Friday action item: Figure out how to support a grad student without DACA

(Flickr: Ana Paula Hirma)

On Fridays while the current administration is in office we’re posting small, concrete things you can do to help make things better. Got a suggestion for an Action Item? E-mail us!
We haven’t done an Action Item in a while, but this week’s seen a decision from the Trump Administration that hits quite close to home, here in southern California: the announced end to DACA, the Obama administration policy that provides limited legal status for people who came to the U.S. as children without immigration documentation. Wednesday morning, my California State University colleague Terry McGlynn posed a question on Twitter that seemed, to me, pretty simple:

It turns out that this is not an easy question to answer. As CSU chancellor Timothy White explained in an interview with NPR the same day, California and the CSU system provide tuition support that doesn’t require legal status, and which will remain in place if DACA goes away six months from now, as it will if Congress doesn’t act. But going to graduate school isn’t, of course, only a question of tuition. In biology, we expect to be able to provide stipend support for grad students, usually through teaching and research assistantships as well as external fellowships. That makes graduate students employees, in a limited sense — and that may severely limit what biology departments and principal investigators can do to support students who lack documentation, even with the resources California provides.
Here at CSU Northridge, admission to the graduate program does not involve any inquiry into immigration status. But every employee provides evidence of eligibility to work in the U.S., whether as a citizen or as a documented immigrant with a work permit. According to a guide (PDF) available from the CSUN Dream Initiative website, it’s potentially possible to pay student researchers (including, I think, graduate RAs) with funding from some specific sources; but not with money from university funds, or from a governmental source like NSF. As the guide says under “Research”:

Sometimes undocumented AB 540 students [who have limited resident status in California without immigration documentation] are paid for this type of work in the form of a “stipend.” A stipend is a sum of money allotted on a regular basis, such as a salary for services rendered or an allowance. Undocumented AB 540 students may be eligible for stipends if the source of funding is tax-exempt. If the stipend comes directly from a public college or university’s funds, undocumented AB 540 students are not eligible. Remember, government funds are not available to undocumented AB 540 students.

CSUN’s FAQ on the DACA repeal explicitly calls out this issue — DACA recipients have had work permits that may or may not continue to be valid after the end of the program.
If you have current graduate students with DACA status, you’re probably already thinking about exactly these issues. If you don’t, now is as good a time as any to figure out what you’d do if you found out that a promising applicant to your lab might not have a work permit by the start of the next school year. Check to find out whether your campus has an equivalent to the Dream Initiative, or publications or resources provided in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement. If you can’t find those resources, maybe it’s time to get together with some colleagues to tell your administration that this is a priority. As for me, with CSUN’s and California’s resources in place — I’ll be thinking about who I can hire with any given funding source as I prioritize grant proposals for this semester.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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