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UC rejects plan to hire undocumented students, halts consideration for a year

Students marching on campus in November in favor of Opportunity for All, a campaign to open up on-campus job opportunities to students without legal status, are pictured. The UC Board of Regents rejected the effort Thursday. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Shaanth Kodialam

Jan. 25, 2024 3:26 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 25 at 10:00 p.m.

The UC Board of Regents shelved a first-in-the-nation proposal Thursday to establish on-campus job opportunities for thousands of students throughout the state without legal immigration status. 

In his initial remarks, UC President Michael Drake said the plan was not viable, citing potential legal ramifications and risks that the program could present for undocumented students and University officials, including deportation or civil penalties. The regents had consulted with multiple law firms and scholars both in and outside of the UC system, he said. He added that he wanted to support the effort personally but pointed to the UC’s “fiduciary responsibility” to all of its stakeholders.

The board voted to table consideration of implementation for another year, following a passionate debate in which several regents expressed their disappointment with the announcement. Some noted their own experiences being undocumented or having witnessed the UC compromise on rights for students without legal status in the past. 

“This University has never led on the question of access for undocumented students,” said Regent John Pérez in the meeting. “We have followed. … We’ve been coerced into action from time(s). We had acted out of guilt at times, but we’ve never led.”

The decision came two months after the UC missed its self-imposed November deadline to come up with a plan, vowing to continue further study on the matter. That deadline was the result of advocacy from student organizers in May, when the regents established a working group in support of their demands and affirmed that all students should have access to employment opportunities regardless of their legal status. 

The regents’ announcement also responded to a movement born out of undocumented students organizing at UCLA in October 2022. Titled “Opportunity for All,” progressive scholars and student organizers campaigned for nearly a year and a half for the UC to open up campus job opportunities such as teaching assistantships, dining hall staff roles and research internships to students without legal status. They support an untested legal theory backed by several UC legal scholars that argues federal employment and immigration law does not apply to state entities, including public universities like the UC.

Backlash to a potential decision grew in the months preceding Thursday’s announcement. Conservative legal scholars and some Republican lawmakers have argued the newly developed legal theory would open the UC up to litigation for hiring officials and loss of federal funding. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa wrote a letter in May to Gov. Gavin Newsom expressing opposition to the plan. A spokesperson for Issa said the UC should improve transparency with Californians and that the proposal “never should have advanced as far as it did.” 

A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately have any comment. 

Federal officials from the United States Department of Homeland Security have lobbied against the move and warned of a potential block or legal challenge, according to Politico. But Ahilan Arulanantham, faculty co-director for the Center for Immigration Law and Policy, said he spoke with multiple officials from the department about the campaign’s idea before, receiving little to no pushback. A DHS spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Advocates launched a systemwide campaign in May to pressure the regents, holding events and actions across the University including candlelight vigils, speaking out at public comment, protests at UCLA that have drawn hundreds and disrupting a regents meeting in November. 

Drake also presented other options the UC will be considering, including expanding experiential learning programs. But student leaders – who went on a hunger strike Tuesday – have previously pushed back on solutions that offer a potential compromise to the legal concerns, such as additional funding for fellowships that would provide additional financial aid. 

[Related link: Students launch hunger strike, pressure UC Regents to hire undocumented students]

“I’m deeply disappointed that the UC Regents and President Drake shirked their duties to the students they are supposed to protect and support,” said Jeffry Umaña Muñoz, a fourth-year Chicana/o studies and labor studies student and participant in the hunger strike, in a statement. “We as UC students deserve so much more from our University leadership. This is not the end of our fight for equality.”

Some organizers said they have turned to food pantries and taken on extra shifts at multiple jobs, adding that many of them do not qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which helps some individuals without legal status gain work authorizations in the United States. Since 2021, DACA has paused applications amid legal challenges. 

After the motion to table was approved, Muñoz spoke out and disrupted the board’s discussion, shouting directly toward the regents. 

“I am starving, and we’re going to be starving for so long because of you,” he told the board, which soon after paused the meeting before hearing further agenda items. It was not immediately clear if organizers would continue their strike. 

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Shaanth Kodialam | News senior staff
Kodialam is a News senior staff reporter for the Bruin. They were previously the 2022-2023 features and student life editor and a 2021-2022 News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a third-year communication and geography student.
Kodialam is a News senior staff reporter for the Bruin. They were previously the 2022-2023 features and student life editor and a 2021-2022 News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a third-year communication and geography student.
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