(Video by Mario Zepeda)
By Melody Keilig
(Interviews conducted by Nyan Lynn)
A student group at Emerson College is working to help and protect undocumented students in the wake of the Trump administration’s efforts to increase deportations.
The student group Understanding National Immigration Through Education (UNITE) was created in 2013 to rally around immigration issues but more recently has been pushing the Emerson administration to declare itself a “sanctuary campus,” something Emerson President M. Lee Pelton and administrators are considering.
A sanctuary campus designation would send a message that this is a place where the undocumented can feel safe but UNITE also is working to make sure policies are created to legally protect them from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“We have a policy that was put into place so that if an ICE agent were to come to Emerson they are not necessarily handed the name (of an undocumented student),” said Chantelle Bagicalupo, vice president of UNITE. “There’s a certain process that ICE agents would have to go through in order to obtain the information of an undocumented student.”
Immigration Raids Increasing
There has been an increase in ICE raids in Massachusetts, according to Catherine Asuncion, development coordinator for the Student Immigration Movement (SIM), a youth-led organization that spreads awareness of the rights of undocumented students and families in Massachusetts’ communities.
“Our members have told us that ICE has come looking for them. We are concerned about President Trump’s plan to hire and train 10,000 new ICE officers,” Asuncion said.
Student Grew Up Around Undocumented
UNITE’s vice president, Senior undergraduate and Journalism major Chantelle Bacigalupo, said that although she is not undocumented, she wants to help undocumented students find their voice.
Bacigalupo, whose parents came to the United States from Bolivia, experienced being around undocumented workers when she was younger.
“My dad used to provide jobs to undocumented workers, and we would go pick them up and I would sit in the back of the car. They would get talking about the border and why they crossed over, what their dreams were, and they sounded like the same reasons my parents came over to the U.S., to provide a better future for their family,” she said.
As a college student, Bacigalupo’s focus and interest with UNITE is bringing forward the difference of treatment between residents and undocumented immigrants. She wants the Emerson community to get riled up about immigrant rights, but admitted that it is a difficult task, and said that most people don’t believe that immigration is a huge issue in America.
Because UNITE is a small group on campus, Bacigalupo believes that is one reason why undocumented students may be afraid to speak out, even among supportive students, faculty, and staff at Emerson.
(Video by Mario Zepeda)
But she is hopeful that the college can provide opportunities and assistance to undocumented high school students in Boston in order to expand their network of students.
Undocumented Student Works to Improve Lives
UNITE’s president, Junior undergraduate Communications major Laura Londoño, is undocumented and hopes to improve the lives of other undocumented immigrants.
Londoño and her parents are from Colombia, the home she said her mother did not want to initially leave. However, her father decided to get a Visa and stay with a friend in the U.S. He had high hopes to make it, but found it tough and went back to Columbia.
Upon her father returning, Londoño’s mother decided to get herself a Visa and stayed with her cousin while setting herself up in the new country. She ended up succeeding and sent for the family to come up to Boston. Londoño’s father went first, then she was sent up at five years old.
“I had no idea what to expect in the U.S.,” she said.
Fast forward to her freshman year of college, Londoño became involved with activism after participating in Emerson’s Alternative Spring Break trip to El Paso, Texas. She found herself moved by the experience and has made the same trip for the past three years.
Alternative Spring Break works as an immigration immersion program to give students the opportunity to work with nonprofit groups.
“We work with these nonprofits, we visit the border, and it’s something very symbolic because we’re just some kids from up north and we’re here, at the fence, talking to border control agents, and realizing that people cross this border every day, they risk their lives just to come here,” she said.
Londoño said her experiences as an undocumented student inspired her to stand up for immigrant rights and to attend events such as “Drop the I-Word” to shift the focus from “illegal immigration” to “immigrant.”
As someone that spent her time in the shadows, Londoño makes it known that she is undocumented and proud.
More Immigrant Advocacy Support
The Student Immigration Movement (SIM) targets immigrant youth between 13-30, to help guide them into advocacy on political education, leadership training, and mentorship.
Asuncion, the developmental coordinator for SIM, grew up in the Dominican Republic and entered the U.S. on a visa with her family to escape gang violence in her neighborhood. She joined SIM in 2009 as a way connect with other undocumented students in the Boston area.
“Our mission is to identify and recruit young people, undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, and help them realize their full potential,” Asuncion said. Undocumented students don’t qualify for most scholarships and financial aid like U.S. citizens.
SIM is committed to improving immigration laws through grassroots efforts, with organized protests, rallies, and marches. “I kept telling myself that there would be a bill passed. I had this thought that the government was going to realize that immigrants were valuable and were going to change immigration laws to help us,” Asuncion said.
SIM workshops aim to give undocumented youth a safe zone. “We want students to come in, and not to feel alone. People are still afraid to share their status. We want youth to feel empowered and find a sense of healing through sharing their personal stories. Also to connect with other people that can relate to their experiences,” Asuncion said.
SIM plans on joining Cosecha, an immigrant advocacy group, for the “A Day Without Immigrants” protest on May 1, 2017 that will start at noon at the Boston Common.