William Pérez
Photo by Jessica Tran

Several students from different backgrounds voiced their hopes for the creation of a better on-campus support system for the approximately 150 undocumented students at UC Santa Cruz.

On Nov. 5 in the Charles E. Lounge at Merrill College, William Pérez, associate professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, gave a presentation on the emotional health of undocumented college students in the United States. It was followed by a dialogue that included administrators, counselors and faculty members.

The lecture was hosted by Students Informing Now (SIN), a group that works in conjunction with El Centro: Chicano and Latino Resource Center at UCSC. Carmen Macias, an undocumented student from College Ten, was one of the seven core members from SIN who helped coordinate the event. She explained what the group does.

“SIN is a support group that provides information and resources for students,” Macias said. “The group uses narrative and stories to build a collective community around immigrant rights. We work to imagine a different world and we believe that another world is possible.”

Like Macias, Jared Moreno — another core member of SIN — wanted this lecture to take place to bring awareness to the difficulties of being an undocumented student.

“[The emotional health of undocumented students] is an issue that SIN has been concerned about for quite a while, especially when we started hearing about the large number of suicide rates within the undocumented community,” Moreno said. “We also wanted to connect the ideas of activism to mental health, as a process of healing.”

Pérez, who was born in El Salvador and came to the United States when he was 10, said the main emotional issues that an undocumented college student might suffer from are loneliness, depression, shame and fear of deportation.

From his research, Pérez estimates that there are currently about 3.2 million undocumented students ages 24 and below in the United States. One-fourth of undocumented students aged 18–24 have either earned a college degree or have had some kind of college experience, while one half do not have high school diplomas.

Pérez said the lives of undocumented college students can be a struggle because of the dichotomy that society imposes on them.

“On the one hand they are seen as ‘illegal aliens’ but at the same time they are rewarded for their educational accomplishments,” Pérez said. “It is difficult for them to reconcile this conflicting societal message and it adds to their feelings of loneliness and isolation because they are not sure how others really view them.”

He said by the time students without documentation arrive at college, they have already faced social, academic and financial challenges aggravated by prejudice and fear toward them in their local schools and communities. These challenges add to their potential for emotional instability in college.

“All [types of] students need to be supported in college, but we also need to know how to effectively support them,” Pérez said. “Being an undocumented student leads many young people to feel embarrassed or ashamed.”

Pérez said this shame begins at the high school level. Most of the primary school children in the United States who are undocumented do not begin to think of themselves in this way until about the tenth or eleventh grade.

“They don’t have anyone that they can turn to for emotional relief,” Pérez said. “That is why it is so important for undocumented students, especially in college, to have institutional agents who can help them.”

As a member of SIN, Macias said she remains hopeful about the collective future of undocumented college students at UCSC and across the nation.

“Because of the recent passage of the California Dream Act and valuable resources like SIN, El Centro, EOP and Student Affairs, I do believe that undocumented students at UCSC have a realistic chance of succeeding academically,” Macias said.

However, she said there are some fears that she has not yet been able to overcome.

“The lingering thought of being undocumented is always in the back of our minds, and some days the stress of being undocumented might be more present than other days,” Macias said.

Pérez said polarized classroom environments in his studies increase the stress of students without documentation like Macias.

“We need to know … the proper terminology [because] undocumented students feel most comfortable when there is a broad range of support for them from the administration, faculty, clubs and student affairs,” Pérez said.

Pérez called upon students and administrators to work together to create a community of long-lasting emotional support for the undocumented.

“Institutions need to get creative in providing resources for undocumented students at college campuses,” Pérez said. “We should be preventing their symptoms from arising, not just treating them.”