Minnesota's undocumented college students wait, worry as election nears

Estefania Navarro is working on her 2nd associate's degree.
Estefania Navarro, 22, is working on her second associate's degree at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and mentoring other undocumented students. She's one of the nearly 6,000 young, undocumented immigrants in Minnesota living under two-year reprieves from deportation.
Lila Cherneff | APM Reports

Julio Martinez left southern Mexico 11 years ago, crossing the border illegally into the United States with his parents and younger brother. He was 8 when he arrived in Minnesota.

Now a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Martinez has big plans. He hopes to work for Hennepin County someday — and maybe run it. He may also be an actor. He has dreams and ambitions as bold as the rest of his classmates.

He also has the threat of deportation hanging over him.

Martinez is among the nearly 6,000 young, undocumented immigrants in Minnesota living under two-year reprieves from deportation authorized by President Barack Obama. The presidential order created a window of stability for those who came to the U.S. before age 16 and had clean records. Martinez and others used the opportunity to enroll in college.

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That opportunity could be in serious trouble by next week, depending on who wins the presidency. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he'd cancel the reprieves, known officially as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Day One of his administration.

The uncertainty has made for some nervous times lately for Martinez and 44 other students in Star Scholars, a scholarship program for undocumented students funded by private philanthropy that's helped make college affordable. Undocumented students aren't eligible for Pell grants or federal student loans.

Julio Martinez, 19, is a Star Scholar at MCTC.
Julio Martinez, 19, is a Star Scholar pursuing a degree in human services at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Sasha Aslanian | APM Reports

"There's a lot of fear, a lot of worry about, 'Well if this candidate or that one wins, will we actually be rounded up, sent out of the country?'" said Jay Williams, the interim chief diversity officer at MCTC who began piloting the Star Scholars program last year.

Minnesota is one of 20 states allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and one of five states that also provide financial assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Data from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education show 763 students applied for those benefits for the fall term.

Martinez was able to land an internship at Hennepin County's Office of Multicultural Services. He answers phones, translates and helps people apply for benefits. But he worries the life he's been living could unravel quickly after Nov. 8.

Election season has been an uneasy time, said Estefania Navarro, who mentors Martinez and the other Star Scholars and is in the same limbo. The 22-year-old also came from Mexico as a child, and remembers getting mixed messages about planning for her future.

"We would have white college girls come into our school and talk to us about the great wonders of Macalester [College], about Gustavus [Adolphus College], and we would go on field trips. And they said 'if you do your homework, you can go to college.'"

"Waiting for somebody to say 'Mexican' or 'illegal' like it's a profane word, it's so tiring," said Navarro.

Navarro said she's trying to stay focused on her goals and encourage her students to get as many credits as they can in the time they have.

She's picked her course of study with an eye on what's ahead. While she wanted to study political science and someday run for office, she's settled for a more pragmatic choice: computer forensics. Her dad is a computer engineer back in Mexico, and she wants skills that would make her marketable on either side of the border.

You can hear more of these students' stories on the Educate podcast produced by APM Reports.