Space in the Silence: Immigrant Students and New Vulnerabilities

Space in the Silence: Immigrant Students and New Vulnerabilities

Space in the Silence
Today’s post comes from LCHT co-founder Dr. AnnJanette Alejano-Steele.  Dr. Alejano-Steele is the interim Chair of the Department of Social Work at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.  MSU Denver has been a longtime partner in the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking’s work.  “Space in the Silence: Immigrant Students and New Vulnerabilities” offers some insights Dr. Alejano-Steele made on MSU’s campus in the wake of the recent presidential election.  Her observations are an important example of looking at intersectionality and how current events around immigration relate to human trafficking. 

Every once in awhile, I experience a day where the multiple hats I wear as a professional and a person intersect.  On November 14th, 2016 I was wearing my “higher education professional” hat as the interim Chair of the Department of Social Work.  Looking toward the middle of campus from my office in Central Classroom, I noticed something unusual. It was 10:50am, notable as a standard time in which classes change over and the sidewalks fill with students hustling to get to their 11:00am classes.

But not on this morning. Fewer students were present on this post-presidential election Monday. It was eerily and uncomfortably quiet.

Education and Opportunity

The primary reason why I’m proud to work at MSU Denver (where I’ve been on faculty since 1996) is our students.  MSU boasts 35% students of color and 32% first generation. Touted as a “university of opportunity,” I have had the honor of learning alongside phenomenal students, who may not have had a chance for an education.  I have had the privilege of watching many of those students gain language, skills, and new perspectives. Within my professional journey, the acts of teaching and co-learning have always been an investment in my community and Colorado’s future.  But as the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines, I wear another hat.  I have personally felt and understood ways in which education paved the path for opportunity in my own family.

The Metropolitan State University of Denver boasts a diverse student body and one of the most affordable university educations in Colorado.

I have also been fortunate to have a president, Dr. Stephen Jordan, whose leadership resonated with my beliefs in educational opportunity.  Among those transformed by his progressive vision were undocumented students; Jordan’s courageous leadership in creating a nonresident tuition rate evened the playing field for Colorado’s undocumented students and heralded the ultimate passage of the 2013 Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET) bill. This bill allowed U.S. Citizens, Permanent Residents, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) , DREAMers, and undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition in the state of Colorado. Happily, MSU Denver is one of the most affordable universities in the state of Colorado.

A Silence Marked By New Fears

So as I listened to campus that November morning, I tapped into a silence marked by vulnerability, fear, resilience, and survival.  With new threats of deportation noted in the president elect’s campaign, many of our students were assessing their risk of identification through the very programs that provided them educational opportunity. Several students shared that education would now be a lower priority relative to the need to find employment. Who knew what the coming months would unveil for themselves and their families?

The silence represented the resilience of many students who were assessing what they stood to lose and what identification as an ASSET or DACA student meant for vulnerability to deportation. Students weighed education against safety. What could preparing for final exams mean in the face of possible separation from loved ones?

Conditions for Exploitation

As I sat thinking about student desperation, protection, and the need for employment, I switched hats again to my history as an anti-trafficking activist. The conditions I was observing reminded me how easily student vulnerability could be exploited through false promises and fraudulent work opportunities.  When anyone is in need of a job, and in this case quickly, traffickers are at the ready to take advantage through force, fraud, or coercion.  The possibility of ASSET and DACA students to be severely exploited for labor—and other human trafficking, is real.

Through the Human Trafficking Academic Response Team at MSU Denver, we have recognized that our MSU Denver campus, is a prime location due to its location in downtown Denver. This geographic accessibility to downtown creates vulnerability for our University students, particularly those in their early 20’s; we are fully aware that young adults are prime targets for traffickers. And now student fear of deportation and the need for jobs creates an added layer of vulnerability to exploitation and violence, particularly in the form of human trafficking.

Space in the Silence

Since the election, MSU Denver Immigrant Student Services has provided a statement to students to provide assurance and offer support in every way possible:

“We know that at times like these, dropping out of school comes to mind, but we want you to remember that education is not only about having a career or a job, but also about having the necessary tools to overcome adversity. Your communities and your families need you more than ever. Keep educating yourselves, keep coming to school, and keep your head high… We want you to know that we are here for you, we care about you and we stand by you.”

Indeed, many of us at MSU Denver are providing assurances to our ASSET and DACA students as best we can during a time of uncertainty and change. We will speak up as allies; find supports through informal systems; listen carefully to questionable job opportunities; and continue to promote Colorado’s 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline (1-866-455-4075).

We will hold space for silent uncertainty when words escape us.  And while we hold spaces for these silences…we wait.

Dr. AnnJanette Alejano Steele, featured in MSU Denver’s 50th Anniversary.

Annjanette Alejano-Steele, Ph.D.

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