About 100 CU Boulder students are undocumented immigrants with federal DACA status. They’re doing amazing things. But planning for the future isn’t easy.
Alan Sanchez thinks far ahead in time and far away in space.
With one course to go for a joint bachelor’s-master’s degree in aerospace engineering, the CU Boulder student has set his sights on a career in spacecraft propulsion. Long-term, he’s ready to ride all the way to Mars to help develop a viable human habitat there.
Here on Earth, he’s been doing all the right things to cultivate the hard and soft skills that will come in handy as a member of high-stakes technical teams.
Besides immersing himself in physics, fluid dynamics and philosophy, he’s worked a series of paid jobs while attending school full-time, including roles with the CU-based National Snow and Ice Data Center and the engineering college's Precision Laser Diagnostics Lab. He’s been a resident adviser in Libby Hall, a private tutor and a childcare provider at a Boulder school where immigrant parents learn to speak and read English.
Sanchez (AeroEngr’17; MS’18) has an internship with Tesla now. On the side, he’s a competitive breakdancer.
But more than time and space stand between him and his ambitions.
I have lived most of my life in a state of limbo.”
“I’m not a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident,” he said.
Sanchez, 23, is one of an estimated 1-4 million people in the United States born in a foreign country, brought to the U.S. as children and raised here without legal immigration status, often referred to as “Dreamers.” He came to Colorado from Mexico at 8 months old and grew up in Denver, the youngest of three children of undocumented immigrant parents. His father operates an HVAC repair business, his mother runs a liquor store.
At CU Boulder, Sanchez is one of about 100 undocumented students with temporary relief from deportation under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, established in 2012. It also offers a Social Security number and permission to work.
Without work, most DACA students couldn’t afford to attend CU, given family circumstances and their ineligibility for federal financial aid. Even with multiple jobs and in-state tuition, many can barely afford it.
“I always had at least one job,” Sanchez said. “There were periods when I had three.”
DACA helps, but hardly resolves the predicament of students like Sanchez and Shiyan Zhang (Acct, Fin’18), who met through the Inspired Dreamers, a campus advocacy group founded by DACA students. DACA doesn’t make them citizens or provide a pathway to legal status, and it’s valid for two-year stretches only, leaving them perpetually in limbo.
“You cannot plan for the future,” said Zhang, a Grand Junction (Colo.) High School graduate whose parents brought her to the U.S. from China via Botswana when she was 5 years old. “So you learn to live in the moment.”
That doesn’t make the moment comfortable: In September, the Justice Department said it would end DACA.
Federal courts have temporarily blocked the plan, allowing individuals with existing DACA protections to renew. The government stopped taking first-time applications, but a separate court ruling in April could force it to resume.
Were DACA to go away, CU students like Sanchez and Zhang could be subject to arrest and deportation to countries that are as foreign to them as Colorado is familiar.
Besides the personal cost to students and their families, the U.S. would lose the benefit of the skills they acquired here, said Violeta Raquel Chapin, a clinical professor at Colorado Law School who co-advises the Inspired Dreamers with David Aragon, assistant vice chancellor for diversity, learning and student success.
“And I think we lose any kind of moral authority to say that we try to do things that are right and decent,” Chapin said.
You cannot plan for the future. So you learn to live in the moment.”
For Sanchez, his immigration status has complicated the pursuit of internships in his chosen field, even with firms eager to have him: In many cases, federal rules forbid aerospace and defense contractors from employing foreign nationals.
CU Boulder, like many universities, has publicly declared its support for DACA and taken steps to help DACA students navigate the extreme uncertainty of life amid shifting federal immigration policies.
Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano joined more than 700 university leaders who signed an open letter drafted by Pomona College declaring that “DACA should be upheld, continued and expanded,” calling the policy “a moral imperative and a national necessity.” CU has started a relief fund to help students meet emergency expenses, including $495 DACA renewal application fees, and expanded financial aid for tuition. Chapin said she and her CU law students have helped at least 50 students fill out and file renewal applications.
She also lends her ear to students wrestling with fear and frustration as they try to set a course for their lives amid national discord over immigration policy. She’s invited all of them to her home for a barbecue in June.
“It’s a little bit of a social worker aspect, which I’ve always embraced as a defense lawyer,” said Chapin, a former Washington, D.C., public defender. “You meet with people in the most challenging moments in their lives. You listen to them, hear feelings, anxieties and emotions. I try to do that as often as I can.”
Sanchez isn’t the sort to dwell on negative thoughts. He’s an engineer, and engineers are pragmatic. He’s got problems to solve and an opportunity at Tesla to seize, an opportunity that could spawn others.
There’s meanwhile the business of living and making plans amid profound uncertainty. Sanchez wants financial security, so he’s been looking into Roth IRAs. He’s working to set up a scholarship for first-year CU Boulder students who can’t afford to live on campus, as he once couldn’t. He tries to make time to dance.
Sanchez worries less about himself and his siblings, he said, than about his undocumented parents, who are ineligible for DACA.
“There’s nothing to protect them,” he said.
It weighs on him.
The needs of Shiyan Zhang’s younger siblings in Grand Junction add urgency to her own search for stability. Their parents have divorced. From Boulder, Zhang helps look after the kids, taking responsibility even for registering them for school, she said.
Zhang must look out for herself, too, of course. She wants to move up in the world, and has been offered a summer internship with a Denver firm she’d like to join full-time. But she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to take it, given her immigration status.
“You feel so helpless,” she said.
One thing Sanchez and Zhang can do is share their stories, two among millions.
Twice in recent months Sanchez has addressed CU Boulder alumni audiences, once in Los Angeles, once in Washington, D.C.
“I have lived most of my life in a state of limbo, not knowing exactly where I stand and who around me would like to see me fall,” he said at the CU Boulder Next conference in Los Angeles. “It means the world to me that CU Boulder is openly supportive of DACA students, and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Afterward, an alumnus approached him and offered a ring as a token of solidarity.
“When you graduate, give this ring to the next DACA student you think should have [it],” Sanchez said the man told him.
Soon Alan Sanchez will have two degrees from a leading American aerospace engineering program. He’d like to put them to work for America.
Photos by Glenn Asakawa