CLAREMONT, Calif. – Aldair Arriola sits at the front row of his government class, listening intently to the professor and taking notes on his laptop. A senior at Pomona College with light stubble and a head of perfectly coiffed hair, his slightly downturned deep-set brown eyes and warm smile give him a kind and approachable look.

On one hand, Arriola is a stellar student. A fourth-year international relations major at Pomona College, a top liberal arts college in Southern California, he works as a senior interviewer for the Office of Admissions and is active in a number of volunteer organizations. He hopes to get involved in government work after graduation.

On the other hand, he is also an undocumented student with an uncertain future.

Arriola is one of some 60 undocumented students currently attending Pomona, a population disproportionately large considering Pomona’s size of some 1,600 students.

“There’s a pretty sizable population [of undocumented students] compared to the other schools nearby,” Arriola said. He is “comfortable and thankful” for a community of students facing the same issues to whom to talk.

Nationally, Arriola is one  of 750,000 immigrants studying and working in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,  an executive order signed by President Barack Obama which grants renewable, two-year work residency and work permits to immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.

Following a presidential campaign cycle fueled by xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, undocumented students are understandably worried about the future for themselves and their families in the United States.

“An issue that’s always in my mind is whether DACA will be taken off by President Trump,” said Arriola.

For the undocumented population, these fears were substantiated when Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly signed sweeping new guidelines that empower federal authorities to be more aggressive in detaining and deporting immigrants inside the U.S. and at the border.

Although Trump has vowed to keep DACA intact, alarm grew this month after federal agents in Seattle arrested 23-year-old DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez Medina for alleged gang ties. Medina remains in federal custody, although his attorneys deny any gang affiliation and are suing for his release, according to the Washington Post.

“I’m not really buying that story,” said Arriola, referring to Medina’s arrest. “They should have found that when they did the initial screening of him, specifically when he applied for the program two times.”

In order to receive DACA protection, undocumented students must submit themselves to a comprehensive background check by the government.

“It’s a little scary for any undocumented immigrant to give the government so much information,” said Arriola. “You’re offering them ‘here’s where I live, this is who I am, this is what I’ve done in this country.’”

Part of the reason that undocumented students like Arriola can attend Pomona is due to Pomona’s admissions policies. According to the Pomona College admissions website, the college reviews applications from undocumented and DACAmented students who graduate from a U.S. high school by the same criteria as domestic students.

 “Pomona’s admissions and financial aid policies of need-blind admissions and meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need for undocumented students is longstanding and predates DACA, supporting Pomona College’s goals of attracting a most intellectually capable and talented student body, regardless of citizenship,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Seth Allen wrote in an email to TSL.

Once admitted to the College, Pomona works to provide support and guidance for undocumented students through various programs and grants.

 Likewise, at neighboring Claremont McKenna College, undocumented and DACA students are treated as domestic students in the admissions process, and are eligible financial aid and merit-based scholarships due to the California DREAM Act.

At Scripps and Harvey Mudd Colleges, undocumented students are considered international students for the purposes of financial aid. Admissions for international students is not need-blind, meaning that students who need financial aid are less likely to be admitted.

Pitzer College declined to disclose specific admissions statistics, but its website says it awards one need-based scholarship to an undocumented California high school graduate each year.

“Being in DACA does give me some privileges that other undocumented immigrants don’t have,” Arriola said.

However, he is mostly worried about his family members who don’t have DACA. Because of the nature of DACA, which benefits only a specific group within the larger undocumented population, Aldair is a strong advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

“I’m not here in this country by myself, there are also other people who I care about who don’t qualify for this document,” said Arriola. “It benefits only a very particular group within the undocumented group. What happens to the rest (of the) 10 million or 11 million? I wouldn’t want to stay here if my family members were deported.”

(Written by Annie Wan; March 6, 2017)

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