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DACA Recipients at Northwestern Law Face Uncertain Future Under Trump Administration

January 02, 2017

DACA Recipients at Northwestern Law Face Uncertain Future Under Trump Administration
Cem Uyar and Karen Villagomez

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive actions pertaining to immigration, including the establishment of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allowed some undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors to apply for a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.

That promise was on the minds of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law students Karen Villagomez (JD ’18) and Cem Uyar (JD ’18) on election night, as it became clear Donald Trump had won the presidency. Villagomez and Uyar are among the over 740,000 young people to receive DACA since the program began in 2012. To qualify for DACA, applicants must have entered the United States before their 16th birthday; be a high school graduate, in school, or honorably discharged from the military; and pass an FBI background check.

Facing tremendous uncertainty, but encouraged by the support of fellow students and coworkers, Villagomez and Uyar said they “realize the power our stories have, and now feel a responsibility to spread awareness and to create conversation by sharing our stories with the Northwestern Law community.”

Karen’s Story

Villagomez was born in Mexico, came to the United States when she was two years old, and grew up on the south west side of Chicago.

“I grew up in Chicago all of my life, as a child I pledged allegiance to the American flag like all of my peers. I always felt that I was just like everyone else,” she said. “When I was applying to college it became very clear that I was not. I thought, ‘What do you mean I don’t have a social security number and I can’t receive federal financial aid?’ My options were very limited, and I think that’s when the struggle of my reality really began.”

Villagomez attended the University of Rochester for her undergraduate degree. During her freshman year spring break, Villagomez decided to travel home to Chicago to surprise her family. While traveling with a Mexican passport, she was stopped by border patrol agents stationed in Rochester, due to its proximity to the Canadian border. She was questioned and detained.

“I was 19 years old; I didn’t know what was happening, and it was a tragic experience. I was put in removal proceedings. I had to go before a judge and all the while, I was taking finals as a freshman. One attorney told me that because I had no form of relief, like a parent, child, or spouse who could sponsor me, I had four months before I was going to be deported. I thought ‘that cant be real, that’s not possible.’”

Villagomez hired an attorney and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s office became involved. The Department of Homeland Security eventually dropped her case, but the experience had a profound effect on her.

“I felt like I had been betrayed by the country I grew up in. I felt helpless in that situation and realized how important the law is, and that sparked my interest in one day going to law school.”

Villagomez switched her major from economics to political science. She graduated from the University of Rochester in May of 2012, unsure of what to do next. The very next month, President Obama put DACA into effect.

“DACA changed my life. By replacing fear with hope, it gave me an overwhelming sense of relief that I didn’t have before. I felt like it was heaven-sent because it happened at such a critical time in my life,” she said.

“It gave me a sense of normalcy. Even though there are so many restrictions and so many things I still can’t do in comparison to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, after receiving DACA I could work, I could drive, I could travel in the United States. It just changed my life in many ways.”

Villagomez interned in Senator Durbin’s office for six months, then worked at an immigration law firm for two and half years before coming to law school.

“Northwestern was my top choice. When I got in, I was so excited. Two weeks before orientation started, I still didn’t have a way to finance school. But I ended up getting a university loan and it all worked out.”

Cem’s Story

Uyar was born in Istanbul, Turkey, where he lived until he was ten years old.

“We were a middle class family in Turkey, but my mom brought me here to get an education. The American dream doesn’t exist solely within America—people across the world see America as a land of opportunity, and she felt I had the potential to make the most of it.”

He lived in Florida until midway through high school, when his family moved to Brooklyn. Like Villagomez, he came to learn of his immigration status and the implications when he began applying to colleges.

“I was digging through all these documents, looking for my social security number for a scholarship application. My mom asked ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m looking for my social security number, do you know what it is?’ And she said, ‘You don’t have one of those.’ I started looking into what the meant for me with regard to college, and realized everything else it meant for me.”

Unable to secure financial aid, Uyar chose the most affordable option and enrolled in the City College of New York (CCNY). His uncle came up with the money for his first semester’s tuition—he had to pay the international student rate—but wasn’t able to continue supporting him. Uyar’s stepfather and mother struggled to make ends meet for their family of five, and Uyar’s undocumented status prevented him from working. He was unable to pay for a second semester and had to leave school, a devastating development for someone who saw education as the key to his future.

“You have all this ambition and change your life course, and it’s all cut off now because of a thing you didn’t know existed, a decision you didn’t even make when you were ten years old,” he said. “It feels like the whole world is plotting against you. The light at the end of the tunnel went away.”

Uyar spent the next two years working small construction and home repair jobs with his stepfather, saving up as much money as he could. He was able to save up enough for another semester and returned to school, but was not sure how he’d be able to continue beyond that. He had just returned to CCNY when DACA was enacted.

“What really turned my life around was DACA. Deferred action gave me a work permit, a social security number—essentially an identity, sort of a semi-confirmation of my American-ness.”

“I got my first job ever, when I was a junior in college, working at a CVS near Grand Central Station. All of a sudden, everything was a 180 degree change. I went from feeling like I would never be able to go back to school to having a job. That was huge for me, such a gift. I don’t think many other people feel that way about a cashier job at CVS.”

Uyar’s interest in American history and politics, and his experience navigating his immigration status, led to a desire to pursue a legal career.

“When I learned of my immigration status, I was troubled by the immigrant community’s reluctance to educate themselves about the legal issues they face. There’s this—often but not always unfounded—fear, so when there are actual remedies to issues, people are still reluctant and scared to come forward. I really wanted to be able to help those people as much as I could.”

Back at CCNY, Uyar applied and was accepted into the college’s Skadden Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies.

“I got to work at one of the greatest law firms in the world. DACA was the first point where I thought, I can actually be an attorney. I can be barred and I can actually help people. So I applied to law school and I got here, which was massive for me.”

Looking Ahead

Villagomez and Uyar have been standouts since arriving at the Law School, on track for bright futures in the profession. Villagomez was awarded Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP’s 2016 Diversity Scholarship, and worked as a summer associate for the firm. Uyar was awarded a summer public interest fellowship to work at the Heartland Alliance, and won the Student Bar Association’s 1L Leadership Award last spring.

No one knows exactly what President-elect Trump will do and how his actions might jeopardize the futures Villagomez, Uyar, and the hundreds of thousands like them have been building.  

“I’m not someone necessarily at risk of deportation,” said Uyar, who came to the United States on a visa originally and has an application for permanent resident status pending, likely due for approval sometime in 2018. But extreme uncertainty remains.

“I’m a 2L, I participated in [On-Campus Interviewing], and I received offers from firms. I accepted one and I’m very much looking forward to working at that firm next summer. Now, on January 20, if Donald Trump decides that he’s going to kill DACA, then I can’t work at my firm because I will no longer have a work permit; I will no longer have a legal status because it was an executive action and it can be taken away even quicker than it was implemented.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to return to school for 3L—I attend this school on private loans only. I don’t qualify for federal loans, so it’s fully dependent on my credit and I don’t know if I’ll have a valid social security number to apply for additional loans. If I am able to finish, I don’t know if I’ll be able to take the bar.”

Since the election, many elected officials and public figures have made statements in support of maintaining DACA. On Dec 7, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with President-Elect Trump and presented him with a letter signed by many big city mayors praising the program. Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro joined over 500 other university and college presidents across the country in a letter urging business, civic, religious and non-profit sectors to join them in supporting DACA and undocumented immigrant students. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin have said they will propose legislation protecting current DACA recipients if Trump does undo the policy, but it is unclear how the Republican-controlled Congress would receive this legislation. Trump has said post-election, “we're going to work something out” for DACA recipients, but declined to provide specifics. As of mid-December, his website still includes plans to reverse President Obama’s executive actions pertaining to immigration.

In the meantime, Villagomez and Uyar hope to increase awareness and support from the extended Northwestern Law community.

After the election, attorneys at the firm Villagomez worked for over the summer, including Northwestern Law alumni, reached out to her.

“I think in moments of crisis like this, it doesn’t really hit home until you can identify with the issue, until it is personal in some way. As for some of the attorneys I worked with, because I shared a working space with them, I sat side by side with them this felt personal.  They could put a face to “DACA, and were now aware of how it could impact my life in such a negative way.”

“I’ve met a lot of people in my life who really have no skin in the game when it comes to immigration, who are deeply troubled now because they know me,” Uyar said. “I don’t know if I’m just an optimist and believe in the good of human nature, but I believe much of the bigotry and xenophobia we talk about comes not from actually hating a group of people, but from the lack of exposure.”

“There’s nothing we can do to stop a memorandum coming from Donald Trump on January 20, killing DACA,” he continued. “All we can do is have people care about it and say, ‘Oh, there’s a fellow Northwestern Law student who may not be able to practice law after all that he’s done or she’s done to get to that point.’ Because they know hard it is to get here and to get through here—and hopefully I’ll find out how hard it is to be a lawyer. All we can really hope for is they’ll find some level of identification with us and understand the gravity of the circumstances that we face, and speak about it to other people and help us sway the public opinion.”

“If there’s one positive spin I could put on the results of the election and the possibility of my world turning upside down,” Villagomez said, “it’s to share my story with a community that I’m a part of. As Northwestern Law students and alumni, we share something really special. And if even one person reads this and changes their mindset about DACA or undocumented people in this country, then that’s a good thing.”