second season with Jon Fansmith, Sarah Spreitzer, and ACE’s newest co-host, Mushtaq Gunja. They discuss the state of higher ed policymaking, or the lack of it, as legislators gear up for the election. Later, Sarah and Jon are joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist, Jose Antonio Vargas to discuss the prospects of DACA in the United States, immigration policy in general, and what colleges and universities can do to help these students who are living in limbo.

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

From the Introduction

Remember the Dreamers

From the Conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas

About: Jose Antonio Vargas

Immigrants Rising

Golden Door Scholars

Hosts and Guests

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host Jon Fansmith. Later in this episode, we're going to hear from the very riveting Jose Antonio Vargas as we explore undocumented immigrants in the United States, DACA, and the Dream Act. But first, I need to introduce my cohost, and there's a little excitement as we start season two introducing my cohost. It's not Sarah Spreitzer, who is joining me again, no excitement in welcoming Sarah back, but the exciting news is a brand new cohost on the podcast. Mushtaq Gunja is joining us in a recurring co-podcast host role, that's a terrible title.

Mushtaq Gunja: It's better than my regular title.

Jon Fansmith: Good, well we'll change your business cards accordingly. Welcome to the podcast.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, thank you Jon, thank you Sarah. I'm really excited to be here.

Sarah Spreitzer: Do I get to react at all or express my excitement in also welcoming Mushtaq?

Jon Fansmith: Are you excited? I thought you had expressed your excitement.

Sarah Spreitzer: I am excited to have him too. But I was just kind of shunted off to the side there, so I wasn't sure if I could jump in and also say welcome to Mushtaq. Good to see you.

Mushtaq Gunja: It's good to see you, thanks Sarah.

Jon Fansmith: And Mushtaq, do you want to tell our leaders who may or may not be familiar with you already a little bit about yourself and what you do here at ACE?

Mushtaq Gunja: Sure. I hope that they are not familiar with me. I am the Chief of Staff here at ACE, I've been here for a couple of years and then before that I was at Georgetown Law School, I was an Assistant Dean in Academic Affairs and an adjunct professor. I actually still teach at Georgetown, I teach criminal justice, I teach evidence, some advanced crim pro. Before that I was at the Department of Education, where I was the Chief of Staff doing higher ed policy, so accreditation, student aid, the budget. So I was at the Department of Ed in the second term of the Obama administration, from 2014 or so to the end of the administration. So happy to be here and happy to talk about all these exciting issues. I'm a lawyer by training, I didn't say that, hence the Georgetown Law.

Jon Fansmith: Might have been implied, but a good clarification, a lawyerly clarification.

Mushtaq Gunja: It's been seven years since I was in a court room, but I was a prosecutor in Baltimore and did that work for almost six years. So a lawyer to the extent that that's at all helpful to this podcast.

Jon Fansmith: It is because we lost both of our PHD cohosts, so we had to get a terminal degree in here somewhere. Sarah and I not so academically accomplished.

Sarah Spreitzer: And my master's doesn't count?

Jon Fansmith: What is your master's in again Sarah?

Sarah Spreitzer: Medieval Archeology.

Jon Fansmith: That's why it doesn't count.

Sarah Spreitzer: I think that should still count.

Jon Fansmith: Sarah and I have this discussion often about the merits of our respective master's degrees. Well Mushtaq, we are very happy your lawyerly expertise, and your other expertise will be very valuable as we start the second season of the podcast. Going forward, it's kind of an interesting time here in Washington D.C., there's not a lot happening. So a lot of the focus obviously is on the coming presidential election. And a lot of things I think that will be happening in the policy space are going to be influenced or directly in response to that election. So less on the legislative side but Sarah, Mushtaq, things you think that are coming up that are worth noting for our listeners?

Sarah Spreitzer: Well I think even though things might not be happening legislatively, I think there's a lot of messaging going on and as part of that I think we're about to see a lot of proposed rules come out from the various agencies. So from my portfolio definitely from the Department of Homeland Security for things impacting our international students. We've heard that they may do duration of status changes to H1B Visas, and I think all of that is things that this administration has promised to do and now they are trying to push it out before the election.

Jon Fansmith: And the reason they're doing that is?

Sarah Spreitzer: Well I think it's just clearing the decks. They've been developed over the past four years and now is the time to push it out. It sends a message to the president's base but it's also to demonstrate that they are working on those things that they promised during the campaign.

Mushtaq Gunja: I think from my perspective, it feels like our colleges and universities are spending the majority of their time trying to weather their way through this pandemic, either on campus and trying to keep everybody, all their students and stuff, faculty safe, or deliver high quality education virtually, or some combination of both as many of our campuses are of course doing. And so it is a quiet time in Washington. Jon, I wanted to ask you a question. Is it going to remain quiet? What do we see happening with another stimulus package? Is anything happening on the Hill or at the White House?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I'm encouraged by the fact that at least on my issues nothing is happening. Sarah looks like she'll have a busy fall, but I'm going to have what looks at least right now to be a pretty relaxing one from the higher ed perspective. The Higher Education Act, we didn't really expect it to move forward this year once the pandemic hit, and that certainly won't be happening in the fall. The big thing that we've been hoping, really wanted to happen, and thought certainly during the summer would be happening was another emergency relief bill, the so called supplemental bills, that seemed to have some momentum really up until the beginning of August. Republicans in the Senate waited about six weeks to start their work and by the time they did it really killed a lot of the momentum.

So there was a bill introduced or there will be a bill introduced today by a group called the Problem Solvers Caucus. It's a bipartisan group of moderates from both sides. That was an attempt to split the difference between the White House/congressional Republican position and the congressional Democrat position. But just maybe an hour ago as we record this all of the committee chairs of the relevant committees in the House sent out a statement saying this was a half measure and it failed to meet the needs. So doesn't look like that will solve anybody's problems, might cause a few problems for leadership but certainly not solving problems. And now all of the discussion really is, maybe we'll see something in the lame duck, but if it doesn't get done by the end of September, which is about two weeks away as we record this, it's not going to happen in October because everyone's campaigning. So maybe something later in the fall, maybe it will just get punted into a new administration if there is a new administration or the second term of the Trump administration.

Sarah Spreitzer: And we still have to see the continuing resolution the CR paths to keep the government open past September 30th. I thought I read today that the Speaker said the House is going to stay in session, right Jon until they do something on COVID relief?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah.

Sarah Spreitzer: Is that an empty threat?

Jon Fansmith: Hard to believe, but probably true. It's one of those things where it makes for good messaging, but if the Speaker is keeping her members in working in Washington as they head into a presidential election cycle, it's really punitive more to the moderate members who might be in districts that they really need to fight for rather than the base, and it's not necessarily likely to produce any further action because it's going to take the White House's agreement. That's not the kind of thing that's going to sway the White House. Especially in the House where the majority is pretty strong for Democrats already. So yeah, empty threat probably.

Mushtaq Gunja: And Jon, Sarah, what are hearing about a shutdown? Are we looking at another CR? Where are you guys feeling about that?

Jon Fansmith: No.

Sarah Spreitzer: I think that would be nightmares for both parties this close to the election. I think they're likely operating under the idea that it's in their best interest to punt it until after the election.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, it's interesting because I think a lot of people thought they were going to try and do the emergency bill with a CR, and the CR is a continuing resolution, for people that don't follow all this stuff, they essentially just changes the deadline for federal funding, which usually expires on September 30th. If you don't do something it creates a shutdown which is a Mushtaq reference. There's pretty broad agreement by both sides, bi-partisan, that they're going to do a relatively clean CR, meaning they're not going to add a lot of things to it, change the funding too much and push it into at least December, maybe even into the next year. And that's really because traditionally administrations get blamed for shut downs so the Trump administration doesn't have a whole lot of interest heading into their reelection and having that kind of chaos attributed to them. Likewise, Democratic leadership seems to think that they are headed towards very good electoral returns, and sees no reason to rock the boat and change that dynamic. So both sides want to keep things pretty calm and pretty steady.

But speaking of all these things going forward, and Sarah, you and I had the opportunity to have a very good conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas, that'll be coming up in just a little bit. But he talks very passionately, very eloquently, about the issues facing undocumented students and undocumented residents in the United States. Obviously this was a huge campaign issue in 2016, it's certainly getting a lot of attention this time around. Around there certain things regarding the policy each candidate has that we should be discussing, we should be bringing forward, things that really stand out to the two of you as you look at what their proposals are?

Sarah Spreitzer: So I think we already know where the Trump administration is going. They ended the program in 2017 and then we saw a Supreme Court challenge to that action which has kind of kept it on life support, but as it is now, current recipients of DACA can only renew for up to a year and they are not accepting any new registrations. The Biden campaign has made it clear that they will keep DACA alive at least until Congress can put it into statute, so they have said that they will reverse the administration's decision on ending it. And obliviously Biden's coming from the Obama administration was the one who put DACA in place.

Jon Fansmith: So the key thrust of the Biden platform is, everything Trump did, we're going to reverse.

Sarah Spreitzer: Pretty much everything on the immigration side, which a lot of stuff was done by executive order starting with the Trump travel ban which was shortly after the inauguration and I think that we'll see a lot of the executive orders reversed at least for a start. And then who knows, I don't know if the Biden administration if they've said that they're interested in doing some comprehensive immigration reform. That's kind of the third rail for both Dems and Republicans, I don't know if that's actually something they could get done. But I think that at least the executive orders would be reversed.

Jon Fansmith: And their ability to do the legislation will probably depend an awful lot, too, on what the composition of the congress looks like after the election.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, and that's what's caused problems with comprehensive immigration reform before.

Mushtaq Gunja: President Trump has said a lot of things about DACA at various times, what's the latest with the President and how he's thinking about our students on our campuses?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah. One of the things I should say that the Trump administration, when they did end DACA, they actually allowed a six month roll down of the program, giving Congress time to act. And Congress was unable to pass legislation that would actually put DACA into law. And so that's always been the Trump administration's argument is, is it's not so much that they object to the program per se, it's that because it was originally set up as a policy and not done through Congress that Congress really needs to act. The idea of what we have for DACA now would go away under a second term of the Trump administration, but whether or not there would be legislative efforts to put something like DACA into law, I'm not sure.

Mushtaq Gunja: And Congress does certainly have the opportunity to pass something for years and years now, both under Republican majorities and now under a Democratic House majority. They haven't done anything yet.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, we talked to Jose in our conversation that the Dream Act has been around since 2001 and it's always had bipartisan support, so if you were to tell someone from another planet that this bill has been introduced since 2001, it always had bipartisan support, it doesn't make any sense about why it hasn't passed.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah if they were from another planet, they may want to go back given the pandemic right now.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah.

Jon Fansmith: I was going to say they might have some other thoughts about our democracy as well if they're observing it at this moment in time. For those of our listeners who are interested in reading more about both DACA and Dreamers and particularly if you want to get involved in advocacy around those issues, ACE has worked with a number of other organizations to get their website called rememberthedreamers.org. Usually I spell these out, that's a pretty long title so I'm not going to spell it out, but I will say it again, rememberthedreamers.org. And it has resources, advocacy tools, lots of things to both get informed on the issue and if you so choose to take action as well. As we mentioned, this is going to be a big feature of the conversation that we had with Antonio Vargas. He is a fascinating person I will just say, I'll talk a little bit more obviously when we start the conversation, but this is a man who has won a Pulitzer Prize and been nominated for both an Emmy and a Tony, which I think is certainly a first for a dotEDU guest and certainly an impressive slate. But truly someone accomplished, someone that I think people will enjoy listening to that conversation.

If you have ideas for other topics or other guests that you'd like to give us, please send them to us at podcast@acenet.edu. We like suggestions, we like feedback, we're starting our second season so we're in a time where we're particularly open to feedback. And we'll feature any questions we get on the podcast as well. So it's a little encouragement, get your thoughts into us. Mushtaq and Sarah, I want to welcome you Mushtaq and thank you both for being here. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with Jose Vargas.

And welcome back. We are joined, as we mentioned earlier, by our special guest today Jose Antonio Vargas, and Jose is the founder of the nonprofit organization Define American as well as the author of the 2018 autobiographical memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. And I think just first of all thank you for joining us today Jose.

Jose Vargas: Thank you so much for having me.

Jon Fansmith: And I should clarify as I often do, by joining us I mean remotely via Zoom, we are not breaking any social distancing, so everyone is safe and healthy here. So I think we sort of teased a little bit of your story and your life and your work in the intro, but I thought this would be actually before we started getting into some of the policy discussions and a greater dive into the details of your work, it might be helpful for the audience to get a little bit of the background, tell us a little bit of your story and how you came to be where you are.

Jose Vargas: So I'm from the Philippines, and if anybody's listening, so if you see an Asian person with a Spanish name it means they're Filipino, for the most of us, there's four million of us in the United States, two million in California alone.

Jon Fansmith: So earlier when you asked me to call you the Filipino Jose, actually there's a lot of people that could apply to, that's not just you.

Jose Vargas: There's literally a chapter in my book called Filipino Jose, Mexican Jose, that explains immigration policy post 1965. So I was born in the Philippines, my mother sent me here when I was 12, sent me to the Bay Area where I am right now to live with my grandparents, her parents, both who were naturalized US citizens. So I didn't think anything was wrong. And my mom didn't really explain, I was 12, I was going to America. And then four years after I was sent after I lived here when I was a freshman in high school, I found out I was here illegally after I went to the DMV. Which I later found out is how a lot of undocumented students find out, they find out because they need to go to the DMV or they have to apply for a scholarship in high school or the college counselors asking for some sort of documentation like a social security number or a green card or whatever. So that's how I find out. And mind you, this was 1997 and this was the height of Proposition 187, are you familiar with that?

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh yeah.

Jose Vargas: I called Prop 187 the grandmother of all anti-immigrant policies in modern US history. In many ways it set up where we are right now. So I just remember during that time when students would actually, and mostly Mexican American students, because it was even back then it was incredibly racialized. And I thought to myself, "Oh, this has nothing to do with me." Right, like I'm a Filipino Jose.

Jon Fansmith: They're talking about an entirely different group of Joses, yes.

Jose Vargas: I'm Asian, I'm Filipino, this is nothing. The media, the radio stations, because again for me the best way to learn to speak English and write English is to consume a lot of media. So I consumed everything, and all the media ever said was that this was about Mexican people and was about the border. So that was the context of how I found out. So 1997-1998 was really the year when, that whole year of trying to figure out, "Now what do I do? I can't apply for college." And I remember thinking to myself, "So who do I tell this to?" And the first person I told it to who was my best friend at the time who's still one of my best friends, Arbon, who was the guy who drove me around like Driving Miss Daisy. And he was the guy who was like, "Hey, time to get a driver's license." And so then when I went to the DMV and found out I was here illegally and then I told Arbon and I'll never forget because it was the first time I realized that whenever I told someone this, I was burdening them with the information. It was like a puzzle they can't solve. So since we like 16 years old, Arbon and I are both approaching 40 soon, I have always been a problem that he's been trying to take care of.

Sarah Spreitzer: And I assume when you're 16 and you're talking with your friends and you're starting to talk about college and what you want to do after high school and then that's obviously going to completely color the entire conversation.

Jose Vargas: And for me, I remember this was the SAT time, freshman, sophomore year was the SAT prep time. So I just remember, "Why would I go do that? What's the point?" And then I remember thinking that I was here illegally because I don't have the right social security number and the right visa so then I didn't want my existence to be associated with any numerical anything. So I was like, "F the SAT's."

Jon Fansmith: You just wanted to basically opt out of the system entirely.

Jose Vargas: But then again, whenever I wanted to do that, it was my high school principal and the high school superintendent who ended up finding out about me because of the principal, who was like, "Wait a second, so we can't solve this? We can't figure this out." So then my principal started telling other teachers, all very discreetly about the situation and then there was a point where they were all trying to figure out, "Do we just adopt him?" So then I'm a problem that people were trying to solve.

Jon Fansmith: Right, with the best of intentions, but adopting you seems pretty drastic.

Jose Vargas: Well you know, I was really lucky. Mind you, I grew up in Mountain View which at the time was already changing demographically, but it was an affluent community of a lot of tech workers, like the first generation many ways of Silicon Valley workers. So it was affluent, it was white, they had means, and they could take care of me, and they did. And so they were the ones that were figuring out, "Okay, what are the other options?"

Sarah Spreitzer: You were very lucky, I think, Jose to have that community obviously, because I think there's a lot of people that unfortunately haven't had that kind of support. And it's interesting that you talk about its back in 1997 because you think about the Dream Act and we talked a bit about this when we were planning for this podcast that it was 2001 when it was first introduced. And it seems so long ago, how can we have been talking about this for over 20 years and still not have the solution? This is something that you've been living for a long time. Can you talk a bit about the difference that you see from when you discovered your status to now and that older generation of Dreamers and the newer generation of Dreamers that are here?

Jose Vargas: Well I would say, which is why I'm bringing up Proposition 187, which is, you can tell the history of California through Proposition 187 and how much has changed. In some ways, we are living through the Proposition 187 era when it comes to policies, in some ways it is depressing and frustrating to understand that the same narrative systems that were in place that we're fighting against now were already in place back in the mid to late 1990s and that people still think of this as a border issue. And someone got elected President by making this a border, Mexican issue. It was not a surprise that the first thing that Donald Trump talked about down that escalator when he announced he was running for president was about Mexico and the border and the wall and the rapists and all those people. That's not a surprise, and I think about that in the context of what 35 million Mexican Americans in this country, many of who have been here before there was a United States of America, and the reality is the great majority of Mexican Americans in this county are US born citizens.

So the racializing of this issue, that hasn't changed. But I think part of what's changed is the demographics of the issue, the fastest growing undocumented population are coming from Asia, India, Korea, South Korea, The Philippines, China. Just yesterday I was talking to two undocumented Indian students. And so that has changed. Since I was born in 1981, the population of Black immigrants in America has increased five times. So the undocumented Black population is pretty sizeable. And given this Black Lives Matter reckoning that we're having right now, Black immigrants are really in the tightest spot of all immigrant groups because of systematic racism and because in many ways there aren't as many resources available to Black immigrants, there aren't as many organizations for example.

Jon Fansmith: And that's because it's relatively recent?

Jose Vargas: That, and I think again because people think that this is a Latinx issue. I still have to keep reminding people that I'm Asian all the time. Not because I don't, in some ways I've become an honorary Latino, which is great because of the support of the Latinx community, but I have to keep reminding people, the reality is this is not only a Latinx issue. But part of what I think has changed is the demographics and then the technology. You could argue that Dreamers in many ways are the first youth movement in America that was born out of social media. I still remember, I don't know if you all remember the marches that happened in 2006 that were led by text messaging and that was the first text messaging social movement that was led by a lot of young immigrants who then started using Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. And I remind people of this because I think it's really important to remember, but back then, the elder Dreamer generation that I belong to, we didn't have any of this. We couldn't find each other, there were no resources, there was no language, there were no organizations that would publicly support us. So that for me is just a reminder that as bad as is right now, remember that at least we actually have the resources and the means to find each other and to be a community.

Sarah Spreitzer: So demographics changing, the advocacy tools that we use are changing, do you think that there's anything about the public perception that's changing? Because you look at Prop 187, and now I think of California as being one of those places that's incredibly supportive overall of Dreamers and we see that in the higher education system and obviously the University of California system was one of the groups to lead the case that went to the Supreme Court in support of our DACA and our Dreamers. So do you see any shifts in public perception or any changes there?

Jose Vargas: Absolutely. Look, the Dream Act, even though it has not passed, I think I was joking the other day and did the Dream Act as a freshman in college. It's graduated high school, it's now a freshman in college, 19 years old. And there isn't a poll that's been published that doesn't say that the majority of Americans support Dreamers. We have been seeing a great majority of polls that support a pathway to citizenship and legalization for undocumented immigrants. So we know that, and again as a former political reporter, part of the question here too is how these polls are phrased and the wordings and the language that's being used in these polls. But for the most part, one could argue and argue very well that the public's actually behind us. The problem is, even though the public is behind us, this is not considered a priority. There was a study done right after President Trump was elected among immigrant rights groups and funders who fund immigrant rights work and among progressives, immigration doesn't even crack the top five concerns of progressives in this country. We're like number six or number seven.

So our base is not as big or not as strong. People of course are sympathetic and empathetic of separation of families, which by the way was happening in the Obama administration, but not to the extent that Trump is happening. All of that, but for the most part, the base is not as strong and as big as we need it to be. I have to say though, given that we're on this podcast, consistently from the very beginning of the Dream Act journey, educators, teachers, have consisted a big part of that base however relatively small it may be.

Sarah Spreitzer: And you talked a big about the impact that the educators had on you and the fact that they were trying to help you. I think one of the things that has changed as more people have come forward and registered for DACA or made it known. There have been more resources so there's more things that if a student were to go to a high school principal and say, "I want to apply for a college but I just found out that I qualify for DACA, I'm a Dreamer", that they would be able to say, "Okay, here are the colleges that would offer financial aid, institutional aid. Here are the states that would allow you to come in and get in state tuition", that type of thing. Do you see Dreamers taking advantage of those resources?

Jose Vargas: Oh yeah. And of course I would also have to say, here's TheDream.US, which is now, I think they're up to 6500 scholars.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah and they are one of our close partners at ACE, specifically on our rememberthedreamers.org website.

Jose Vargas: Yeah. Everybody, by the way, if you haven't seen that website check it out. It's incredibly accessible and helpful. Golden Door Scholars is another one that people should check out that was founded in the south, mostly South Carolina, North Carolina, and now it's opened up to the rest of the country. There's a group that, when I first started doing this work, when I first started researching, "Okay, how do I do this work? What do I really need to know?", there was a group at the time called Educators For Fair Consideration, which basically became a network of teachers. High school, college instructors that were networking with each other, "How do we support Dreamers?" And now given that the Dream Act is 19 years old, that group has actually renamed itself to Immigrants Rising. So check it out, Immigrants Rising, and it's all about thinking post college and how to be entrepreneurs.

Jon Fansmith: And we'll put links to all of those organizations on the show notes for this episode too as well just so people listening can find that easily as well. Sorry, I totally cut you off there Jose, I was trying to be helpful but I interrupted your flow.

Jose Vargas: So I think there's absolutely more resources. And I have to say though, I have to say that even just yesterday I was just on a call yesterday, a friend, I befriended this 20 year old young man who works construction who came here from Honduras when he was three months old, and he was wondering if he qualified for the DACA. Got him on the phone last night and realized he just didn't think high school was for him, he didn't feel welcome. He's in Southern California. And so he dropped out freshman year and has worked construction ever since. And so he's asking me, "Do I qualify for DACA?", and I'm like, "Well, you're going to need at least a GED." And then I could hear from the sound of his voice, we couldn't Zoom, that I could hear the deflation. And I said, "Well wait a second. If college is not your thing, there are other things." If my high school principal, if Pat Highland hadn't said, "Okay, we're going to find a different way." So they found this venture capitalist who started a scholarship fund, I was the first recipient, they didn't ask your immigration status. If she hadn't intervened, I would not have gone to college pure and simple. But guess what? Most people don't have that kind of intervention.

So when I was talking to this young man I was thinking, "Okay, well we can set you up so if you want to take your GED I can help you figure that out. I have people in that area that can help you figure that out." And I could sense that he was discouraged. But he goes, "You know, I really love construction. I'm really good at it. And I even trained to be an electrician." So I'm thinking to myself, "That's amazing. So maybe you can start your own business." That's the other thing, by the way, so undocumented immigrants can start our own businesses, that's part of Immigrants Rising. How do you train undocumented entrepreneurs? In some ways, being in this condition can help us be more entrepreneurial and in some ways for me it's the only way I can actually make a living is to be my own boss.

Sarah Spreitzer: And you know, all of those resources and people trying to figure out those nontraditional paths or how to figure out these very complicated things, I'm betting that's all been made more complicated by COVID-19.

Jose Vargas: Yes. Although, I have a spin on this because mental health is really important and I was seeing in late March what was happening, even among Instagram, has become really the way for me to keep in touch with everybody, with all the DACA documented folks that I've been mentoring for years now and the people that I admire. And we got on a Zoom private call a few months ago now and I started talking about the fact that, "Wait a second. We're undocumented people. We've been social distancing for forever."

Sarah Spreitzer: That's an interesting way to look at it.

Jose Vargas: Wait a second.

Jon Fansmith: You thrive in this environment, is what you're saying.

Jose Vargas: What are you saying? Oh we can't go somewhere? We can't go do something? Isn't that our lives? Isn't adapting to change and being flexible, looking for windows to open when doors are closed, isn't that what we made of ourselves? So think of this as an opportunity where you lean in on that.

Jon Fansmith: It goes hand in hand with what you're saying about an entrepreneurial spirit too is finding other paths and finding ways forward, yeah, that's fascinating.

Jose Vargas: I can, for example, talk about the fact that I haven't seen my mother since I was 12 and that I have a sister who when I left her she was 2, she's about to be 30. I can focus on the fact that I don't have that physical relationship with them. But instead of I've transferred, I'm trying, of course nothing is going to replace that, but that's why I'm really big on mentorship. I think of these young DACA documented folks that I mentor as in many ways I hope I can look at my sister when I finally see her and say, "Maybe I wasn't the brother that you needed me to be, but I was trying to be that older brother to all these other kids that I could be with, that I could physically be with this way." So, that. Instead of thinking of this as what the sad facts are, thinking of them as, "Okay, what are the opportunities here? How can I make something out of this?"

Jon Fansmith: People who are listening to this can't see your face as you talk about this, but certainly when you talk about taking on the mentorship role, just watching you on Zoom, the way your face lights up, it's clear the power, the passion you bring to that. And I think this podcast is aimed at higher education leaders, and you've talked about all the work you've done, taken on so much to help others who are in the same situation you were in, or are in, I should say. What should our campus leaders be doing? What should they be looking at? Obviously this mentorship is something that would be an amazing role to fulfill, but obviously they also have the ability to do things systemically on campuses. What are the kind of things if you could sit down with the college president you would tell them, "Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, here's how you make your campus inclusive and welcoming"?

Jose Vargas: Well I just have to say that I am catholic by colonization but if there's one thing that I'm religious about, it's mentorship. I find that to be, I literally would not be where I am without it. It's been its own passport, it's like a green card that doesn't have an expiration date. It's in many ways for me what I have been a beneficial of, what I've benefited from is exactly what I'm trying to make sure other people benefit from. It's that freedom can't come from this government, it has to come from other means and it can come from mentors.

Jon Fansmith: Until such a time that we can get it from our government hopefully.

Jose Vargas: Yeah, we don't know when that's going to be. So for me, that has to be a part of how we think about how Dreamers and how DACA recipients are part of our campus and our community. But let me think back a bit, step back a little bit more, which is that we're in a scenario where you have a government that's openly not actually following the law.

Jon Fansmith: In many ways, yeah.

Jose Vargas: In many ways. In many ways they've said that they've now decreased DACA from two years to one year. They've now said that they're not taking any back applications. If President Trump is reelected, I think we can see the end of DACA. So now the question is, in the same way that this has forced students and immigrants and immigrant families to be adaptable and flexible, how adaptable and flexible are universities and colleges?

Jon Fansmith: That's a good question.

Jose Vargas: That's the thing. I have made a career and a life out of a gray area. For us, black and white doesn't really exist. We have to dance in a legal gray area all the time. So I'm curious, for presidents and leaders of universities and colleges who are listening, what does that mean for you? What is that uncomfortability of, "Are we allowed to do that?" Meaning again, this is the difference between the law and justice. What is the law, but what is just? What are you answering to exactly? So there's that big question that I would challenge all of us, and by the way I'm challenging myself on this as well. So what is that big question? And then out of that, given what we know about DACA, I remember for example when TheDream.US, which I'm a part of, when Don Graham, who was my previous boss, he was the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, if you would have told me that Don Graham would be the single largest provider of college scholarships for undocumented people, it's incredible. But I remember the conversation we had a few months ago when TheDream.US decided that they were going to open the scholarships to people who don't qualify for DACA. That was a big one. That was a big shift.

Jon Fansmith: Stepping beyond that Dreamer community.

Jose Vargas: Stepping beyond that community. So but what does that mean? What does that mean for colleges? I know that there are some colleges, especially here in California, I have to say by the way, a lot of the work, one of my favorite education reporters is Theresa Watanabe at the LA Times and there was that article a few months ago that she published, I'm reading it, it's right in front of me, "And historic shift. Latinos are the leading group of perspective freshman accepted into University of California for fall 2020. Part of the system's largest and most diverse year class ever admitted." And so it was Latinx students, 36 percent, then Asian students at 35 percent. So now in California this is already the reality, Latinx people and Asian people together make up the majority of the state. And in this time, I'm curious what universities and colleges in California and outside of California, how are we talking about race and identity to our students? How are we connecting the dots between immigrant rights and racial justice? This is something that students and their families are living with every day, and I think universities and colleges have a role to play in that conversation. You are a part of that community.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well Jose when you were talking about colleges being flexible, it's interesting because Jon and I have on previous podcasts, we've talked a bit to university leaders that have created these different pathways that work for their college. So for instance, the Colorado Mountain College, which created this income share agreement basically for loans that students could take out because they don't qualify for federal loans. We've seen other universities go out and do a big fundraising campaign to come up with some institutional funds for the students because they can't access the Federal Student Aid programs. And so I think higher ed has been trying to be very creative as much as they can be, but I just think that that's yet another hurtle that we're asking these young people to jump through. Because it's different depending on the institution you look at and depending on the state that you look at. So it's still very, very, I think, problematic.

Jose Vargas: But I have to say, I just think, at least the undocumented students that I've talked to, DACA or without DACA, I feel like they're, again, this is part of our identity and existence to be adaptable and in some ways universities and colleges have an opportunity to actually do that with us, to be in line with us on that. And how can we find more creative ways to make this work? To the point for example when people say you can't employ, or I remember even graduated students or the nature of what qualifies as work, that's a big one. And especially with international students too, that's a whole part of this conversation as well. I remember, because I used to travel a lot when we were allowed to travel, and I would meet so many international students who were like, "I want to stay. Do you suggest that I just overstay my visa?" And of course I'm like, "Okay, have you talked to a lawyer?" That's usually the number one thing. Have you talked to a lawyer? I am not a lawyer. Because just because I'm public and visible about what I am, I'm not asking you to do the same. I've come out of two closets in my life, and I don't force anybody to get out of any closet until they are ready to do it. You've got to go do it.
But I was really struck with how many international students that pay a lot to our systems to the schools. What are the options for them? And one of the options is, "Oh, it's either I become a professional student because that's the only way I can stay in the country, but I can't work. Or I'm forced to just overstay my visa." I can't tell you how many conversations I had, by the way, all across the country, especially in the Midwest, interestingly enough, which I thought was really interesting.

Sarah Spreitzer: And unfortunately those paths are narrowing, obviously, whoever you're talking to. So that's a difficult conversation.

Jose Vargas: Yeah. In terms of, again, what colleges, universities, and leaders of school can do, is how do we treat this issue not as a slice of the pie but actually a part of the pan? Meaning, we're living in a time, and for me this is really big when I worked on Define American, we can't think of DACA recipients as just one small slice of a population. There are 45 million immigrants in this country today, according to Pew, an independent, nonpartisan research group, there are 45 million immigrants in this country, 45 million, 11 million who are undocumented, and within that are the DACA recipients. In the next 50 years, according to Pew, the 45 million immigrant population, mostly Latinx, mostly Asian, Black, Caribbean immigrants, will constitute 88 percent of the total US population growth in the next 50 years.

Jon Fansmith: I saw a study recently that said that within the next 20 years with the graduation rates of Latinx students from high school, they'll be the majority population on college campuses as well. So that looking long term, it's in higher ed's interest to be understanding of these communities and building those bridges now.

Jose Vargas: And Latinx students with their families, like this young man that I was talking with last night, the mom is also undocumented, the youngest brother is a US citizen because he was born here. It's incredibly complicated, so our lives are crocheted together, and I think we have to start looking at these issues as being crocheted, they're all interconnected, this is what intersectionality as a concept is really about. But what does that mean with the way we talk about the issue and how we not separate it from the rest? I think for me, that's incredibly important. I have to say, by the way, the 45 million immigrant population, that happened because of the 1965 Immigration Nationality Act, which would not have gotten passed if Black people were not fighting for their civil rights in 1964. So you could actually make a very credible historic argument that immigrants are here in this country because of what Black people fought for. So this is where the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Immigrant Rising movement is right there.

Jon Fansmith: That's a really good note to end our conversation for today on. I think there is many different ways we could keep going with this conversation and just from talking to you in prep for this today, I know you have a million things going on including all of those people you are helping to get back to so we don't want to take up too much of your time. But I do really want to say thank you for coming on and joining us and talking about your experience and your views, and I know our listeners are really appreciative. So thanks for joining us today.

Jose Vargas: Thank you so much for having me. I have to say one last thing.

Jon Fansmith: Of course.

Jose Vargas: I'm going to drag Graham Greene into this conversation, it was Graham Greene who said that, "In every childhood there comes a moment when a door opens and lets the future in." "In every childhood there comes a moment when a door opens and lets the future in." For me that is the role of educators, and no politics or policy. In my opinion, that role transcends politics and policies. So thank you.

Jon Fansmith: And your experience has been testimony to that and that you had educators who opened those doors. So thank you again for coming on. It's a beautiful thought, and a great place to end the conversation for now.

Jose Vargas: Thank you for having me.

Sarah Spreitzer: Thanks, Jose.

Jon Fansmith: To listen to earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU, you can find us on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Google Podcast, and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast and you can also use our email podcast@acenet.edu for suggestions for upcoming shows or guests you'd like to see or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Lori Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, and Malcolm Moore for the exceptional producers of dotEDU and make us sound as good as we do every episode. And finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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