Finding a Home for BCC’s Undocumented Students in Trump’s America

By Maya Kashima

It’s been just a few months since the Undocumented Student Resource Center moved into its new location on the second floor of Berkeley City College’s main campus at 2050 Center St., and the space can hardly keep up with how fast it’s growing.

In the Fall 2017 semester, the UCRC courted a small group of established campus leaders to work for the center as part of their new plan for expansion, and over the course of the Spring 2018 semester has expanded to include a team of ten student workers and volunteers.

This level of growth is a triumph for Coordinator Carolina Martinez and Director Gabriel Martinez (no relation), who co-founded the center three years ago but by the end of last semester remained its only members.

An Uphill Battle

Gabriel Martinez, chair of the BCC Counseling Department, first proposed the creation of a resource center during a 2014 meeting with the Dreamers Task Force, a group created to improve outcomes for undocumented students. Carolina Martinez, a Task Force member, joined a group of student leaders in establishing the center with Gabriel Martinez as an advisor.

In 2015, the school offered the UCRC an annex space next to the YMCA on Allston Way, which they christened with a grand opening featuring food and entertainment. The UCRC seemed poised for growth — two students secured a $10,000 grant from the Dalai Lama Fellows, and the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution by then-Councilmember Jesse Arreguin officially supporting the center.

But by the following year, the two students had stepped down from their leadership positions and the grant had fallen through.

“Once they left, there was nothing,” said Carolina Martinez. So, with two other UCRC volunteers, she “picked the project up and started from the bottom.”

They met with administrators to ask for funding to keep the center alive. “I don’t think they took us seriously, she said, “[because] we never got results.”

Frustrated, the three decided to go to a Peralta Board of Trustees meeting. They managed to get themselves on the agenda and made a plea to Chancellor Jowel Laguerre.

“We were very loud in how we asked,” said Carolina Martinez. “We were just like, ‘We need money!’”

Laguerre was sympathetic to their cause, she said, but told them the district couldn’t do anything to help. The UCRC team then looked to the BCC’s Student Equity Fund, money allocated by the state government to help community colleges close achievement gaps for specific disadvantaged groups. A coalition of students, faculty, staff, administrators and other community members worked to draft a comprehensive action plan, including agreements that BCC would “[e]stablish a more permanent and visible Dreamer Center” and “[a]dvocate for more dependable funding” for undocumented student causes.

The UCRC was grateful to receive the support it so desperately needed. But bureaucratic issues kept them from implementing the changes they had hoped for.

Gabriel Martinez wanted to hire paid student workers, for example. Being part of the center’s small team requires a significant time commitment that might not be viable for those who work to support themselves.

“The students [who wanted to work with us] got discouraged because they have to eat, you know?” said Carolina Martinez.

At the time, BCC was also going through an administrative upheaval; both the President and Vice President were interim hires, and Carolina Martinez worried the UCRC would be further left “in limbo.”

Such was the case in spring 2016, when the center was moved from the Allston Way address to 2000 Center St., where they shared a space with the Office of International Education. While the move meant the UCRC was finally closer to the main campus, students began to feel the new location was less of a boon and more of a liability. Because the Office of International Education handles international students’ F1 visas, they must regularly cooperate with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. As UCRC Outreach Specialist Edgar Rosales put it, “If you’re an international student and you get to a point where you somehow don’t meet the requirements for your international student visa, ICE has the right to go to that office and look for you. There’s no reason to have a center for undocumented students right next to where ICE is allowed to be.” At the time, though, nothing could be done to alleviate the issue.

Students’ fears about the situation grew after the 2016 election. One of the UCRC’s most active leaders started to become less involved in the community. Carolina Martinez said that “because of the [Trump] administration, she [was] really scared of being part of something like this. She said, ‘Right now I just want to study. I don’t want to be at risk.’”

A Turning Point

The transition to a new BCC administration left some feeling anxious, but the arrival of President Rowena Tomaneng in fall 2016 marked an important milestone for the Center. Tomaneng, born in the Philippines, is a fierce advocate for immigrant rights. “She supported us,” Carolina Martinez said, in a way they hadn’t been supported before. She has personal experience with the undocumented community, “so she knows the pain. She understands the community and she’s always willing to help us.”

Tomaneng’s allyship came in handy when UCRC members raised their concerns about the issues with their office. According to Carolina Martinez, Tomenang listened to the students, asking Vice President of Student Services Jason Cifra to give UCRC its own space on the main campus and increase overall institutional support for the center. The center secured its current space at the end of last semester.

“Before, we weren’t very established,” said Carolina Martinez. “Trying to figure out everything by ourselves wasn’t easy. Now the administration is really involved, really supportive.”

BCC also began paying the center’s student workers, including Carolina Martinez. She is now able to devote more time to her role as coordinator, no longer running between three jobs and school like she used to when she arrived in the country at age 19.

A Personal Connection

Until recently, Carolina Martinez was undocumented herself. Ten years ago, she came to the United States by herself from her hometown of Mazatlan, Mexico. When she first arrived, she could not speak English, but studied at an adult school to earn her GED and eventually landed at Berkeley City College, where she earned an Associate degree in Political Science. Carolina Martinez became a part of the UCRC because she wanted to help others who have experienced the same struggles as her.

“When we started [the UCRC], you would never hear that there were any undocumented students on campus,” says Carolina Martinez. “You’d feel like there are no resources.”

She wants BCC’s existing and prospective undocumented students — who number in the hundreds, according to the school’s 2015 Student Equity Report — to know what kind of supports they have available to them, because most are underinformed.

Monica, a third-year BCC student and DACA recipient who asked that her last name not be used, said she didn’t even bother applying to four-year colleges and universities because she assumed she wouldn’t qualify for any scholarships or financial aid.

In addition to rendering support navigating financial aid, academics, laws and policies, employment, housing, and other issues, the UCRC feels it’s important to address mental health in the community.

Carolina Martinez realized the importance of addressing mental health while taking BART from BCC to a class at Merritt College. While waiting at the station, a man threw himself on the tracks as a train was approaching. She and other witnesses managed to get the operator to stop before hitting him. After helping him off the tracks, she talked to him briefly and learned that he was undocumented.

“I wondered, ‘What is his living situation? What are his dreams?’ He opened up to me a little bit — ‘I just have issues, I just don’t want to leave.’ I started crying because I know what it’s like to feel that way,” she says. “We’re all a part of the same struggle. Right now, the most important thing is coming together as a community.”

At the top: Students and staff from Berkeley City College’s Undocumented Community Resource Center present a “Dreamers’ Award for Courage” to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at a fundraiser for the UCRC.

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