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Undocumented students remain in the shadows of the chemical sciences

With deferred deportation and work authorization, undocumented immigrant youth in the U.S. are entering science and related fields, but their future remains bleak

by Linda Wang
April 17, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 16


A photo of Jorge Steven Acuña.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Acuña is planning to complete his chemical engineering degree despite his uncertain future in the U.S.

Jorge Steven Acuña was lying in bed on the morning of March 7, 2012, thinking about the organic chemistry exam he had to take later that day.

In brief

Undocumented immigrant youth are entering the chemical sciences and related fields, in part because of a 2012 Obama Administration immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some undocumented youth who entered the U.S. as minors to apply for deferred action from deportation as well as temporary work permits. DACA has provided educational and work opportunities never before available to undocumented youth, but their future remains in limbo as President Donald J. Trump considers policies to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Read on to learn how these young people are speaking out and helping each other, despite the risk of deportation.

“I was going through reactions in my head as I was waking up, and all of a sudden, my dad comes into my room, and he’s crying,” says Acuña, who at the time was a student at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md. “Behind him were these two huge ICE [U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement] officers. They were like, ‘Get up, get dressed, and come downstairs.’ They handcuffed us, ankles and wrists, and they put us into this car.”

For the next six days, Acuña and his parents were locked up at a detention center near Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “There was no space in the regular cells, so they sent us to the maximum security cells,” says Acuña, who was then 18. “People were yelling at us. We were terrified.”

Amid all of that, Acuña’s thoughts drifted back to school. “I remember being in jail and wondering what my professor was thinking when I didn’t show up to class,” Acuña says. “Even when I was in jail, I was worried about my organic chemistry exam.”

Acuña was eight years old when his parents, seeking political asylum, brought him to the U.S. from Colombia, where his mother, who worked for a politician fighting the narcotics trade, was routinely receiving death threats.

Now 23 and a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, and preparing to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Acuña is among the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Seeking stability


Despite living in the shadows, undocumented immigrants such as Acuña who were brought to the U.S. as children continue to pursue careers in chemistry and chemical engineering, in part because of a 2012 Obama Administration immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some undocumented youth who entered the U.S. as minors to apply for deferred action from deportation as well as temporary work permits.

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Olubunmi has turned her passion into activism.
A photo of Tolu Olubunmi.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Olubunmi has turned her passion into activism.

To be eligible for DACA, undocumented youth must have come to the U.S. before their 16th birthday; be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012; have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; be currently in school or have a high school degree or General Educational Development certificate; and not have been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor, among other requirements.

DACA also presents a significant financial burden to families living in poverty. It currently costs $495 to apply for the work authorization card, and the permit needs to be renewed every two years with a recurring fee of $495.

According to the latest data available from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, more than 900,000 first-time applications for DACA have been received, and 770,000 first-time DACA applications have been approved to date. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 1.3 million unauthorized young adults aged 15 and older were immediately eligible for DACA in 2016.

DACA has provided opportunities never before available to undocumented youth. But their future remains in limbo as President Donald J. Trump considers policies to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Even if Trump were to keep DACA unchanged, there are virtually no avenues aside from marrying a U.S. citizen to legalize a person’s status.

“It’s as bleak as it’s ever been,” says Jim Hacking, an immigration lawyer with Hacking Law Practice in St. Louis. Before DACA, “people were operating in the shadows, and the government didn’t know where they were. Now, these people are operating in the shadows, but the government knows where they are. That means they can come get them pretty readily.

“It looks like the window is closing more and more, and it’s going to be really hard for these people to find any kind of long-term solution in the U.S.,” Hacking adds.

C&EN spoke with undocumented youth in the chemical sciences about the challenges and opportunities they see ahead and what motivates them to keep pursuing their dreams. In some cases, sources have requested that only their first names be used.

Pursuing science


Recent news of deportations is making undocumented students—who with DACA had begun to feel safe speaking out—retreat back into the shadows. “It’s like living a dream,” says Rudy, an undocumented student at the University of California, Davis, who plans to major in chemical engineering. “Everything can be taken away so easily, and that’s the gamble we’re playing.”

At the age of five, Rudy and his brother crossed the border from Mexico in the middle of the night in a semitruck filled with mattresses. Their mother, who had crossed over earlier, was waiting for them on the other side.

Rudy says if it weren’t for DACA, he’d likely be working in the fields with his parents. Instead, he’s been able to obtain scholarships to do undergraduate research.

“I don’t know what I would be doing now if it weren’t for DACA,” he says. “Being in the U.S. with DACA has really been a life-changing event for me. It’s allowed me to do research and pursue a degree in STEM,” he says of fields in science, technology, engineering, and math.

In addition to his classes, Rudy works multiple part-time jobs, often more than 30 hours a week, to pay his way through college, which is typical of undocumented students whose families are at the poverty level. He hopes to work for either a petroleum or beer-brewing company as a chemical engineer after he graduates. He has no plans to return to Mexico. “I consider the U.S. my home because I have everything here.”

Brothers Christian and Nicolás, whose mother brought them to the U.S. from Peru when they were seven years old, also credit DACA with giving them opportunities in the chemical sciences. They graduated from college last year, Christian with a degree in biochemistry from Saint Peter’s University and Nicolás with a degree in chemistry from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Christian is working as a clinical research coordinator and hopes to go to medical school. Nicolás works as a consumer advocate for a home care start-up and is saving money to go to pharmacy school. “Without DACA, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Nicolás says. Christian says DACA has allowed him to travel within the U.S. and present his research at scientific meetings.

Yet the political uncertainty hangs over their heads like a storm cloud. “DACA has helped me so much, but with the Trump Administration, that glimpse of my future that I was very excited about has dimmed a little, and it’s unfortunate because I have so many dreams,” Christian says.

But DACA’s critics say the policy does not support the interests of the U.S. public. “People seem to believe that if you violate immigration laws, somehow it is society’s responsibility or the law’s responsibility, not the responsibility of the people who consciously broke the law and put their kids in that position in the first place,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

“Nobody comes here, legally or illegally, unless it’s in their interest to be here,” Mehlman continues. “The question is, what impact does it have on everybody else in society? What impact does it have on people’s jobs, on the quality of education their kids get, how their tax dollars are spent?”

Despite the potential costs of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. economy, 72% of Americans say undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally if they meet certain requirements, according to a survey conducted in 2015 by Pew Research Center.

And the Center for American Progress estimates that granting legal immigration status to 2.1 million young people and incentivizing higher education would add $329 billion to the U.S. economy by 2030.

“The part that’s bleakest to me is the likelihood that lots of teenagers who may have promise in science and math and who may be going into chemical engineering or basic research in molecular biology may be thinking that they can’t think about anything like that anymore” if DACA were discontinued, says Ed Kissam of the Werner-Kohnstamm Family Fund, which supports initiatives toward immigration policy reform and civic integration of immigrants. “What I see most tragic is the stifling of ambition, curiosity, and exploration.”

“There’s still no path to citizenship,” says Hacking, the immigration lawyer. “There’s no line to get into, there’s no fine to pay, there’s no volunteer work you can do. There’s no mechanism to get from point A to point B as things stand right now. It’s an amazing waste of good talent and smart, hard-working people.”



DACA 101

▸ What is DACA?

Former president Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy on June 15, 2012, to grant deferred action from deportation for certain undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children.

Those who receive deferred action may be eligible for employment authorization. This two-year renewable program has to date benefited more than 770,000 undocumented youth. Applications for the program opened on Aug. 15, 2012.

▸ Who is eligible for DACA?

Individuals who were under 31 as of June 15, 2012; came to the U.S. before the age of 16; have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; entered the U.S. without inspection or fell out of lawful visa status before June 15, 2012; were physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making the request for consideration of deferred action with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services; are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces; have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, or more than three misdemeanors of any kind; and do not pose a threat to national security or public safety. Individuals must be at least 15 years old to request DACA.

▸ How much does it cost, and how does one apply?

The total fees for the application (including an application for an employment authorization document and background check) are $495. DACA must be renewed four months or 120 days before an individual’s current period of deferred action expires.



Deferring dreams


Even before DACA, undocumented youth have been on the front lines of advocating for legal access in higher education. Tolu Olubunmi, an undocumented immigrant from Nigeria, has chronicled her journey from being an unemployed, undocumented chemical engineer to being one of the most prominent and influential advocates for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Nobody comes here, legally or illegally, unless it’s in their interest to be here. The question is, what impact does it have on everybody else in society? What impact does it have on people’s jobs, on the quality of education their kids get, how their tax dollars are spent?
Ira Mehlman, spokesperson, Federation for American Immigration Reform

After earning a degree in chemical engineering, Olubunmi found it impossible to find a job because of her undocumented status. Without work authorization, no companies would hire her, so she turned to freelance opportunities. “I did everything from tutoring math and science to starting my own line of organic hair care products to editing art books, and I knew nothing about art. I just did everything I could to keep my mind together,” she says.

“At the beginning of the 2008 elections, I decided that I needed to do more than passively follow the immigration battles raging in Congress while mourning my dreams deferred. I risked everything—deportation and financial and personal security—to serve my country as a full-time unpaid volunteer advocating for better immigration policies,” Olubunmi says.

She began volunteering at the National Immigration Law Center and went on to become a founding board member of the United We Dream network, a cofounder of and Immigrant Heritage Month, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration and the Global Future Council on the Future of Migration. She founded Lions Write, an organization that advocates for migrants, refugees, and displaced people globally.

Olubunmi says her degree in chemical engineering has opened many doors for her even though she could not find a traditional role in the field, and she encourages other undocumented immigrants to find their voice. “Hiding under your bed and giving up is not an option,” she says. “Figure out what you can do to continue to give back to your community.”



By the numbers


Number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.


Number of unauthorized young adults eligible for DACA in 2016


Number of undocumented youth who have received DACA protection since 2012


Sources: U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, Migration Policy Institute, Pew Research Center



Looking ahead


Undocumented students hope to one day have comprehensive immigration reform—such as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief & Education for Alien Minors), which was first introduced in Congress in 2001 and has repeatedly failed to pass—that would provide them with a path to citizenship.

Currently, 20 states offer in-state college tuition to students who meet the eligibility requirements, including undocumented students, 16 by state legislative action and four by state university systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states have passed laws to provide state-based financial aid for undocumented students who meet the eligibility requirements.

In the meantime, undocumented students continue to hit the books. Angel, a Ph.D. candidate in pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacogenomics at UC San Francisco, who crossed the border from Mexico with his parents when he was 18 months old, says the ability to work legally has enabled more undocumented students to seek advanced degrees.

Credit: Setie Asfaha/San Francisco State University
A monarch butterfly sticker on Eroy-Reveles’s laptop displays her support for undocumented students.
A photo of Alegra Eroy-Reveles with her laptop.
Credit: Setie Asfaha/San Francisco State University
A monarch butterfly sticker on Eroy-Reveles’s laptop displays her support for undocumented students.

In 2012, Angel and two other undocumented youth in San Francisco founded Pre-Health Dreamers, an organization that provides resources for undocumented youth seeking graduate and medical degrees, such as frequently asked questions, a list of scholarships that undocumented students may be eligible for, and information on options for health care coverage. “We try to figure things out as we go, and once we have an answer, we let other people know about it,” he says of the grassroots nature of the organization. He estimates that more than 500 undocumented students and allies are members of the organization.


One challenge Angel faces as an undocumented graduate student is that he does not qualify for federal funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, so he has to rely on institutional funds, which can be limiting. “Ideally, you want to come into a lab with your own funding,” he says, adding that he would like to find a job in the chemical industry but acknowledges that it will be an uphill battle. “There’s currently no pathway for me to obtain citizenship,” he says.

Leticia Márquez-Magaña, a biology professor who had Angel as a student when he was an undergrad at San Francisco State University, says many undocumented students such as Angel are high achievers.

“Many of the best students I’ve ever trained in my 23 years of being a professor at San Francisco State are undocumented students,” she says. “They have to go through so much that they have those abilities that are the key characteristics of amazing scientists: persistence, motivation, commitment, strong work ethic, and ability to multitask. These individuals have overcome so much, and they know how to fail and get back up because they’ve done it so much in a system that’s not in their favor.”

Building a network


Because of their shared experiences, undocumented students are passionate about helping one another, raising awareness about their issues, and creating positive change.

Sergio, an undocumented student and a chemistry major at New Jersey City University, founded an organization called Drea[me]rs at his university. “We started the organization because we know what it’s like to be alone,” he says. “I wanted to bring onto campus the idea that we are more than a status. We are people, and we’re here to do wonderful things.” He says his organization currently has around 25 members, including both undocumented students and allies.

Faculty are also learning how best to support the undocumented students in their classes. “The symbol of undocumented students is the monarch butterfly, which sees no borders. I have a sticker on my laptop front and center so that when I open my laptop, that’s what students see,” says Alegra Eroy-Reveles, a chemistry professor at San Francisco State whose husband was previously an undocumented immigrant. “Our faculty is supportive of these students. We want to see these students succeed, and we want to see them graduate.”

Eroy-Reveles also serves as a faculty liaison for undocumented students and encourages faculty to attend the university’s UndocuAlly training program, which trains staff and faculty on how to support the undocumented student population. Started at UC Berkeley, UndocuAlly training is now offered at universities around the country, including the University of Washington, Northeastern Illinois University, George Mason University in Virginia, and the University of South Florida.

“I don’t frame it as I’m supporting undocumented students,” says Márquez-Magaña of San Francisco State. “I’m supporting the practice of science in this country, and the practice of science in this country benefits from multiple perspectives. I’m going to support all students who are really committed to the practice of science.”

Many organizations offer resources to assist undocumented students and their allies, including the United We Dream network,, Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), the blog My Undocumented Life, and the University Leaders for Educational Access & Diversity Network (uLEAD).

“I’ve seen, since the election, that there has been a surge in support from educators and a surge in support from administrators in schools,” says Nancy Jodaitis, director of higher education initiatives for E4FC, which empowers undocumented young people to achieve their educational and career goals. “What’s really important is for those who are supportive to make that support more visible to our students so that they know they aren’t standing alone, that there are people who really want to support their educational pursuits and their career opportunities because we know they have so much value to give.”

The undocumented students C&EN spoke with said it was important to speak out and to share their stories, despite the increasing risks of getting deported. “The one thing we can do is not stay silent,” Angel says. “We bring a unique perspective, and I think having someone who has had a very different lived experience enriches the life of the lab. Whether we lean toward the left or the right, at the end of the day, we’re united by our passion for science.”

And they have no choice but to keep fighting. “I feel like when I graduate, I’ll just break down and cry knowing that I’ve made it this far,” Acuña says. “Maybe I won’t have a job lined up, maybe I won’t even have anything to look forward to after college, but the fact I did it and that my story can help others, that’s what inspires me to keep moving forward.”


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