Listen: Shadow Class: College Dreamers

The APM Reports documentary “Shadow Class: College Dreamers in Trump's America” looks at the rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allows some individuals with unlawful presence in the United States after being brought to the country as children to receive a deferred action from deportation and become eligible for an employment in the U.S.

APM Reports began interviewing college students with DACA before the presidential election, and then followed them through spring semester, talking with them periodically as the Trump administration gave mixed signals about Dreamers. A history of how DACA came to be is also highlighted.

This audio is second of two-part report.

Click link below for other report:

part 2:


2017 The Education Writers Association’s Eddie Prize Award, Podcast category


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STEPHEN SMITH: From American Public Media, this is an APM Reports documentary. Shadow Class, College Dreamers in Trump's America. I'm Stephen Smith.

CROWD: Immigrants are here to say no justice, no peace.

STEPHEN SMITH: Denver high school students walked out of their classes after the Trump administration announced it would end a program that gives some undocumented young people temporary permission to stay in the United States. It was one of many protests around the country after Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered the news.

JEFF SESSIONS: Good morning. I'm here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded.

STEPHEN SMITH: DACA is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It let young people brought to this country as children apply for temporary protection from deportation so they could work or serve in the military or go to college. President Trump's plan means that if Congress does not act, nearly 800,000 young people will lose that protection and they could be deported. Even before Trump's decision, even while they had DACA, it's been hard for undocumented young people to go to college.

Producer Sasha Aslanian has been following the lives of some of these undocumented college students since before Trump's election. That's how she found herself in a car last winter with Valentina Garcia Gonzalez.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: I'm turning left, right?

SASHA ASLANIAN: Valentina is driving her family's minivan in suburban Atlanta. She's 20 years old. Donald Trump has been in office less than a month.


SASHA ASLANIAN: Valentina thinks there's a squad car behind her. Her mom and teenage brother spin their heads to look. Valentina glances back to get a better look at the car.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: They have a thing on top of their thing?


SASHA ASLANIAN: The other car gains on her then passes. Valentina realizes what she thought was a bar of police lights across the top is only a roof rack, and she curses.


VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: Sorry. Don't carry those things. We have people that are scared.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Nobody likes having a cop car behind them, but for Valentina's family, the stakes are higher. Every time they're in the car, they're on the lookout for police. Will this be the day they're caught and deported, never returning to the tidy house they rent in a conservative suburb of Atlanta?

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: I tell my mom, like, I clench my butt so hard and I get, like, cold sweats and, like, I start shaking because it's this fear that I've been conditioned to feel ever since I've stepped foot in this country.


SASHA ASLANIAN: Valentina's parents brought her here from Uruguay when she was a little girl so she could have a better future. And that meant getting an education. She excelled in school. And now there's a bumper sticker on the family's van that says Dartmouth College. That's the Ivy League school that Valentina attends. Most undocumented young people don't get to elite colleges. Only about 10% go on to higher education at all, and then it's mostly community colleges.

DACA has improved their odds by letting them work to pay tuition and offering some protection from the threat of deportation. But DACA status was always temporary. They had to reapply every two years. It never offered a guarantee that they'd be able to stay and finish their degrees or work in the professions they'd trained for. A lot of undocumented students told me over the past year or so they felt less confident they'll be able to stay.


DONALD TRUMP: Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise, we don't have a country.

SASHA ASLANIAN: As a candidate, Donald Trump promised tough enforcement of the nation's immigration laws. After he won, Valentina her family felt their nagging daily fear grow even more acute. But in response, Valentina did something her parents would never have done.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: The whole week after the election results, I wore my "I Am An Immigrant" shirt, proudly. There's this quote that I hold really dear. It's, "I am my ancestors' wildest dreams." And no Trump is going to take that away from me. I am no less because he's president now.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Valentina is part of a new generation of undocumented immigrants. They've come up through the US schools, they speak English, and they're willing to take risks that their parents would not have dared to take. During her senior year of high school, Valentina started going to protests to demand rights for undocumented people. Her mother asked her not to.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: I don't want you to put your name out there because you're risking everything. You're risking not just you. You're risking our family. And for me, my response to that was, like, if not me, then who? Who's going to fight for us? Who's going to fight for me? If I don't do it, then who? I told them, like, you can be comfortable in the shadows, but I don't want to be in the shadows.

SASHA ASLANIAN: In fact, Valentina has become a poster child for undocumented young people, literally. Here's Senator Dick Durbin talking about her on the Senate floor a few weeks after Trump's election.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Valentina was six years old when her family brought her to the United States from Uruguay in South America.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Durbin held up a poster board with a large photo of Valentina. In the picture, she smiles confidently. Her long brown hair curls past her shoulders. A small nose ring and earrings give her a youthful flair.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: In middle school, she received the President's Education Award, not once, but twice, once from President Bush and then again from President Obama. SASHA ASLANIAN: has been pushing for immigration reform for years. He first sponsored the DREAM Act in 2001. It would have given young people who came to the country as children a chance to earn citizenship by attending college or serving in the military. The DREAM Act failed in 2010 but Durbin is still pushing the idea. He says the hard work of students like Valentina ought to pay off.


Polls show most Americans agree with Durbin, young people like Valentina should stay. Even many Trump supporters are sympathetic to these young people who have become known as dreamers. But some of Trump's most vocal backers were attracted by his hard hardline stance on immigration. Trump voter Ruthie Hendricks says if people like Valentina want to go to college, they can do it in their own countries.

RUTHIE HENDRICKS: You mean to tell me that this valedictorian is just going to excel in the United States and we dare can't ask that our laws be enforced, but meanwhile, some other American can just find out that they weren't accepted because [CLICKS TONGUE] there's not a seat available?

SASHA ASLANIAN: Trump did not do what Hendricks hoped he would and end DACA as soon as he took office. As the months passed, students like Valentina began to wonder if they were safe. Trump said dreamers should rest easy and then he said an announcement about DACA was coming. That morning, Valentina was back on campus, helping first year students move into their dorm rooms. She locked her phone in her boss's office so she wouldn't see the news alerts while she helped students unpack their new sheets and mini fridges.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: Yeah, I was thinking about that while I was moving people in today, just kind of thinking, like, it must be so nice, you know, to not worry about where you're going to be in a year.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Later, when she got off work, she learned what had happened to DACA. The program will wind down. No new applications. Young people who already have DACA can keep it until it expires. But unless Congress acts, when their two years are up, none of them will be protected anymore.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: I feel like I'm my butt taking 14 AP classes, being top of my class, being the model, quote unquote, "citizen" that this country wants from me, forgetting my own language, assimilating as much as I possibly can. For what?

SASHA ASLANIAN: Valentina's got two years left until she graduates. Her DACA will run out before then. With it will go side jobs, the ability to board an airplane, and her Georgia driver's license.

VALENTINA GARCIA GONZALEZ: Like, my family might not come to my graduation because my plan was that I was going to drive them up here because I'm the only one that has a license. So I don't even know if my family is going to be able to witness me graduating from Dartmouth and, yeah, I just realized that now.


STEPHEN SMITH: Around the country, business leaders, activists, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling for the federal government to do something to find a way to allow the hundreds of thousands of young people who've been covered under DACA to stay here. Universities issued statements condemning the rollback of DACA. How those colleges came to be admitting undocumented high school graduates in the first place is a story that illustrates America's conflicting policies on undocumented immigrants.

Under the law, most of them shouldn't be in the country at all, but they can't legally be barred from US public schools either. By law, K-12 schools must admit students, regardless of their immigration status. That's because of a Supreme Court case from a town in Texas. 40 years ago, a handful of undocumented immigrants risked deportation to keep their children in public school in Tyler, Texas. Producer Catherine Winter has that part of our story.


CATHERINE WINTER: Sonia Limas claps to get her kindergarten class's attention at Douglas Elementary in Tyler, Texas. The kids clap back and Mrs. Limas asks them to come sit on a rug at the front of the room.

SONIA LIMAS: Go to the carpet, please. Everybody sit on the carpet. [SPANISH]

CATHERINE WINTER: It's a bilingual class. It's Texas Public Schools Week and the kids are learning about school.

SONIA LIMAS: What do you learn about the public schools in Texas?

STUDENT: That we don't have to pay.

SONIA LIMAS: We don't have to pay. We have free education. [SPANISH]

That's why we need to come every day.

CATHERINE WINTER: The kids learned that public education is free, but that hasn't always been true here. Back in 1975, Texas passed a law saying the state wouldn't pay for undocumented kids to go to school. Tyler isn't near the border. It's in Northeast Texas about an hour and a half from Dallas. The school district only had a handful of undocumented children back in the '70s, and at first, it let them stay. But just after the school year started in 1977, it started sending kids home from school if they didn't have US birth certificates.

LAURA ALVAREZ REYNA: I know my parents came and picked us up, but we didn't know why because those things were not discussed with us kids.

CATHERINE WINTER: That's Laura Alvarez Reyna. She had just started third grade in Tyler when, suddenly, she couldn't go to school anymore.

ALFREDO LOPEZ: All I can remember is that we were sitting home one day and they said we couldn't come back to school.

CATHERINE WINTER: Alfredo Lopez remembers that day too. His parents had come to Tyler from Mexico to work tending roses. Tyler is famous for its roses. There's a Rose Parade every year and a tea. Wealthy families can sponsor their daughters to be rose queen. But for Alfredo Lopez's family, the roses just meant hard work.


CATHERINE WINTER: Alfredo's mother Lydia Lopez says it was better than no work, which was what the family had in Mexico. But tending roses didn't pay much and the Tyler School said her kids couldn't come back, unless they paid tuition, $1,000 a year for each kid. The family couldn't afford it.


CATHERINE WINTER: Lydia Lopez says one day when the kids were playing in the yard, a man named Michael McAndrew came by the house. Mike McAndrew is retired now, but back then, he was a Catholic social worker who worked with immigrants in Tyler. He was appalled when the school district expelled the children.

MICHAEL MCANDREW: I just found it completely and totally out of the ordinary that you'd take a child and keep them from going to school. It just didn't make sense to me.

CATHERINE WINTER: Mike McAndrew went looking for the families whose kids couldn't go to school. He told them they could fight the expulsions.

MICHAEL MCANDREW: They were afraid to even be involved. They thought they were going to be deported.

CATHERINE WINTER: Lydia Lopez remembers telling him, we can't fight. We don't have papers. But Mike McAndrew said they could.

MICHAEL MCANDREW: So then I went looking for a lawyer.

LARRY DAVES: My name is Larry Daves and I'm an attorney practicing now down in Trinidad, Colorado.

CATHERINE WINTER: Larry Daves was in Texas back then and he took the case for the Lopez's, the Alvarez's, and two other families.

LARRY DAVES: All they wanted to do was get an education, you know? And that's all they wanted. I don't think they had in mind trying to change the world or anything. All they wanted to do was to get a basic education so they would have a fair chance in life.

CATHERINE WINTER: But he warned his clients that this would be hard and risky.

LARRY DAVES: Every client I've ever had, particularly in a civil rights case, I've tried to dissuade them from doing the case. You have to have just an extraordinary will to actually want to go in there and take on the system and expose yourself to everything you're exposed to in litigation. And of course, in this situation, on top of that, this worry about being deported.

CATHERINE WINTER: Daves told his clients that the judge in the case couldn't protect them from immigration agents. But the judge did agree to let them proceed anonymously using pseudonyms and he tried to shield them from public attention.

LAURA ALVAREZ REYNA: Then one day, it was very early because it was still dark. The sun hadn't come up yet.

CATHERINE WINTER: This is Laura Reyna again.

LAURA ALVAREZ REYNA: And we went to the court.

MICHAEL MCANDREW: They worked it out that we would go very, very early in the morning and in the back door of the courthouse so nobody even knew what was going on.

CATHERINE WINTER: Mike McAndrew met the families at the courthouse. The Lopez's arrived in a car packed full of their most valuable stuff, including their black and white TV.


CATHERINE WINTER: They were afraid there would be immigration agents waiting for them and they'd be sent back across the border. But no one stopped them as they went into the courtroom.

LAURA ALVAREZ REYNA: I remember sitting in there, but we didn't know enough English to know what's going on. But we just sat in there with the adults.

LARRY DAVES: These were kindergarten and first grade age kids. And they were just the most well-behaved kids I had ever seen.

CATHERINE WINTER: Larry Daves remembers seeing the kids lined up on the courtroom bench.

LARRY DAVES: They were just so quiet. They were just so sweet and adorable.

CATHERINE WINTER: The judge issued an injunction and sent the children back to school. But then the real legal battle started. There was a trial and appeals. The case went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. It was big news.

REPORTER 1: There are an estimated 11,000 children who are in Texas illegally, illegal aliens. Texas claims if it has to pay for their education, there won't be enough money to go around for other students, and ultimately, the quality of education throughout Texas will be diluted.

CATHERINE WINTER: Lawyers for the kids said they were as entitled to an education as any other Texas resident. Their parents paid property taxes and sales taxes that supported the schools. But the state said the children were a burden on schools, especially in border cities that had seen big increases in the number of undocumented kids. In arguments before the Supreme Court, Texas Assistant Attorney General Richard Arnett said the schools were drawing immigrants to Texas.

RICHARD ARNETT: We would like to reduce the incentive for illegal immigration, particularly of families and of school age children.

CATHERINE WINTER: Advocates for the families said immigrants were coming for work, not school. Usually, immigrants with children left those children behind when they crossed the border. The lawyers for the family said the children who did cross the border were entitled to equal protection of the law once they were here. That's a right guaranteed to any person within a state's jurisdiction in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Lawyers for the state said any person didn't include people in the country illegally.

Some of the justices had trouble with that idea. During the oral arguments, they asked whether that logic meant the state could deny undocumented immigrants other rights and benefits. Could the state deny immigrants police protection or garbage collection? Here's Justice Thurgood Marshall questioning school district lawyer John Hardy.

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL: Could Texas deny them fire protection?

JOHN HARDY: Deny them fire protection?


JOHN HARDY: OK. If their home is-- if their home is on fire, their home is going to be protected with the local fire services.

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL: But could Texas pass a law and say they cannot be protected?

JOHN HARDY: I don't believe so.

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL: Why not? If they can do this, why couldn't they do that?

JOHN HARDY: Because I'm going to take the position that that's an entitlement of the-- Justice Marshall, let me think a second. You've, uh-- that's a-- I don't know. That's a tough question.

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL: Somebody's house is more important than his child.

CATHERINE WINTER: This seems to be a key thing that swayed the court, that the case was about children, children who had not chosen to come here.

REPORTER 2: In a decision that will have a major impact on the state budgets of, at least, Texas, California and Florida, the Supreme Court ruled today that illegal aliens are entitled to free public education.

CATHERINE WINTER: In 1982, the justices ruled for the families 5 to 4.

REPORTER 3: Justice William Brennan said the children were innocent parties brought here illegally by others and likely to stay. He said the state law would save little financially while infecting the nation with a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries.

CATHERINE WINTER: Justice Brennan said, failing to educate the children would lead to higher state costs in the long run from unemployment and welfare and crime. Even the four dissenting justices thought the Texas law was a bad idea, but they thought it wasn't the place of the court to intervene. The case is called Plyler v Doe. James Plyler was the head of the Tyler schools at the time. He died in 2016. But back in 2007 when he was 82 years old, he told Education Week that he was actually glad the district lost the case.

JAMES PLYLER: I'm an educator and I knew those youngsters need an education. And I'm glad that we could receive them into school district and be reimbursed from the state and then they were getting an education. And that's what we were in business for.


CATHERINE WINTER: In the years since the Plyler decision, there have been attempts to challenge the rights of undocumented children to go to school, but they've failed so far. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which would have barred undocumented people from receiving a lot of state services, including public education. The courts blocked the measure. But during the debate about it, reporters in California got interested in the Plyler case and got in touch with some of the families in Texas.

ALFREDO LOPEZ: We were contacted by LA Times and that's the first time that I knew that the case had actually made it to the Supreme Court.

CATHERINE WINTER: That's Alfredo Lopez, Lydia Lopez's son. He was one of those kids who looked so cute on the bench in the courtroom 40 years ago. Alfredo Lopez says after that hearing, he and his siblings went back to school and they didn't think any more about it. He didn't know anything about the Supreme Court decision. He didn't know his family had won the right for undocumented children all over the country to attend public schools for free.

ALFREDO LOPEZ: I guess it was something that my parents and-- I don't know-- the other three families-- what they did, I guess, ended up being pretty important. So I guess for that, we are thankful.

CATHERINE WINTER: Some of the other family members say the same thing. They had no idea how important the case was until later. Laura Reyna says after she finished high school, a Spanish language TV station got hold of her to ask about the case. And that was the first time she realized what her mom and dad had done.

LAURA ALVAREZ REYNA: It was just such a gift to me, it was. It was the best gift anyone had ever given me because I wouldn't be who I am today without that education.

CATHERINE WINTER: Laura Reyna is a US citizen now, so is Alfredo Lopez, and so is his mom Lydia Lopez. It's what Justice Brennan predicted in his opinion that undocumented immigrants would probably stay here and possibly become citizens. And so it didn't make sense to leave them uneducated. Lydia Lopez says the family was just fighting for their kids' education. They had no idea their case would have such far reaching consequences.


CATHERINE WINTER: But she says the young people who can go to school now should study hard and take advantage of the opportunities her family helped to win.


STEPHEN SMITH: That's producer Catherine Winter. The Lopez's and Alvarez's were able to become citizens because of a law signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986 that allowed nearly 3 million unauthorized immigrants to fix their status. It's much harder now. The families in Tyler won the right for children to go to school but not for them to go on to become citizens and not for them to go on to college. The Plyler case has never been extended beyond 12th grade. Unlike K-12 schools, colleges don't have to admit undocumented students or offer them the same tuition rates as citizens.

But the case created a new generation of immigrants who know America from the inside, who speak English, and who want the same shot at the American dream that their classmates have. The case set in motion the movement that we see today, young, undocumented, immigrants pushing for the right to live and work in the United States and to go to college. Coming up, the rise of the dreamer movement and the backlash against it.

LAURA ALVAREZ REYNA: I knew I was going to be graduating and I didn't want my degree to be completely worthless.

RUTHIE HENDRICKS: They shouldn't be in the country to begin with, much less in our colleges competing with our American students.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is Shadow Class, College Dreamers in Trump's America, a documentary from APM Reports. I'm Stephen Smith. We have more about this story on our website and you can explore our archive of education documentaries and podcasts. And speaking of podcasts, how about subscribing to Educate? That's our podcast about K-12 and higher education. And you can hear all of our most recent education documentaries on the podcast and can keep up on education throughout the year with a new episode every two weeks.

Subscribe at Support for APM reports comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. We'll have more in a moment. This is APM, American Public Media.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

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