Maria Alcantara paid more than $600 for the privilege of discovering she didn’t qualify for DACA.
In July of 2014, the second-year legal studies and Latin American and Latino studies student at UC Santa Cruz applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA – President Barack Obama’s executive action protecting some young undocumented immigrants from being deported.
At first she was hesitant. It would cost $465 dollars to apply, a large sum of money for her family, and she wasn’t even sure she qualified. Alcantara had arrived to the United States in 2009; in order to qualify for DACA, one must have arrived in 2007.
Maria Alcantara paid more than $600 for the privilege of discovering she didn’t qualify for DACA.
Still, at the behest of her father, Alcantara and her family sought out a legal adviser who had been recommended to them. The consultant assured the family that Alcantara, in fact, was eligible. After Alcantara paid $150, the consultant assisted her in filling out an application and continued to run through the motions, as if this was just another case.
Then, suddenly, silence. Half a year passed, and in January 2015 Alcantara received the news in a letter from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services: Her application had been rejected. Confused, she went to UC Santa Cruz’s student legal services center, which put her in contact with a volunteer lawyer who confirmed the worst: Because she had arrived in 2009, she was ineligible for DACA.
It was something any half-decent immigration lawyer could’ve told her at a consultation. Instead, her family was now out $600 and months of their time. Not only that, but they had been robbed of an even more important currency: hope.
“I did feel betrayed (by the legal consultant),” Alcantara said. “She gave me the hope that I would be able to get DACA if I did things right.”
Stories like Alcantara’s are common for undocumented immigrants seeking legal help in the United States. For undocumented individuals, it’s difficult to seek and receive quality legal care because of the inherent risks involved; it can be daunting to out one’s undocumented status to a complete stranger when many times it’s difficult to express it to even the closest of friends.
“I did feel betrayed (by the legal consultant). She gave me the hope that I would be able to get DACA if I did things right.” Maria Alcantara
That leaves individuals with few options. Many times, the lawyers are unprepared, or worse, predatory – taking money from people they know have no legal recourse.
Which is why programs like the UC Undocumented Legal Services Center based at the UC Davis School of Law, established back in 2014 a year after UC President Janet Napolitano allocated $5 million to aid undocumented students, are so important. The clinic has professional lawyers and law students on hand who can assist undocumented students with nearly everything they could need legally, from help filling out DACA forms to assistance in representing their family in court. And the lawyers aren’t just reserved for UC Davis; they also spend their time commuting between all the UC campuses that don’t have a law school, a roster comprised of San Francisco, San Diego, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Merced and Santa Cruz.
But this has left an imbalance, and some students have more access to resources than others. In order to ensure that undocumented students are properly represented and supported, the UC Office of the President must take subsequent steps to establish a greater network of legal clinics that more thoroughly covers the entire system. This includes staffing an immigration lawyer who is at least within commuting distance of each campus, is easily accessible to students and can represent them in any legal setting.
The most effective way to accomplish this would be to adopt the UC Davis model and apply it broadly across the other campuses.
Those UC campuses with law schools – Los Angeles, Irvine, Berkeley and Davis – can establish a lending system that allows each of them to hire a full-time immigration attorney who can split time between the geographically close UCs. For UC Berkeley, which has a partnership with a law firm to provide such services already, this proposal would just require hiring additional staff.
For example, an attorney employed at UCLA would spend the first half of the week on campus in Westwood, and the other half in Santa Barbara or Riverside. UC Irvine could create a split week with San Diego, and UC Berkeley could work with Santa Cruz and San Francisco while UC Davis continues to share with Merced.
This would solve some of the more pressing issues that plague the status quo, primarily the geographic and resource constraints presented by the current association.
Geographically, it’s hard to be there for students when lawyers are constantly jet-setting and have to travel close to 500 miles between some schools. And even for those campuses that do have law schools, there is little to no actual legal support. At UCLA, Student Legal Services can prepare DACA forms and help with general questions, but that’s it.
For any in-depth questions that don’t necessarily pertain to DACA, it appears as if an undocumented Bruin’s best shot is to make a free first appointment for a monthly consultation with one of Student Legal Services’ immigration attorneys. Just don’t do it more than once, because after that first appointment, the “pro bono” part of these consultations drops for the year. Students are almost better off just looking at the PowerPoint on the Student Legal Services website.
Implementing the UC Davis model throughout the system would help remedy some of the most immediate problems while expanding access to legal services for the UC’s entire undocumented student population.
Students are almost better off just looking at the PowerPoint on the Student Legal Services website.
However, as usual, the real determining factor here is the cost.
Even so, that analysis isn’t too complicated. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the mean salary of a lawyer working in California in 2014 came out to $158,200 a year. Acknowledging that this figure is most likely inflated by those in higher-paying gigs such as entertainment and corporate law, let’s take that number as our baseline anyway. Additionally, let’s tack on about $50,000 in benefits, perks and travel expenses, and the rough cost comes out to about $208,000 in annual salary.
We can multiply that by the number of lawyers we need. Since a school like UCLA would need to share its resources with another UC campus, we could budget an additional lawyer for it. Therefore, it would be two lawyers at UCLA, one more at UC Berkeley to supplement the staff already on hand and one at UC Irvine. Multiplying those four by our $208,000 figure comes out to $832,000 a year in expenses. For comparison’s sake, the Undergraduate Students Association Council, UCLA’s student government, has a budget of nearly $4.4 million.
That’s not to say the schools should siphon money away from their student governments. Rather, it’s just to illustrate that a million dollars isn’t a huge deal. When a student government is entrusted with nearly four times the estimated cost of a few lawyers, it would seem reasonable that an entire university system with a budget upwards of $25 billion could re-allocate some money.
Trusted legal counsel would have underlying benefits as well. Undocumented students generally cite concerns over their families as one of the largest stressors they face. At a meeting for Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success, or IDEAS, UCLA’s undocumented student advocacy group, just about every single person there affirmed to me the importance of securing protections for their families. Quantitatively, this was corroborated in a 2015 UCLA study that found nearly 90 percent of DACA-eligible students experience stress over the possible detention and deportation of their families and friends while at school.
When a student government is entrusted with nearly four times the estimated cost of a few lawyers, it would seem reasonable that an entire university system with a budget upwards of $25 billion could re-allocate some money.
An available lawyer to provide legal advice and representation would be a boon. It obviously couldn’t solve all dilemmas, but it would send a signal that the UC recognizes and appreciates the unique effect family ties have on an undocumented individual’s ability to focus and participate in school.
So the cost concerns are relatively minimal and the benefits are high. And in fairness, the UC states on its website that it wants UC Davis’ model to be replicable. But it’s not acting like that’s the case.
According to Kate Moser, a UC spokesperson, there are currently no plans to release additional funding for an undocumented legal services center at this time. However, the UCOP has opted to continue funding the UC Undocumented Legal Services Center at UC Davis for another two years in order to collect more data and stabilize the finances of the operation. The point, Moser said, was to make the effort more appealing for grant foundations to invest in.
It’s understandable that that the University has to play the fundraising game and wants outside funding in order to keep the center solvent. It’s possible that grant foundations do see the value in this and line up to donate money, but it’s disconcerting that the UC hasn’t made any type of concrete funding commitment for beyond the next two years.
“Having a lawyer on campus would definitely be helpful, not only for me, but for the rest of my peers. We all have different stories and legal status. … We could always use the help of having a lawyer on campus.” Maria Alcantara
It’s disconcerting because for undocumented students, legal resources aren’t just a convenience; they’re a necessity. The United States immigration system remains so complicated, arbitrary and difficult to understand that it puts these students at a significant disadvantage when all they have to rely on is one legal center and a patchwork of advocacy groups and student centers.
“Having a lawyer on campus would definitely be helpful, not only for me, but for the rest of my peers,” Alcantara said. “We all have different stories and legal status. … We could always use the help of having a lawyer on campus.”
So while the UC does well by itself in approaching legal services from an economic standpoint, it does wrong by its students in evaluating these services solely from that perspective. When Napolitano freed up that original $5 million, she made a very public commitment to ensuring that the UC would provide a level playing field for undocumented students. For students like Maria Alcantara, a lawyer doesn’t just represent assistance, but opportunity. For the University to stay true to its mission, it would be wise to recognize that.