Chris Suarez & Janeal Downs
Latino students in the Richmond area are finding new partners to help advocate for important cultural and political causes to their expanding community.
Despite the growing number of immigrants arriving in the Richmond area and the increase of Latino students enrolling at VCU, some young adults feel their culture and identity is underrepresented.
VCU sophomore Camille Brenke was named the Latino Student Association’s first Community Service Chair at the start of this semester. Brenke said her aspirations for this year are to engage and to raise awareness about her native community. She added that issues of social disparity in the greater Richmond area need more attention from members of the Latino student community.
“You don’t really see Latino people on campus,” Brenke said. “They’re not really visible, a lot of people say they only see Latino people at Latino Student Association events.”
Having grown up in Richmond, Brenke attended Maggie Walker High School where she said she was one of the few Latino students at her school. Brenke said many of her Latino peers are not afforded the same opportunities she was granted growing up, either.
“I know there are other high schools with larger Latino populations,” Brenke said. “A lot of them just aren’t college-bound. It’s a totally different experience being with Latino students in college compared to high school.”
As more Latino immigrant students enroll in the local school systems, administrators are finding it difficult to communicate with students and their families. Since 2010, the Latino population in the Richmond Public School system has increased by 55 percent, and currently 2,369 students identify as Latino according to demographic statistics provided by the Richmond Public School system.
Richmond Conexiones is an organization founded by Dustin King, aimed at providing health services for Latino families in Richmond’s south side. King claims that underlying racial bias, lack of interpretative services and English teaching programs have led immigrant families to feel frustration, anxiety and fear.
Latinos account for nearly 2,000 students at VCU, according to current enrollment statistics. Between 2003 and 2013, VCU saw a nearly 200 percent increase in Latino enrollment.
Brenke said she plans on working with current and former members of VCU’s Latino Student Association to help set up a network of different charity organizations and student-led programs helping the community.
One of the first collaborators she plans to work with is RVA Dreamers, an organization founded in Summer 2013 by VCU social work alumna Karel Carreon and other local Latino Richmond residents.
Though RVA Dreamers includes members who are VCU students, it has never been officially affiliated with VCU. The organization aims to help undocumented students throughout Virginia to obtain a higher education, according to Carreon.
Brenke said she met Carreon and other students interested in activism through the Sacred Heart Center, a predominantly Hispanic, Catholic community organization based in south Richmond.
VCU and the Hispanic community are seeking to cultivate a link between one another. According to Brenke, both the Sacred Heart Center and the VCU Global Affairs Office have spoken with her and other LSA members to facilitate a closer relationship through the organization and her new position.
The first step, Brenke said, is to have students volunteer at Sacred Heart Center, where they can help facilitate English classes, organize community events and offer leadership to younger members of the community.
“It definitely feels like the year where (The LSA) is starting back up and building a reputation,” Brenke said. “That’s what we want, a reputation where people approach us and want us to do community engagement. It’s exciting.”
Carreon said there was much classroom debate and controversy over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) during her senior year at VCU while she was studying legislative welfare and policy during.
DACA is an executive order that temporarily grants young immigrants amnesty from being deported. While the order allows applicants to work and study in the country, for many immigrant students this was unrealistic because of high out-of-state tuition rates.
“Many of my friends who were supposed to graduate the same year as me were unable,” Carreon said. “They were still considered freshmen while I was about to graduate because they couldn’t afford tuition.”
In light of this, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring provided a reinterpretation of the 2012 DACA statute. Students who’ve been granted a two-year deferred status are now eligible for in-state tuition.
One of the now-eligible recipients for in-state tuition is Yanet Limon-Amado, one of RVA Dreamers’ founders.
Limon-Amado immigrated to America when she was eight years old, and is currently in her second year at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Prior to enrolling at the local community college, Carreon asked Limon-Amado to help her establish the organization and advocate for young Latinos like herself.
“When I came (to the United States), I knew I was coming without documentation, but I didn’t know what that meant,” Limon-Amado said. “I just knew we were coming from a different country. I didn’t know it was illegal. It was tough, I was just adapting to Mexico and had to come here not knowing the language. There wasn’t really anyone in school who spoke Spanish that I could talk to in my third-grade classroom.”
Brenke, Carreon and other students said Latinos at VCU have not done nearly enough to advocate and support those who share their cultural identity.
Carreon said those opposed to a VCU organization focused on immigration reform believe sponsorship, funding and willingness of immigrant students who do not want to talk about their status would pose too many obstacles.
“We grew up in the same neighborhoods and same schools, we graduated together,” Carreon said. “I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘I’m undocumented.’ People don’t want to talk about themselves like that. It can go both ways, people can support you or they can stigmatize you.”
RVA Dreamers’ organizers and LSA members agree that the immigration debate is a politically stratified topic and members of the Latino community are sometimes fearful that participating in discussion could cause rifts through the Latino community.
“People and politicians don’t want to talk about it because they can get on the wrong side of voters,” said Santiago Vineuza, an organizer for RVA Dreamers. “But it’s a reality we are facing — students like myself who came here as children didn’t have any say in what our lives are like.”
In an interview with the Commonwealth Times earlier this summer, VCU College Republicans Vice President James Lawrence said he believes in offering equal opportunity for higher education, but that considerations need to be made regarding cost-effectiveness at the institutional and state level. His statement was in response to the attorney general’s decision to qualify DACA recipients for in-state tuition.
“Obviously when you’re talking about children or college-age students, exceptions have to be made because educating them is the preferred method,” Lawrence said. “But at what cost is that going to cost other in-state or out-of-state registered citizens?”
RVA Dreamers held an event at J. Sargeant Reynolds community college last week. The group held a forum to raise awareness of the issue and to discuss legal requirements for Dreamers to earn DACA accreditation and in-state tuition status at any university.
Powell Law Group attorney Adriana Ruiz highlighted the paperwork and documentation hurdles immigrant students face in trying to establish themselves as educated residents by working toward a college degree.
To successfully apply for DACA status, applicants must have a high school diploma or GED, been under the age of 31 before June 15, 2012, arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and prove physical presence in the states on June 15, 2012 as well.
Obtaining in-state tuition also requires applicants to have been covered by DACA for at least 12 months. They must also prove Virginia residency when submitting a request for in-state tuition.
“Right now, there is no law. DACA is only an executive action made by the president,” Ruiz said. “We are in dire need of comprehensive immigration reform, something that will actually include not only Dreamers, but also people who have been here a long time, are filing their taxes, are law abiding citizens and are residents of this country.”