Supporting New Mexico’s Undocumented Students Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Born in Las Cruces and raised in Silver City, New Mexico, Laura Gutierrez-Spencer earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, a Master’s degree from New Mexico State University and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. As the Director of Chicano Programs at the New Mexico State University Las Cruces campus for 24 years, Gutierrez-Spencer spearheaded initiatives about diversity in higher education and teaching and working with minority and first-generation students.

When I first got the job as Director of Chicano Programs at New Mexico State University (NMSU) Las Cruces Campus twenty-four years ago, I received inquiries from undocumented students about university resources and there wasn’t much I could do for them. At the time, undocumented students had to pay full tuition to attend full time, but if they went part-time they could pay in-state tuition. I would recommend students enroll part-time, even if it took longer to complete their coursework. Still, it was a huge challenge for undocumented students and as far as I know, none of them finished in those early years although I didn’t keep records.

Despite having some conservative areas in our state, New Mexico made some important strides in the early 2000s for our undocumented students. In 2003, the state of New Mexico passed House Bill 173 that allowed undocumented residents to apply for a driver license, and to this day remains one of only 16 states with such legislation. Then in 2005, the state of New Mexico passed Senate Bill 582, which states “A public postsecondary educational institution shall not deny admission to a student on account of the student’s immigration status.” This made all New Mexico residents who attended a New Mexico middle or high school for at least one year or graduated from a high school or received their GED in New Mexico eligible for in-state tuition and state-funded financial aid (regardless of their immigration status). Many of our students benefited and were able to enroll full time.

Shortly after, I got a call asking if undocumented students can work on campus and I had to make eight calls to learn that they still weren’t allowed. A bunch of us who cared on campus––including financial aid officers, admissions officers, faculty, staff, and recruiters––realized that we needed to be able to answer these questions. So as the only staff person of this group, with the rank of director at the time, I took the initiative to start the Immigrant Student Issues Committee at the university.  During the first several months, the committee focused on educating ourselves. The ACLU, for example, gave a primer on the U.S. constitution and the rights of undocumented individuals. We sifted through the information to come up with a training that is currently called the DREAM Excellence Training, which included information on relevant legislation, as well as tuition and scholarships.

We carried out these DREAM Excellence Trainings for high school teachers and counselors, community college and university faculty and staff as well as the staff of nonprofits that work with our immigrant communities. Individuals who participate in the training are given the option to take a pledge to be a person that undocumented can ask questions about accessing higher education, without threat of being reported to ICE, Border Patrol, or other immigration authorities.  We did not push participants to sign this pledge. Only those who sign the pledge are given  a DREAM Ally Placard that they could hang in their office so that students could easily identify them as allies who are safe to approach about these issues. Part of the training is teaching participants about the euphemisms that students will use to tell them they are undocumented such as “I don’t have a social,” “I’m not eligible for financial aid,” “no tengo papeles” or “I’m a Dreamer”.  There is a need for a discreet lingo that is mutually understood, almost like the underground railroad. We want to support them without putting them at risk, and the best way to do this was by them identifying themselves to allies verbally. Our administration understood that a database or code for undocumented students would create issues if the university ever received a subpoena.

We have to walk a fine line in such a conservative part of the state. Located only fifty miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, NMSU Las Cruces isn’t a sanctuary campus for undocumented students; there is no policy in place to prohibit our faculty or staff from calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Border Patrol which puts our students at constant risk of deportation. We are surrounded by border checkpoints, and it’s rare that I go to my local convenience store without seeing a Border Patrol agent. This context and need to protect our students has led to less overt activism on our campus than an Albuquerque campus farther from the border.

We created a website where undocumented students and their families could access resources privately without reviewing their identity. We included information for students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which was passed by the Obama administration in 2012 and gives immigrants a social security number that allows them to work on campus. To be eligible for this program, individuals had to come to the U.S. before age 16, live here since 2007, and be present when the program was passed. To read more about the 2020 Supreme Court ruling regarding DACA see here

I’ve also made an attempt to ask faculty and administrators, not talk exclusively about supporting “DACA students.”  Because of the numerous date and age-based deadlines in the original DACA order, more and more traditional age students are not eligible for DACA. Therefore, if we only talk about the needs of DACA recipients, the undocumented students who cannot apply for DACA will be excluded even more. Now that many who have DACA are entering their 30’s, this younger group which I often refer to as “totally undocumented,” are entering the universities and do not have any of the same protections that DACA students have. Their restricted access to higher education has been largely left out of the conversation. We need to talk about “undocumented students” not just “DACA students.”

Throughout my career, I worked very hard to create change at a higher education institution. While I know that I’ve instituted change for individual people but don’t think it was possible to create broad institutional change; that process is very difficult. However, some things that I have learned and practiced I do think could be replicable for other Universities looking to support undocumented students are: creating a website with resources that students can access without having to share their status; creating ways to signal through something like the DREAM Ally Placard who is safe for students to come to; the need to connect to the community through supporting high school and community college and university  counselors in support undocumented students journey to four-year-institutions; and ensuring that the conversation goes beyond just DACA students to include the needs of those that are without these legal protections.

Now that I’ve retired from NMSU, I’ve made an effort to give space to new leaders in the university and community and set my sight on other ways of creating change. Recently, I’ve been involved in a project to produce a romantic comedy, Magic Love Dust, in both English and Spanish that portrays positive roles for Latinos, instead of the usual roles as criminals, undocumented immigrants crossing the border, or drug addicts (Film Teaser in English and Spanish). I’ve seen that popular culture with a social component can make a big impact and look forward to being a part of developing change through this different and creative outlet. 

We thank Dr. Gutierrez-Spencer for sharing her work supporting undocumented students at New Mexico State University Las Cruces. Her experiences shed light on what it can look like to be a leader and a community partner for change. Congratulations on your retirement and we wish you all the best with your new project.  The ‘teaser’ on YouTube looks really interesting! 

Paula and Maxie

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