In summary

California is funding immigration attorneys for students and their families as federal courts weigh the fate of DACA and politicians battle over border enforcement.

The petite, 21-year-old student in the plaid shirt and jeans sitting across from attorney Karina Gutierrez is so nervous, she almost can’t remember her birth date. Behind her square-framed glasses, her eyes well with tears.

The expiration is nearing on her permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects certain immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation and allows them to work legally in this country. Renewals cost $495, and she doesn’t yet have the money.

Gutierrez listens. “So you have a lot going on right now, basically,” she says gently.  “Why don’t I give you a legal assessment and we can go from there? And if you need a break, let me know.”

Gutierrez herself might need a break. At just after 11 a.m., she’s about three hours into a 13-hour day that started with wolfing down a few bites of instant oatmeal as she raced through emails and paperwork. 

She’s one of 10 attorneys employed by the University of California’s Immigrant Legal Services Center, and as the Trump administration seeks to further curb immigration, her office in a quiet corner of a UC Riverside administration building has become one of many fronts in the ongoing national debate over who should have access to the American dream.

With federal courts weighing the fate of DACA and pitched partisan battles in Congress over border enforcement, California is spending $4 million over three years to fund free immigration legal assistance for UC students and their families. More than a quarter of the country’s 700,000 DACA recipients live in California. 

In a redder state, taxpayers might object to a public university providing state-funded legal aid for clients that include unauthorized immigrants, not all of whom are students. But polls show more than eight Californians in 10 favor a path to legal status for undocumented residents.

UC President Janet Napolitano—a former Homeland Security Secretary—supports the program, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed spending an additional $17 million next year to provide similar legal services on California State University and community college campuses.  

At UC Riverside, where the student body includes an estimated 800 undocumented and DACA-status students, Gutierrez helps her clients file renewal applications for the two-year DACA permits—under President Donald Trump, the program is not currently accepting new applicants—and counsels them about long-shot options for establishing permanent residency. She draws diagrams on notebook paper filled with boxes and arrows showing the possibilities and hurdles. Sometimes, she literally holds their hands.

An uncertain path

The student sitting in Gutierrez’s office wants to be a high school guidance counselor, because, she says, a counselor once made a difference for her. She came to the United States at the age of 5 and, unlike her parents, has no memory of life before that in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

“They’re always telling me stories, but I’m like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

Here in California, she says, “I have my driver’s license, but it’s still kind of scary—always watching what I do, looking over my shoulder.” All the clients interviewed for this story asked CALmatters not to name them, to avoid compromising their immigration cases, so we’ll call her Marisol.

Like many UCR students, Marisol comes from a mixed-status family: parents without papers, a sister who is a citizen, and a brother who qualified for DACA but didn’t apply because the family couldn’t afford it.

In the past, a grant program through the California Department of Social Services would have paid the $495 fee. But that money has run out and it’s unclear whether the state will renew it. Marisol’s two-day-a-week job at a theater doesn’t pay enough, so she’s hoping to use her financial aid money.

Her U.S. citizen sister can petition for her when she turns 21, but the current wait time is more than 20 years, according to the State Department’s latest visa bulletin. And she may have to leave the country for 10 years before becoming eligible. Marisol’s eyes widen.

The overwhelming majority of cases are like these—students whose path to citizenship is either lengthy and uncertain, or just nonexistent.

“You want to do something more for your clients, but you also come to learn that this is what we’re dealing with,” Gutierrez, 30, says.

Immigration attorney Karina Gutierrez strolls the UC Riverside campus with a client. More than a quarter of the country’s 700,000 DACA recipients live in California. Photo for CALmatters by Felicia Mello
Gutierrez and a client stroll on the UC Riverside campus. More than a quarter of the country’s 700,000 DACA recipients live in California. Photo for CALmatters by Felicia Mello

 ‘Stomachache, unable to sleep’  

Gutierrez’s next appointment, a shaggy-haired chemistry student we’ll call Luis, is already waiting when Marisol leaves, DACA renewal check in hand. Luis is doing his Ph.D. research on a coating for the surfaces of airplanes and spacecraft that could make them more impact-resistant. “I don’t want to jump the gun and say it will totally 100 percent work,” he says.

Without DACA, Luis says, he’d likely have to drop out of school: While California lets students who are undocumented apply for state-sponsored financial aid, the bulk of that aid is targeted toward undergraduates. Luis relies on about $24,000 a year from his graduate assistantship to make ends meet.

The last time he renewed his permit, Luis paid a local immigration consultant $150 to help fill out the forms, which ended up sprinkled with minor errors. A fixture of many Latino neighborhoods, such consultants—sometimes referred to as notarios—work out of storefronts assisting clients with taxes and legal documents. But they are not attorneys, and sometimes make costly mistakes.

Established in 2012 by President Barack Obama, DACA has helped students like Luis, but recipients still can’t travel outside the country or receive federal financial aid. An Obama-era provision called advance parole allowed those with DACA to leave the United States to study abroad or visit sick family members, a practice the Trump administration stopped.

“A lot of these students have grandparents back home who were their caregivers that they can’t see,” Gutierrez says of her clients. “And then these people pass away and you never see them again.”

For undocumented students without DACA, the risk of travel is greater. At least two UC students have landed in immigration detention since the Immigrant Legal Services Center was founded in 2015, according to its staff, and a third was stranded in Tijuana after his advance parole expired during a research trip. All eventually returned to their campuses, but Gutierrez says that kind of prosecutorial discretion has become more rare under Trump. She counsels undocumented students to avoid unnecessary travel even to border-adjacent areas like San Diego, warning that they can’t count on leniency: “The worst-case scenario is no longer the worst-case scenario.”

Gutierrez understands these challenges more than most: She’s a DACA recipient herself, raised until she was 4 by a grandmother in Mexico before moving with her family to Orange County.  She told no one she was undocumented until she was a student at Cal State Fullerton and her friends were planning a San Diego trip. She took them aside: I have something to tell you. They ended up hanging out in Fullerton instead.

California is among a handful of states that allow undocumented immigrants to become lawyers. But despite her education and professional status, Gutierrez says she faces the same dilemma as other DACA recipients: Exiting the country to “get in line” for legal status would mean leaving the only home she knows, and paradoxically, might actually damage her immigration case.  

So when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in fall 2017 plans to end DACA, Gutierrez says, she went through the same stress cycle as her clients: “Stomachache, unable to sleep, crying. Pure emotion.”  

A series of lawsuits has kept DACA alive for those who already have permits, with California’s Ninth Circuit appeals court deeming the Trump administration’s attempt to terminate it “arbitrary and capricious.” A Washington, D.C., appeals court is currently reviewing another case, and the Supreme Court has so far declined to take up the issue, meaning the legal limbo is likely to continue at least through the end of the year.

‘I never know if I’m going to return’

It’s 2:30 p.m., and the oatmeal still sits mostly untouched on Gutierrez’s desk. She takes a few more bites and logs onto her case-management system: 35 open cases, 110 pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 127 closed. The center’s caseload grew by 28 percent in the 2017-18 academic year. Attorneys mostly do their own clerical work, which means late-night hours and weekend shifts to catch up.

An intern comes in with a letter: Citizenship and Immigration Services has rejected a residency petition filed by a student under a special program for underage victims of abuse and neglect. Applications for this program open periodically, then the window closes. By law, the application fee can be waived for those who can’t afford it, but the government has decided not to waive it in this case, Gutierrez says—she’s not sure why—and the client has missed the deadline. She will now have to wait until applications reopen, which could be years. 

Administrative snafus like these can carry serious consequences. Another client, a recent UCR graduate from Peru, had a DACA work permit lost in the mail nine months ago, and immigration officials have so far refused to send another one, Gutierrez says. A photographer, the client is planning a multi-state photography trip but is nervous about leaving California without the permit in hand, though she’s already been approved for it.

Gutierrez is helping her draft a letter to U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, asking her to intervene.

A 2015 UCLA study found that the rate of anxiety among DACA students is about five times as high as among the general student population, often due to worry about friends and family members being deported.

That’s why the center also counsels students’ immediate relatives, like Gutierrez’s last client of the day, Marvin, a burly construction worker whose daughter attends UCR. Marvin, too, came to the United States as a teen, but it was long before DACA existed.

“I leave my house in the morning,” he says, “but I never know if I’m going to return. Probably my daughters feel it, too.”

Gutierrez tells him she wants him to be aware of his rights if he’s stopped by immigration officials at one of the checkpoints he sometimes passes on the way to work.

“The only thing you’re going to tell them is your name and your birthdate,” she coaches him. “If they ask you any other questions, what are you going to say?”

“I want to talk to an attorney,” Marvin responds.

Gutierrez moves her face close to his and barks questions in Spanish, imitating an immigration official. They’re both half-laughing, but Gutierrez is serious.

“If they’re like this, are you going to be able to remember what I’m telling you? No, you are going to feel intimidated.”

She hands him a pamphlet he can show to officials invoking his right to an attorney.

It’s dark by the time Marvin leaves, and Gutierrez has another two hours of paperwork ahead of her. She takes off her black blazer, pins up her hair, and starts entering details into the case-management system.

In some ways, she says, she feels like a professional deliverer of bad news. But there are bright moments—like the client who decided she wanted to be a lawyer after talking with Gutierrez, the first undocumented attorney she’d ever met.

When all else fails, she simply takes a pause.

“Sometimes I have to leave the office and cry for 10 minutes,” she says, “and then it’s back to work.”

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...