In 2012, when Oscar Ivan Santoyo Apolonio heard that President Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he was hopeful—but nervous.
Apolonio, then a high school student, was undocumented; he came to the Triangle with his parents when he was four years old from Michoacán, Mexico. He knew that DACA, which grants temporary work permits and a deportation reprieve to undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors, could change his future.
"Initially, when I was in high school, I was not even thinking about going to college, not even applying for it," he says. "But when Obama signed that executive order, that gave me hope that I could have a different life."
But Apolonio also knew that the program could be reversed under a new president. Still, he applied for DACA in 2012 and was approved the following year. He received a driver's license and Social Security number, was admitted to N.C. State, and scored a research assistant internship. In just a few years, Apolonio went from vaguely considering college to becoming a civil engineering major with a plum research gig.
Now Apolonio, twenty-one, thinks about the program's fate relentlessly. When he's in class. When he's at his internship. When's he's studying at home. "It's a constant thought in my head," he says.
He has reason to be concerned. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump pledged to get rid of DACA. But at a press conference last week, he promised to approach the DACA participants, or Dreamers, "with great heart." Later that evening, however, the Los Angeles Times reported that the administration might quietly ax the program's protections. If that happens, it could throw the futures of some 750,000 DACA recipients into chaos. In North Carolina alone, the program serves some fifty thousand recipients, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Which raises the question: What can local universities do to help DACA student-recipients if the program is repealed or eroded into oblivion?
The answers so far have been underwhelming.
The UNC system didn't respond to the INDY's requests for comment. But for months, some faculty and students have been pressing the system to establish itself as a "sanctuary campus," by refusing to comply with government efforts to deport undocumented students. A November petition signed by thousands of UNC-Chapel Hill students, alumni, and faculty called on the university to protect undocumented students. UNC leadership responded with an affirmation that "the values that this great university upholds have not changed" since Election Day. That affirmation failed to address the petitioners' requests.
Kennith Echeverria, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, says he found the university's response "completely disappointing and irritating."
"As a native of North Carolina, son of immigrant parents, and current UNC student, I really wish that there was more being done," he says. "I really had hoped that the university administration would have done something by now, but they're silent on this issue while we're seeing many other universities speaking out. And really I think that the top administrators are just really afraid to make the stance."
As Echeverria points out, university leaders elsewhere have been less tepid. On February 2, a group of forty-eight U.S. university presidents and chancellors sent a letter to Trump following his executive order in which he temporarily forbade entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspended refugee resettlements. Ariana E. Vigil, an associate professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies and affiliate of the Latina/o Studies program, told the INDY she would have liked to have seen the same kind of "moral leadership" shown by UNC.
"I would like to see the administration take some concrete steps," she says. "Other universities have declared themselves sanctuary universities. It would be nice to have the university offer concrete and free legal support to students who may be impacted."
While Duke University administrators have voiced support for Dreamers, President Richard Brodhead has also said the term sanctuary campus "has no basis in law." In December—and after the Duke Student Government passed a resolution urging the administration to make Duke a sanctuary campus that withheld students' information from immigration officials without a subpoena and required immigration officials to get a warrant before entering school property—Brodhead sent a message to the student body noting that he'd signed a letter in support of DACA students but saying that "no university in America can declare itself immune from the rule of law."
As the Duke Chronicle has noted, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants (though they don't use the term sanctuary campus). That gets a little trickier in North Carolina, where a state law passed in 2015 forbids cities like Raleigh or Durham from becoming sanctuaries either—and, in fact, a bill introduced earlier this month would seek to withhold tax revenue from any that try.
"I think that we are entering a period where we are going to be called upon to make some really difficult decisions about what we are willing to do to protect people and to help people who are facing these really dangerous potential outcomes from the Trump administration," says Durham city council member Jillian Johnson. "I don't know how much our institutions can help. I don't know how much the city can really do."
When the time comes, Apolonio says, he wants the UNC system to have his back. He hasn't heard anything from his school's administrators yet, but he hopes they'll "do everything they can" so that he can complete his studies.
"Being a DACA student at this moment is scary because you don't know what's going to happen in the future, and it just sucks to be in a situation like this," he says. "So much of my life depends on DACA. So if it was to be taken away from me, it would be more difficult than it already is. It would just be like, so many dreams crushed."