UNC President Spellings chats with students

(As published in the Washington Post on February 21, 2017)

I was 7 when my family moved to Texas. I didn’t have much say in the matter — my parents decided it would be the best place for me and my sisters to grow up, so we built our lives there.

I went to school, made friends, studied hard and earned admission to the University of Houston. I worked my way through college and began my career in Texas, a place that had long since become my home.

Those memories arise every time I meet students enrolled in the federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. These young people were brought to the United States as children, carried along through no decision of their own. They have grown up American — studying and learning in our public schools, celebrating our national holidays, becoming a part of our communities. They’ve made a lifetime of friends and memories here. This is the only home most of them can remember.

Under DACA, they came forward in good faith to live within the law, to get on the right side of immigration rules they never chose to break. DACA isn’t a permanent solution to our immigration debate. It doesn’t offer amnesty or a path to citizenship, only some certainty that the law-abiding young people it covers won’t be deported.

Last week, President Trump cast doubt on the future of DACA, refusing to offer assurance that the program will continue. New plans to beef up immigration enforcement, threats of more executive orders and reports of federal raids that have ensnared at least one DACA participant have created a climate of fear, shaking the good faith that brought these young people out of the shadows.

That has a profound impact not only on immigrant communities, but also on university campuses across the United States. Thousands of DACA students are working toward degrees, striving to become the teachers, nurses, business owners and good neighbors our country needs. They pay tuition without the help of state or federal financial aid and, depending on where they live, they often must pay much higher out-of-state tuition rates.

Now, with immigration policy thrown into disarray, these students are paralyzed, uncertain whether they can safely continue their studies. This month, I spoke with a young woman who was brought here at age 6. She earned her way into college, and she wants nothing more in the world than to finish her degree and go to work improving public health in her home state. The unsettling rhetoric emanating from Washington is making that goal tougher for her and thousands like her.

The lives and dreams of these students were never meant to be a political statement — they just want the chance to live honestly in the only home they’ve ever known. It’s a basic principle of law and good sense that we don’t hold children accountable for the actions of their parents. We shouldn’t violate that principle to punish blameless students.

Their stories deepen my pride in the United States and my awe at what this country represents. We have always welcomed the energy and ambition of those yearning to build and contribute, and that’s exactly what I see in these young people. Offering them the opportunity to keep learning and working, to become contributing adults with the ability to support their families and strengthen their communities, is good for them and good for our country.

My whole career, I’ve advocated for education as a civil right, the bedrock that underpins our promise that this is a land of opportunity for all. Keeping that promise has been the work of generations, and DACA students are now a part of that story.

These are our children, raised in our cities and towns and taught in our public schools. They share our hopes and dreams for a better America. Their faith in this country is a blessing, if we have the grace to accept it.

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