Don’t overlook undocumented students this election cycle

A recent campaign ad shows North Carolina Senate candidate Ted Budd walking along the border wall separating the U.S. and Mexico with a handgun jutting from his waistband. The narrator growls, “Open borders. Crime. Drugs.” 

Although topics like abortion and inflation have dominated election discourse, recent threats to immigrant rights, including the DACA program,  present another issue that we can’t afford to sweep under the rug. 

For the past decade, the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has meant a constant state of uncertainty for over 600,000 people brought to the U.S. as children. The program grants a renewable two-year period of protection from deportation and access to jobs, but Congress has failed to pass any legislation for permanent lawful status or paths to citizenship for DACA recipients. Since Donald Trump banned new DACA applications to the program in 2017, 100,000 young immigrants raised in the US graduate from high school each year without the same protections. 

Now, the future of DACA looks even grimmer. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that DACA is illegal, which immigration advocates say means certain death for the program unless Congress steps up and stamps it into federal law. With midterm elections in less than two weeks, it is critical that we understand what the next few months could mean for our undocumented peers and that we prepare to vote for the candidates who will protect them. 

Many of these young immigrants do not remember coming to the U.S, yet they face countless obstacles in their pursuit of higher education. They cannot access the jobs and programs that strengthen a college application. Undocumented and DACA students are ineligible for federal financial aid, and in many states– including North Carolina— they are barred from state financial aid.

As a private institution, Duke has covered 100% of need-based aid for undocumented students and DACA recipients since 2017. However, only DACA recipients can receive Duke work study, according to the Duke Student Affairs Office. This means that undocumented Duke students can’t work as research assistants, teaching assistants, or any other on-campus employee. Not saving DACA means the growing population of undocumented college students around the country will continue to be systemically denied opportunities afforded to the rest of us. 

Immigration is one of the biggest topics on the ballot this year, leaving DACA’s fate looming before us. If Republicans gain control of the House, it is unlikely that the program will survive. Likewise, legislation has died in the evenly-divided Senate five times. The hope that a deal on immigration could be reached hinges on the results of the midterms: “If Democrats get the majority [in both the House and Senate],” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) says, “Maybe we’d be more motivated to try to do something.” 

North Carolina’s two candidates for Senate have significantly different platforms in regard to DACA—and polls show that the race is deadlocked. Candidate Cheri Beasley promises to fight to protect DACA and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US. However, her opponent Ted Budd would only consider allowing DACA recipients to stay if the border wall is built, his House of Representatives website reads. On his campaign website, he alleges that undocumented immigrants are responsible for the opioid epidemic and human trafficking—a racist message disproven by an Academy of Sciences USA study which concluded that undocumented immigrants in Texas are 2.5 times less likely to be arrested for drug crimes and two times less likely to be arrested for violent crimes than native-born Americans. 

The outcome of this race could decide which party controls the Senate. And with polls favoring Budd by only a few percentage points–within the margin of error– the population of a single Duke dorm could literally sway the election. In 2020, Cheri Beasley lost the race for NC Chief Justice by 401 votes; around the number of students that live in Crowell.

We don’t know who will win the Senate race. We don’t know if the politicians we elect will stay true to their campaign promises. To be frank, I have little hope in our broken system to make tangible reforms to the status quo and even less hope in the idea that the ordinary citizen has electoral power. So there’s nothing worse than hearing “just vote!” after confronting how little progress Congress has made with issues like immigration and gun violence. But voting is, at the very least, a form of harm reduction. If my vote for Cheri Beasley means one less vote for a xenophobe, that means something to me. 

And if other Duke students follow my example, perhaps this election season will be the one to reignite my belief in voting power. 

The futures of hundreds of thousands of our peers are hanging by a thread. Go to the Karsh Alumni Center and cast your vote now. Inform your family, friends and neighbors about the importance of DACA. And keep fighting long after the last ballot closes.

Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternating Tuesdays.


Pilar Kelly

Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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