Immigration Advocacy on the College Campus: Interview with UChicago Without Borders

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Members of UChicago Without Borders met with Exploring Race to discuss commitments to non-citizen community members and challenges to working within Student Government.

On May 10, 2021, the UChicago without Borders (UWB) campaign passed a resolution to reaffirm the University of Chicago’s commitment to non-citizen members of the campus community, whether that be students, staff, or other community members.

The new resolution acts upon a number of concerns regarding the treatment of non-citizen members of the University community: acknowledging the numerous challenges posed by the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations; the University’s commitment to DACA and undocumented campus community members under former University President Robert Zimmer’s leadership; and the University’s maintenance of relations with organizations hostile to non-citizen groups (e.g., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)) the UWB resolution provides a number of guidelines and next steps to help protect the rights of non-citizens on campus. From providing up-to-date information on immigration resources to non-citizen students, to advocating for a mandatory “Undocumented Student Allyship” training program for all university faculty, staff, supervisors, and administrators, to pushing for divestment from organizations like ICE, the resolution spans a wide range of actionable items to be enforced in the future.

After their resolution passed, some student advocates of UChicago Without Borders (UWB)—Sarah Kwon and Valentina Villarroel—and current fourth-year College Council Representative Naa Ashitey agreed to meet with Exploring Race for an interview to discuss their experiences in working with Student Government. Below is the content of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What were some of the main motivations behind this resolution?

Villarroel: Initially I [proposed] this resolution idea to UChicago Without Borders because I was doing some research for a video we released with Roy Guzmán where we were talking about their journey and what has changed since they were here. And [during that research process], I found that a bunch of resolutions on immigration were passed in 2017. Some of them had actually had an impact—the reason that the DACA working group [mentioned in the current resolution] started was because of [one of the 2017 resolutions].

UWB has not had great progress with the University administration—we met with portions of the DACA working group in the past, but [progress was slow]. I thought to myself, “Well [resolutions] seem to have worked in the past, so with a petition that had over a thousand signatures from both undergraduate and graduate students, we thought that [a resolution] might be a way to bring some of the [outcomes] we wanted to see into fruition.

Before this interview, I was reading through the resolution and found myself thinking, “Wait. UChicago wasn’t already doing that?” So, was there anything you found surprising or shocking during the resolution writing process?

Kwon: Yeah, definitely. I think the funding piece [of the resolution] [surprised and confused me the most]. I have a lot of DACAmented and undocumented friends, and none of them knew that funding was a [resource available to them]. I didn’t even know that funding was available. When we realized that funding was available to do things like renew your legal status, we [went to speak] to the administration members from the DACA working group, and they [confirmed to us that the funding was available].

Publicizing that information was when it started to get really messy. The administrators told us, “Oh, yeah, we have it, but we can’t publicize [that information]. We don’t want people to apply for it just for the funding,” which [confused us] because the point of having funding [is to let people use it]! It turned out that administrators wanted [potential applicants] to talk to them directly so that they could guide them through additional resources, so [administrators] didn’t want to publicize the fact that there were funds.

That was and still is really bizarre to me. As we’re trying to work through these sorts of issues, we put up social media posts to raise awareness about these resources, but we had to say, “There is funding available, so talk to the administration to [find out how you can access it]!” instead of being able to directly show people how to apply. I don’t understand why everything has to be so roundabout.

We also tried to ask questions about where the money for the funding comes from, and whether there’s a designated [budget] for it. Administrators were very shifty about this, saying that there was funding, but that it wasn’t coming from “any particular source” and that there’s “no limit on funds”. It was a very weird experience: trying not to alienate administrators—because we know they can help us!—but it was all very confusing.

Villarroel: I want to add onto that—the reasoning doesn’t even make sense. You could still clearly say, “We have funding for this thing you guys need, and we’d also like for you to connect with us directly so that we can offer you additional support.”

Yeah, publicizing the fact that funding is available and requesting that students speak with you directly aren’t mutually exclusive options.

Villarroel: And there were other things on the website that weren’t updated, but last time UWB met with administrators, they were doing an overhaul of the existing website. The existing website was also weird because the resources weren’t being advertised on the front page or in [relevant dropdown menus]. They were in the FAQ. Which, you know, I guess people will check the FAQ, but why isn’t this information easier to find?

I think administrators are working on that currently, though. I did hear about a testing group coming soon to figure out the problems with the website, though I’m not exactly sure when that’s happening.

Hopefully soon. Taking a step back from discussing administrators, could you elaborate on your experiences working with Student Government (SG) to pass this resolution?

Villarroel: My first meeting didn’t go too badly. I just went in, gave a presentation on the resolution, and explained why UWB needed Student Government’s support. The questions were fine, most people seemed supportive. There was one person who asked whether I believe in borders, which threw me off because what does that have to do with the resolution? But I thought it was going to be fine, because I thought it was just going to be that one person.

And then I [received a debrief on] another meeting, where I think they were planning on voting on our document—that meeting was when College Council began to use protocol [very strictly]. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but when other UWB members left the meeting, it was clear that the meeting [hadn’t gone well].

The other memory of working with SG that left an impression on me was the language that had to be used to write this resolution. If you had seen the first draft of this resolution and compared it to the one that passed, you would think that these were two entirely different resolutions. We were initially much more direct and did more calling out, which we’re more used to doing. Being told that we need to be more palatable and that we can’t upset too many things made the resolution feel watered down, but had we not done that, this resolution may not have passed.

Do you think that the language used in SG waters down your activism or controls the extent to which you can do anything?

Villarroel: Yeah, I think it does. It made us have to hide things that we knew to be true. [For example,] we said something like, “Virtually nothing has come out of any of the meetings we have had with administrators,” which was true—at that point, nothing really had happened. But we were told that that was too strong.

Ashitey: Going back to the question about SG, there were also communication problems between UWB and CC. In the February 9 meeting, there was supposed to be a vote on whether CC would become a signatory on the UWB resolution before it went into assembly. The night before, I got a message from a CC member about an amendments package. I had no clue what that was—I thought it was another term for an edits package. So I sent it over to Sarah, saying “Hey, here is an amendments package from CC,” thinking that it was just some simple edits. The reality was that an amendments package required a formalized vote, and I did not realize that—which is something that I take responsibility for.

Most of the edit suggestions were on wording rather than content, but because the edits were already made without the vote, the entire meeting became an argument about parliamentary procedure instead of discussing the contents of the bill. To have spent that entire meeting discussing procedure, it felt very disrespectful to the activists who had done all of the work to write the content in this bill that wouldn’t even end up being discussed.

Moving onto an unrelated topic, a tension that I often see, with advocacy and activism-led Resolutions in particular, is that there’s often a struggle to match material support to the words of support coming out of the University administration. The relevant example here would be the suggestion to divest from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to match the University’s words of support. I’d like to know how likely you believe it to be that the University does do this, and what sort of additional challenges you might see to be forthcoming.

Kwon: I don’t know. Personally, I don’t put that much weight on what the University says it will do. I feel like we’ve gone through so many obstacles of administrative deflecting, rerouting to different departments, and unresponsiveness that everything seems very procedural and lacking greater meaning. My experience with SG resolutions is limited, but from my understanding, the University doesn’t give that much weight to it’s undergraduates—though I think they do give more to its graduates.

I do know I’m being cynical about this, but I don’t know how much this resolution is going to do. I feel like the University administration needs to be under constant pressure for changes to come about, which I’m not sure that students will apply. There’s also a lot more DACAmented and undocumented students at UChicago than people think, but they still don’t comprise a large enough proportion of the student body to really make a difference. If they aren’t advocating for themselves—which is with good reason—and other people also don’t advocate for them, there’s no way to create and maintain the pressure necessary to force the administration to act.

Villarroel: It’s hard to say, because it’s not even like students haven’t been advocating for the University to divest from all sorts of oppressive institutions. The University has its money in all sorts of places it shouldn’t be. But I think we can’t stop pushing anyway, because if we want to get to a better world where we can have liberation for marginalized peoples, we need to keep pushing.

I personally immigrated here, and I lived in a community where people were applying for visas at the same time people were shopping for prom dresses. I’ve also worked with different organizations that help immigrants and ICE detainees, and one time I had a call with someone in an ICE detention center talking about their living conditions. I had no idea what to say to them; I was just transcribing our conversation. Throughout the pandemic, the living conditions have gotten worse, and then there’s the hysterectomies too! It’s apparent that ICE really terrorizes these communities, but I think the University doesn’t necessarily see it as relevant that they need to divest their funding. When your students are tied to an institution that terrorizes people like them, why wouldn’t you want to distance yourself from an institution like that?

I think part of the reason why the administration is so reluctant to do anything is because they’re tied up in a whole load of other messes, so if they divest from ICE, they have to do the same thing for every other problematic institution. That would set a precedent. But once we can get through on divestment from ICE, I think we would be able to do it again for more of these institutions. It is going to be hard, and it’ll take a long time—I probably won’t be at this University by the time it gets done, but I do think we can break that ground.

To end on a nicer note, what hopes do you have for student advocacy for non-citizen students in the upcoming years?

Villarroel: I think something that gives me hope is the communication between activist groups. I think this university thrives on making us tired because of our work, but the connections across activist groups on campus really helps to expand our network and distribute work more evenly.

In addition to that, there’s also been more of an intersectional perspective: I remember when we wrote the first draft of the resolution, we didn’t have any clauses on non-citizen sexual assault survivors, even though UWB was involved in sharing Zain Jamshaid’s story. When we sent out the resolution to other activist groups and got the feedback from Phoenix Survivors’ Alliance (PSA) about adding in Zain’s story, we were really happy to make those changes. And I think that just goes to show how a lot of these identities are connected and how people who occupy more than one marginalized identity face multiple problems on multiple fronts.

Kwon: I really do think that the University tries its best to segment us, but as we talk to all of these other groups, we’re learning that all of these problems are connected. I feel like when the University is approached about some of these topics, they deflect with, “We’re just trying to focus on our students.” But it’s not possible to do activism with that individual framework, especially when students have backgrounds that are inherently tied to multiple different struggles. It all needs to be group and community-oriented.

Learn more about UChicago Without Borders’ mission on their Facebook and Instagram pages.

EDIT (June 17, 2021): A former version of this article incorrectly stated that Villarroel was present at two Student Government meetings. She was present at the first meeting, and received a debrief on the second. The article has been updated to reflect this information.