Undocumented students, staff work to create student resource center

Thalía Menchaca

Editor’s Note: This story is published in collaboration with the Moody Writing Support Program

In the early months of the pandemic, Katya Guzman said she remembered seeing some students receive up to $2,500 in federal financial support. However, she knew her status as an undocumented student excluded her from this financial help.

“It was really hard because a lot of us were directly impacted (by COVID-19), and then we weren’t able to receive any sort of aid,” said Guzman, a Latino studies and human dimensions of organizations senior.

Most financial aid is inaccessible to UT’s estimated 600 undocumented students, which Guzman said forced this community to band together for help. During the pandemic, four student organizations collaborated to create Rooted, an organization that aims to provide equitable access to resources for undocumented students. Rooted members include students, staff and alumni who plan to establish a student center in fall 2022 that will provide jobs, mentorships and scholarships to UT’s undocumented community.

Next semester, Rooted will present survey data on undocumented student experiences to top University leadership to advocate for a physical location and funding for staff once the center opens, according to the organization’s website. The survey asks questions, such as how frequently do students worry about access to basic necessities to how available they think campus resources are.

“If you look up undocumented student resources or anything like that when you’re an incoming student at UT, it’s really hard to find anything that’s tangible and accessible,” Guzman said.

Rooted member Jocie Sobieraj said the group plans to provide financial support through outside funding and university-wide fundraising events like 40 for Forty. Sobieraj said Rooted members also want to recruit immigrant lawyers to work directly with the center to help undocumented students and mix-status families.

Without federal COVID-19 financial aid, undocumented and international students only received leftover money from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to aid with the economic consequences of the pandemic. The center would provide a centralized resource for distributing aid to undocumented students.

While the University Leadership Initiative, another organization dedicated to supporting undocumented students, sucessfully redistributed unused aid to cover basic expenses for undocumented students, Guzman, who is an officer in the initiative, said the process came at a cost.

“(The aid) had to come out of (undocumented) students who are directly impacted and out of our labor,” Guzman said. “At the end of the day, I was like, ‘How different would it look like if we just had access to those funds from the beginning?’”

Graduate student Sobieraj said Rooted will work as a collective with multiple staff members and graduate assistants devising an action plan to assist the needs of undocumented students when another crisis hits.

“(Through the center) we’ll already have those connections built,” Sobieraj said. “And so we can kind of go into an action much quicker, which just … didn’t happen in the pandemic and basically … undocumented students just fell through the cracks.”

Besides the struggle to secure leftover emergency aid, Karma Chávez, department chair and associate professor at the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies, said undocumented students face food insecurity, housing insecurity and unstable income during the pandemic. Chávez said undocumented students need more resources to fit their needs.

“Everyone dealt with (the) pandemic,” Chávez said. “But the conditions it created for some was way worse than others, and undocumented students were certainly among those who had the worse of that.”

While the four campus groups that comprise Rooted have been trying to establish an undocumented student center since 2019, the pandemic increased the need for its creation, Guzman said.

“We have just different experiences that require different types of resources and a more tuned in way of supporting us,” Guzman said.

Sobieraj said the proposed resource center would take inspiration from existing undocumented student centers at the University of California, Davis; Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“No one can understand that experience (of being undocumented in college) more than (other undocumented students) can,” Chávez said. “Institutions are designed … for white, U.S. citizens, affluent, well-educated in a traditional sense, able-bodied and able-minded students.”

Guzman said undocumented students are only asking to be heard and given curated resources for the experiences they face.

“We are here,” Guzman said. “And we’re ready to do something and to create something that’s more sustainable.”