The Agency of Home

by Kaijing Janice Chen | 10/4/17 2:45am

Every Dartmouth term is different. Not just in the cocktail of classes we take or in the people who zip in and out of our lives. Within the insanity of our intermingling D-Plans, every 10 weeks brings a completely unique combination of people to campus. From one term to the next, what one may argue makes Dartmouth special — the people — is never the same. Yet while life here sometimes feels fleeting at best, we nonetheless learn to find home within the never-changing architectural landscape. Home comes to be the memories echoed in the alcoves of Sanborn Library, the ghosts of small talk past on First Floor Berry or the wisps of a conversation that mark a corner of the Green your own. It’s individual, unique and self-defined within these common and unchanging spaces we share.

This weekend, scores of alumni will make the pilgrimage back to the Green, beckoned forward by an awaiting celebration of their achievements and a not-so-little tinge of nostalgia for the good old days of where they once called home.

Like the Dartmouth student who steps off the Coach after an off-term, they too will find comfort once again in the thought of what once was in the buildings and landmarks that are still here. Their own self-definitions of home at Dartmouth will be resurrected as they stand among upperclassmen around a bonfire aflame in tradition and an orientation toward a new class. Yet for some students, the ability to shape what home means at Dartmouth is shadowed by the fact that home is often contingent upon things out of their control.

When President Donald Trump’s administration announced the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last month, undocumented students at Dartmouth were plunged into a more visceral state of uncertainty. Although DACA was precarious in and of itself, requiring recipients to renew their eligibility every two years at a cost of $495, it nonetheless offered a brief reprieve from the threat of deportation and subsequently an opportunity to settle into the norms of student life here in Hanover. Study abroad terms, undergraduate research — hallmarks of the Dartmouth experience trumpeted in our glossy brochures and on admission tours — accrue a greater possibility for undocumented students who are DACA recipients. 

As Oscar Ruben Cornejo ’17 remarks, the minute form of legal immigration status that DACA offers makes even traveling to Hanover, an otherwise benign experience, easier.

“DACA made it seem like you belonged because you were able to legally be part of the institutions and be part of what other Dartmouth students are normally part of,” Cornejo said. “Working, working with a professor, traveling, those basic things become almost paths of belonging,.”

For Barbara Olachea Lopez Portillo ’19 — a DACA recipient — being able to legally work in this country has somewhat normalized her experience at Dartmouth.

“It’s easy to forget sometimes that you’re not just like everybody else, because you can work,” she said.

Even so, Olachea went on to say that despite these benefits, being undocumented at Dartmouth brings more insidious consequences. As the only person in her family who has legal work status, she has come to take on the burden of financially supporting herself while pursuing her interests as a full-time student at Dartmouth.

For Valentina Garcia Gonzalez ’19, who moved to northern Atlanta with her family at the age of six from Uruguay, differences in citizenship or immigration status sometimes lead to moments of self-doubt that are undeniably made possible by the starkly meritocratic tones that resound across the green.

“At Dartmouth you compare yourself a lot with other people’s success, and that’s what, unfortunately, I do a lot as well,” she said. “But I have to remind myself that it’s not my fault. I can’t do much.”

Cornejo, Garcia Gonzalez and Olachea have all been involved with the non-partisan student advocacy group Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers. Co-founded by Cornejo in early 2014, CoFIRED supports undocumented students on campus and in the United States by gathering resources — legal, financial, medical or otherwise — to ensure that these students have just as much of an opportunity to thrive as any other.

Cornejo, who graduated from Dartmouth this spring, immigrated with his family to the northern suburbs of Chicago from Mexico at the age of five and is now working toward a Ph.D in sociology back in his home city at Northwestern University. Almost four years after he co-founded CoFIRED with Eduardo Misael Najera Ortega ’14, Cornejo reflected back on the changes that he has seen reverberate across campus and within the undocumented student community during his time at Dartmouth.

In the wider Dartmouth population, he felt the attitudes toward undocumented students shift as conversations opened up about this often looked-over fragment of the student body. CoFIRED has worked in the past few years to actively destigmatize undocumented immigrants in the United States. Perhaps their most significant move to date is successfully petitioning the Library of Congress to shift from using the pejorative term “illegal alien,” to the more neutral “undocumented immigrant” and “noncitizen.”

By the beginning of his senior year, CoFIRED was running at full throttle, and he saw undocumented first-year students arriving on campus with a marked determination to take advantage of the school’s resources, despite the limitations of their immigration status.

“By my senior year, there were several students who were automatically asking in the first couple weeks, how do they go studying abroad with DACA,” he said. “That was a completely different conversation that we were having.”

He points to the cohesion in the undocumented student population and immigration allies that CoFIRED brought about as a reason for this newfound optimism and open-mindedness on campus.

“In the beginning, it was just us, the people who were willing to come together,” Cornejo said. “Then at the end, it feels like we have a community. It feels like we have a representative voice.”

CoFIRED is now going through a period of change, as current board members evaluate the organization’s role in fostering a community that is inclusive of not only DACA recipients — often referred to as “DREAMers” — but also of those outside the purview of the program. Jesus Franco ’20, who is currently co-director of CoFIRED, wishes to sew together rifts in the undocumented immigrant community that have been widened by the exceptionalist undertones of immigration policy. To reflect a greater sense of inclusivity, CoFIRED recently moved to change the organization’s name to Coalition for Immigration Reform and Equality at Dartmouth.

“We came together as a board and realized that the DREAMers narrative doesn’t really encompass our goals,” he said. “We’re here to help everybody, any immigrant, for those who do and do not qualify for DACA.”

Franco was born and grew up in a community of predominantly undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles, California and views the “good immigrant” discourse that gave rise to DACA with a heavily critical eye. Painted as the innocent and talented, the DACA-eligible had to jump through a series of hoops to prove that they were squeaky clean, educated and had the potential to be highly productive in the U.S. economy. After Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program on Sept. 5, 2017, former President Barack Obama shared his thoughts on Facebook.

“Today, that shadow has been cast over some of our best and brightest young people once again,” Obama wrote. “To target these young people is wrong — because they have done nothing wrong. It is self-defeating — because they want to start new businesses, staff our labs, serve in our military, and otherwise contribute to the country we love.”

Franco argues that the kind of rhetoric that glorifies DREAMers as diligent, well-behaved and essentially the collateral damage of their parents’ wrongdoings sets up a false binary between the 800,000 DACA recipients and the other 10.2 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“When you have a good immigrant, that means you have bad immigrants,” he said.

In light of the “ideal immigrant,” narrative, Garcia Gonzalez does not believe that her own hard work and achievements has meant that she is uniquely deserving of DACA’s benefits. Rather, the benefits she has received under DACA are a testament to an unjust favoring of people like her who are more palatable to the American public. She is a high-achieving student at an Ivy League institution. She speaks unaccented English and describes herself as “white-passing,” an advantage that allows her to slip more easily into the higher rungs of American beauty standards.

“That does not make me better than someone who is darker than me, who might have an accent, who might not have a high school education because they had to work,” she said.

In his critique of liberal multiculturalism, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek coined the term “decaffeinated Other” to describe those who experience comparatively less resistance in the sphere of liberal politics — the “African and east European sportsmen, Asian doctors, Indian software programmers.” Those that are lauded as productive, model citizens serve as tokens of tolerance, while people who deviate more significantly from dominant norms are left to fend for themselves against unforgiving immigration policy.

Žižek wrote, “What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others.”

If Cornejo, Garcia Gonzalez and Olachea in some ways represent the decaffeinated and palatable immigrant, the Upper Valley is home to many who get the even shorter end of the stick.

Faculty member at The Dartmouth Institute Kate Barta works with low-income foreign-born individuals in the Upper Valley through the nonprofit organization Welcoming All Nationalities Network. With the exception of fiscal support from WISE and the help of community volunteers, Barta runs WANN by herself and provides legal services to immigrants — from refugees seeking asylum to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.

In her work, Barta sees a strong correlation between undocumented immigration status and vulnerability to domestic violence. The precarious existence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. makes these people more inclined to seek stability through relationships with citizens, who in some cases abuse the power granted to them by way of legal status.

“The lack of immigration status becomes a way in which the abuser keeps the person subservient to them,” Barta explained.

In order to create a more integrated support network for vulnerable immigrants in the Upper Valley, WANN offers community education for healthcare facilities, libraries and schools in order to increase awareness of immigrant needs. Through various training programs, staff at local facilities like Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center learn to recognize the people who might benefit from a legal consultation with Barta.

“I want our community organizations, as they’re working with these individuals in other capacities . . . I want them to understand that there’s potential,” she said.

In the past year, Barta has observed an increase in community support for her work at WANN, with many volunteers choosing to contribute their time and resources to immigrant families in need.

“There’s a heightened awareness in the communities in general, and so people are really wanting to reach out and really wanting to help and be involved,” she said.

Despite this added support, Barta sees the volatility of the current political climate reflected in the fear her clients feel. As the only legal service provider in Grafton County, it sometimes feels like the services of WANN can only stretch so thin.

“There’s not much you can do besides try to move a case along as fast as you possibly can, which is really frustrating,” she said. “You feel a little bit helpless.”

Garcia Gonzalez stresses that the undocumented immigrant population is composed of a smattering of heterogeneous stories and demographics and does not hail exclusively from Central and South American countries. Currently, it is estimated that at least 15 percent of undocumented immigrants come from Asian countries, most from India, China and the Philippines. Nonetheless, uncertainty about the future is something that underlies the undocumented experience across the country and at Dartmouth.

As CoFIRED moves into uncharted territories after the repeal of DACA, Franco questions how home can ever be possible for those whose lives are made increasingly unstable with the fluctuations in immigration policy.

“DACA wasn’t perfect, but it was something that I would defend, I would defend to my core,” he said. “That I don’t believe should have been taken away, but should have been improved. It’s kind of sad that we have to move in this backwards way.”

For people like Franco, who are themselves U.S. citizens by birthright, but whose close friends and community members are undocumented immigrants, home becomes fraught with complexity. Perched on the double-edged sword of privilege and insurmountable empathy for his loved ones, the stability his citizenship offers him is only blurred by the continuous denial of home for the people around him.

“It still continues to be a lot harder for me to really call this country a place of home when so many people I love are being told that this isn’t their home,” he said.

When we stand around the bonfire to welcome home the Class of 2021 this Friday, who will be left out? As the lingering heat of the gravel dissipates on Saturday morning, who will still be at odds with the idea of home at Dartmouth?

“When students are thinking about Homecoming, alumni coming back to this place that they themselves called home, it’s important to think about how students are able to make this a home when they can’t feel at home in this country,” Franco said.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!