Editor’s Note: This opinionated piece does not suggest The Writer’s Bloc aligns with any specific cause – this is purely an independent contribution from a student activist. Additionally, an earlier photo of the UMD Palestine protest was used as a feature photo for this article. Recognizing this was inappropriate, The Bloc changed the photograph to reflect a proper feature. Our publication sincerely apologizes for the misrepresentation.
My name is Regina Mae Ledesma.
I’m a sophomore economics major with a double minor in Asian American studies and Black Women’s studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. And I’m undocumented.
As an undocumented student at this university, I am erased and excluded on a daily basis by the policies and procedures on this campus.
As an incoming freshman, I went to orientation. One form I was required to fill out was on health & immunizations. Since I am undocumented and don’t classify as either a permanent resident or U.S. citizen, I was classified as an international student.
Consequently, I was asked to get a series of vaccinations due to my status. This didn’t make sense to me. I hadn’t left the country since 2001, 15 years ago! Despite this fact, I was still required to get these vaccinations. This appalling UMD policy subjects undocumented students on campus to unnecessary vaccinations at the health center. It relays the message that undocumented students are second-class students, and is symbolic of the xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment on this campus.
People might think, “Why don’t you just say no? If you don’t need to get vaccinated, then you can explain your situation and people will understand.” However, it’s not as easy as that. Undocumented students face a lot of stigma, shame and anxiety surrounding their status. They are constantly bombarded with messages in the media about “illegal aliens jumping the border,” “families getting deported,” along with other messages.
These messages dehumanize undocumented immigrants and overly generalize all undocumented immigrant stories. I consumed these messages as a child and internalized many of them. I was taught to stay quiet about my status growing up for fear of deportation. I was taught to not resist authority for fear of revealing my status.
How was I supposed to say no, when I’ve been taught to live in fear and not resist my whole life? Keeping my mouth shut wasn’t a choice; it’s what society insisted that I do.
And this policy at the health center was a contributing factor to the shame and frustration I felt as an undocumented student on this campus.
UNIV100, an introductory class at this university, is supposed to educate students about the so called “diversity” and resources on campus. But UNIV100 didn’t relay any undocumented student resources. I was given a sheet of paper with all the resources this campus “offered,” and I had to make do with this limited information. The sheet also didn’t provide any information about undocumented student resources. As an undocumented freshman navigating this campus, I should have access to resources and an advisor who understands my situation-an undocumented student advisor, which the university lacks.
I have limited access to internships and fellowships as an undocumented student. I have a memorized routine: I scan the citizenship qualifications for any internship/fellowship application. Once my eyes focus on the statement “needs to be a permanent resident/U.S. citizen,” I immediately drop the application. Even if the program intrigues me or peaks my interest, reality sinks in, and I’m left face-to-face with a wall.
This frustrates and saddens me. Despite the time I spend focusing in lectures, the hours I invest learning the material, the skills I gain through leadership positions on and off campus, I automatically do not qualify for countless internships and fellowships. I’ve often felt like I wasn’t enough just because I didn’t have the phrase “U.S. Citizen/permanent resident” on my legal documents.
It’s even more frustrating when I think of my fellow undocumented friends and peers at this university who face the same issue in fields like computer science, engineering and business. My friends, who genuinely love learning, do not have access to these internships and fellowships. The University of Maryland fails to provide undocumented students with the internships and fellowships they qualify for. Undocumented students should not have to invest time in finding these opportunities when it’s the university’s role to find it for us.
I struggled with anxiety and depression my freshman year due to my undocumented status, so I decided to go to the counseling center. However, the counselors didn’t help. They didn’t know how to alleviate my worries surrounding my status. Rather, they urged me to find people who could listen.
The counselors barely had any knowledge of what it meant to be undocumented and how that interacted with the intersectionalities of my other identities (1.5 generation, low income, queer, Filipinx, womyn). It was frustrating because I wanted to get help, but I didn’t receive any. I left the counseling center feeling more frustrated and entrenched in my depression and anxiety.
Even though I was fortunate enough to receive a private scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, many of my undocumented peers at this university have to pay for their own tuition. Many of my friends who are undocumented have to juggle classes, homework, working two or three jobs and family commitments. This is stressful, and it’s difficult to prioritize academics when you’re too busy worrying about how you’re going to pay for it. There is a lack of funding opportunities for undocumented students here. Funding shouldn’t have to be about merit; it should be accessible to all undocumented students. Students shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for their education, their rent, their food and all these fees on top of their undocumented status.
Many of my undocumented peers work on campus. The Prince George’s county minimum wage is $9.55/hour, while this university still keeps the Maryland state minimum wage of $8.25/hour. Paying poverty wages to student workers here on campus is unjust. It’s even more unjust, considering these student workers are low income, undocumented students trying to pay for their tuition.
As an undocumented student, the two places I felt a sense of belonging and acceptance were at MICA (The Multicultural Involvement & Community Advocacy Office) and the Asian American Studies Program (AAST). MICA needs to be expanded, because there’s an increasing number of students needing its services.
The Asian American Studies program, where I learned issues that undocumented students face and how to speak up and resist, is not getting the financial support that it needs from the university. There are only two tenured professors, but really one, Janelle Wong, because the other is on leave. The other professors are adjunct faculty who barely get paid.
Logically, it makes sense for them to leave and accept a job that pays a sustainable sum of money. This, consequently, results in the decay of Asian American studies. As an undocumented student, Asian American Studies is one of the few spaces, one of the few classes, where I felt no shame in being undocumented. AAST is a space where I can think critically about the systems of power that create the stigma and shame of being undocumented.
When UMD doesn’t allocate significant funding to Asian American Studies, I am erased from this campus. When UMD doesn’t increase the AAST adjunct faculty salary, I am erased from this campus. When UMD’s Provost doesn’t hire another tenured professor for AAST, I am erased from this campus.
Through its lack of funding for AAST, UMD shows it’s lack of commitment at addressing the experiences and struggles of undocumented students on this campus, and especially Asian American and Pacific Islander undocumented students on this campus.
Last Wednesday, I went to the APAICS (Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies) Gala, where President Obama recognized the importance of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) by sharing my story in his keynote speech. While it was an amazing moment to have President Obama share the story of an undocumented Filipinx womyn, my awe at this moment was cut short when I saw President Loh’s tweet on May 10. I am appalled that President Loh had the audacity to tweet “.@POTUS recently told a #UMD student’s story of growing up undocumented & her journey to #highered success. Watch:”
I am appalled, because the University of Maryland has done barely anything to support the success of undocumented students on this campus.
I am shocked because President Loh thinks he can capitalize on my story by tweeting that I am a “#highered success” at UMD. As an undocumented student, I have consistently struggled, questioned my safety and sense of belonging because of exclusionary policies and President Loh’s apathy to sexist, racist fraternity emails that directly attack women of color on this campus.
As a womyn of color on this campus, I feel unsafe because of President Loh’s stances on these issues that face our campus community. I am writing this to call out President Loh, his administration, and the Provost with a list of demands:
- An undocumented student advisor, a full time staff position who works directly with undocumented students on campus
- Ethnic studies spaces (for AAST, USLT, indigenous studies), increase in pay for adjunct faculty, more tenured track ethnic studies faculty (for AAST, USLT, indigenous studies)
- Mandatory faculty/staff/administration training on undocumented student issues
- Increase minimum wage on campus from $8.25/hour to $9.25/hour
As an undocumented student, I refuse to be silenced despite policies that attempt to erase me from this campus. I am calling on President Loh, the administration, and the Provost with these demands if they really want to create an “inclusive” environment for undocumented students on this campus.
Follow the conversation at #Fight4UndocUMD on Twitter.
Featured Photo Credit: Regina Mae Ledesma speaks at the AAPI Immigration Briefing at the White House. Taken by Paul Chang, of White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI).
Regina Mae Ledesma is a sophomore economics major and an Asian American studies and Black Women’s studies double minor. Follow her on twitter @ReginaLedesma_.