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The University of California denies campus jobs for undocumented students

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In California, undocumented college students were dealt a blow yesterday. Leaders of the University of California system rejected a proposal that would have allowed these students to work in campus jobs. NPR's Adrian Florido is here to tell us more. Hi there.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Adrian, what can you tell us about this proposal that the university system had been considering?

FLORIDO: Well, it would have allowed undocumented immigrant students to be hired in university departments, in offices or as research assistants, for example. Currently, only undocumented students with a work permit under the federal DACA program can get campus jobs, making it hard for those who don't have DACA to get by. So for the last year or so, they've been pressuring the UC system to adopt this new policy based on a novel interpretation of federal law. The Board of Regents, which governs the university system, spent months researching this proposal, but yesterday a majority voted not to adopt it.

SUMMERS: I want to talk more about the vote in a couple minutes. But you mentioned that the DACA program, which has given work permits to many immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. So why the need for this new policy?

FLORIDO: Well, first, a Texas court ruling has new DACA applicants on freeze. That's one thing. But also, DACA was introduced in 2012. And one of the requirements is that you had to have been in the U.S. before 2007 to qualify. Many, if not most, of today's college-age undocumented students weren't in the country yet, so they don't qualify. This is Alejandra Nipita. She's a 21-year-old senior at UC Merced whose parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 4. She can't get DACA, and she can't get a job.

ALEJANDRA NIPITA: The most frustrating part is that I cannot advocate for myself through my own hard work. I feel like a burden, and my status always feels like something that's sitting on my shoulders.

FLORIDO: She and other students went on a hunger strike this week to urge the UC regents to adopt this policy that would have let their schools hire them.

SUMMERS: Help me understand here. How could universities even have that authority without violating federal law?

FLORIDO: So this proposal from students was actually backed up by a long list of constitutional legal experts who wrote to the Board of Regents, arguing that this would be legal but that it would require a novel interpretation of the 1986 federal law that says that employers can't hire immigrants without legal status. Because that law does not explicitly mention the states, these scholars argue that state government entities like the UC system are not bound by it, and they say that there's a pretty strong or very strong Supreme Court precedent for this position. Ahilan Arulanantham is a UCLA law professor who's argued cases before the Supreme Court and who co-wrote that legal memo to the UC regents.

AHILAN ARULANANTHAM: In law, it is often true that everybody sort of assumes the statute reads one way. But then suddenly people take a closer look, notice something that they haven't noticed before and interpret that law to mean something different than what people thought it did.

FLORIDO: He and his colleagues think that they're on firm legal ground here, as I said, and hoped the UC system would be willing to say, yeah, let's give this a shot.

SUMMERS: And as you pointed out, the UC Board of Regents decided not to. Why?

FLORIDO: Well, at the board's meeting yesterday, the UCs' president, Michael Drake, said the university had consulted with lots of its own legal experts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL DRAKE: After all of this, we have concluded that the proposed legal pathway is not viable at this time and, in fact, carries significant risk for the institution and for those we serve.

FLORIDO: He said those risks included exposing students to possible deportation, criminal prosecution for staff who hire undocumented students and possible fines for the university or even the loss of federal contracts. He did say the university might reconsider in the future, maybe in about a year. But this was obviously deeply disappointing for student advocates, who said they are going to regroup and figure out what to do next.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Adrian Florido in Los Angeles. Adrian, thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC TUCKER SONG, "FWM FT. FRE$H") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.