Undocumented students at USF find clarity amid confusion through ‘UndocUnited’

The student-led group has been offering resources and education for four years and now has launched its own scholarship program.
The organization UndocUnited brought attention to the challenges and opportunities faced by undocumented students during Dream Week last month. This photo was taken in 2017.
The organization UndocUnited brought attention to the challenges and opportunities faced by undocumented students during Dream Week last month. This photo was taken in 2017. [ Courtesy of Sharon Benitez ]
Published April 2, 2021|Updated April 15, 2021

TAMPA — The doors have been opened to attend college for many children who entered the United States illegally, even for them to qualify for special student grants.

But they still exist in a kind of limbo, unsure of how long they can remain in the country and how their applications will be viewed in the post-graduation job market.

At the University of South Florida, these students — many of them granted legal status through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — have an organization that can help them find more clarity in their lives.

The group is called UndocUnited. Two weeks ago, members called attention to their challenges and opportunities through a virtual event called Dream Week. “Dreamers” is the nickname for Deferred Action participants. The event featured an “Around the World” cultural showcase and a panel of undocumented students who shared their unique experiences.

The Dream Week Committee was formed to prepare for the upcoming event. The committee consists of Sharon Benitez, Melanie Escue, John Clarke, and Diego Dulanto.

For psychology student Dulanto, the campus group provides a network of friends and colleagues who have helped open up new possibilities.

“There are a lot of resources that students don’t know about,” Dulanto said, “but thanks to organizations like UndocUnited, I think we can better understand them — and the situations we face within the immigrant community.”

Dulanto, 22, arrived with his parents from Lima, Peru, in 2002. He was 4, and from a young age, he saw his parents struggle to make a life for him and his two siblings by cleaning offices and houses seven days a week.

“It hasn’t been easy,” he said.

Peruvian-born Diego Dulanto, 22, is a psychology major and undocumented student who is raising money for scholarships to help students like him.
Peruvian-born Diego Dulanto, 22, is a psychology major and undocumented student who is raising money for scholarships to help students like him. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Now that Dulanto has made it to college, one challenge is trying to find where to fit in. As many as one in ten 10 students at USF are from other countries, many of them enrolled under student visas, and the campus has clubs like the International Student Association, Students of India Association and the Saudi Student Association.

But many undocumented students grew up in the United States. They attended U.S. schools and don’t speak the language of their homeland. No one counts their numbers at USF, but UndocUnited has about 700 followers. Among student members, some were born in Asia and Jamaica but the majority are from Latin America.

In addition, undocumented students nationwide have learned that there’s nothing lasting about their residency status. President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action program by executive decree, but his successor Donald Trump took steps to revoke it. It remains in place under President Joe Biden, but only Congress can make it permanent. Efforts to do so have failed a dozen times in the past two decades.

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Legal status through the Deferred Action program is enjoyed now by some 660,000 people. It is open to those who were brought to the United States before they were 16, have lived here at least five years and have a clean legal record. It provides recipients a Social Security number, enables them to work legally and invites them to renew their status every two years.

Undocumented students have found a more welcoming atmosphere at Florida’s public universities since 2014, when state lawmakers granted in-state tuition waivers for those who attended high school in Florida. Undocumented students are not eligible for the federal financial aid that makes college affordable to most students, but they can compete for grants at USF such as the Status of Latinos Scholarship.

“Undocumented students are encouraged to apply and can enroll at the University of South Florida,” said USF spokesman Adam Freeman. “Students are treated equitably in the admissions process and decisions are based on academic profile.”

UndocUnited, established in 2017, aims to teach all USF students about the undocumented community as well as provide resources to its members, said Benitez, 23, president of the group.

“Many of them have come across people at USF who were unaware there are undocumented students on our campus, and so education is a big part of what we do.”

Benitez is not in the Deferred Action program but joined the campus group at its beginnings as part of a broader personal mission. A student of sociology, with a concentration in social justice and inquality, she wants to become a doctor to help the immigrant community and people across all gender identities.

Heide Castañeda, an anthropology professor and associate chair at USF, has been working for several years with administrators and staff to promote conversations about undocumented students. Castañeda sees the work of UndocUnited as vital in that process.

“I think that their work and mission is important because of their experiences, their ideas,” she said.

In January, the Dream Week Committee created its own scholarship and has collected $2,580 of its $3,500 goal through GoFundMe. It may become an annual campaign. It is a top priority for psychology student Dulanto, whose applications for various forms of financial aid were rejected a dozen times.

Finally, Dulanto landed an award through TheDream.US, a national group that helps raise money to send so-called dreamers to college.

He said he hopes to make the process easier financially for those undocumented students who follow him.

“It is a very significant goal for us.”