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Editorial: UC Regents must lead with progressive policy for undocumented student employment

By Editorial Board

Feb. 4, 2024 1:39 p.m.

This post was updated on Feb. 4 at 9:51 p.m.

Regent John Pérez put it best in the UC Board of Regents meeting Jan. 25.

“This University has never led on the question of access for undocumented students,” Pérez said. “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 UC Board of Regents continued this trend with its announcement that day that it would halt consideration of a historic proposal that would have allowed undocumented students to be employed by the University.

With the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in political disarray, immigrants without legal immigration status have been left in limbo under the law.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act makes it illegal to hire undocumented residents, many of whom have been living in the United States for as long as they can remember. Even if they graduate with a degree from the No. 1 public university in the nation, some residents are forced to take under-the-table jobs as their only way to make a living.

Regardless of the legal technicalities, it goes without question that this is egregiously inhumane and an utter disservice to their hard work that often has fruitless results due to detrimental systemic barriers.

The Opportunity for All campaign advocated that the University should employ undocumented students, citing the legal argument that the federal law does not apply to states.

After months of deliberation and missed deadlines, the UC once again put off the conversation, claiming that the plan was not feasible and would face legal ramifications and risks for both University officials and undocumented students.

The Daily Bruin Editorial Board was deeply disappointed that in a state that has championed progressive policies on immigration, its hub of knowledge, research and free speech refuses to stand by thousands of undocumented students who have too long been overlooked.

As the conversation now continues, the University must not follow the status quo, but rather lead the discussion and pioneer a new era of access for undocumented students.

The proposal to employ undocumented students would no doubt have faced legal challenges. But expanded access on the basis of race, sex and immigration status in the United States has never been won by standing idly by and hoping the federal government will decide in one’s favor.

Powerful institutions such as the UC must advocate for and stand with the thousands of undocumented students and legal scholars leading the cause if there is any hope of seeing change at the national level.

And national reform is absolutely necessary. Our current immigration system is fundamentally broken and exceedingly draconian.

Political gridlock in Congress has stymied meaningful immigration reform in the decades since the passage of the IRCA, which linked employer sanctions for hiring undocumented workers and other policies to deter future immigration with a blanket amnesty for undocumented migrants who entered the U.S. before 1982.

The legal theory championed by the Opportunity for All Campaign presents a limit on the law’s authority to penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers.

However, it only became necessary because Congress refused to provide a pathway to citizenship and legal work status to undocumented immigrants, with several major reform efforts failing to become law, including several versions of the DREAM Act and the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.

At this point, even minor reforms regarding the treatment of undocumented people under federal immigration law seem distant. An upcoming bipartisan Senate deal would introduce increased immigration restrictions and further efforts to police the U.S.-Mexico border, including a provision that would allow the government to suspend the right for undocumented migrants to seek asylum if total reported migrant crossings reached certain levels.

That bill was called “absolutely dead” on arrival by House Speaker Mike Johnson after Donald Trump expressed opposition to it on the campaign trail. The Republican opposition to the Senate compromise was especially noteworthy because it does not include a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

Amid this intensely hostile political environment for immigrants across the country, the regents’ refusal to stand by undocumented students is especially noxious.

The regents’ move was so disheartening for many because it represented a substantial backpedal from their stance in May when they first established a working group to research the possibility of hiring undocumented students. At that time, the regents clearly stated that all students deserve the right to be employed on campus “regardless of immigration status.”

But after the working group failed to meet its deadline of Nov. 30 to present a set of next steps for the University to proceed towards implementation, it was beyond clear that some of the board’s members had abandoned that stance.

While the creation of the working group was approved unanimously by the regents, the decision to halt consideration of the proposal was carried by a vote of 10-6, with one regent abstaining.

The narrow margin of this vote, alongside reports of deep divisions among the regents over the plan, is clear evidence that the ultimate decision was much closer than most suspect.

A continued political pressure campaign directed towards only a handful of the regents to shift the balance could, therefore, make a considerable difference.

Such a campaign directed at California governor Gavin Newsom, an ex-officio regent who has been conspicuously silent on discussions surrounding Opportunity for All, could be even more effective.

Regardless, it’s evident that the reasoning behind the vote is worthy of greater scrutiny.

In his statement at the regents’ meeting justifying the decision to reject the plan, UC President Michael Drake pointed to the legal risks of implementing the proposal and the University’s “fiduciary responsibility” to its stakeholders.

The most important stakeholders in this decision, apparently, were officials from the Biden Administration who lobbied against the plan and threatened that the federal government would sue if it were implemented.

Certainly, the editorial board is not advocating that the UC violate federal immigration laws.

But the needs of vulnerable undocumented students shouldn’t be sacrificed so a vulnerable incumbent can posture about immigration to boost his reelection campaign.

The legal theory promoted by the Opportunity for All Campaign does offer substantial questions about whether the IRCA does apply to public entities like the UC system.

Even in the case of an unfavorable verdict on the program, the civil penalties – potentially along with additional criminal penalties – would range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per offense, a substantial amount certainly, but not for the UC.

The University might also face debarment from government contracts, and Drake asserted that the move could threaten the UC system’s federal funding – but both seem unlikely.

The imposition of such punishments on some of the U.S.’s most important research institutes over this issue would be a catastrophic blunder for the federal government, not to mention the complexity of disentangling the UC’s role in the national laboratories at Los Alamos, Livermore and Berkeley.

The UC system, through its size and research acumen, is immensely privileged in a world where academic institutions are often under threat.

But the failure of its leaders to recognize and utilize that privilege to support undocumented students, who are merely asking to be treated equally, is nothing short of disgraceful.

 

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