Two years ago, amid the liveliness of the first weeks of a new academic year, Vicki Jagdeo ’21 sensed a certain quietness around the Lehigh campus—not the usual type of quietness, as there was certainly an energy among students who were reuniting after summer vacation. Instead, Jagdeo was noticing a lack of conversation about immigration, even as the issue of U.S. border security raged in the news.
Interested in immigration justice, Jagdeo, then a first-year student, turned to one of her professors, Germán Cadenas, for support in increasing awareness on campus about U.S. immigration policies.
Through their conversations, the idea for an Immigration Coalition bloomed. Now Jagdeo and fellow students who share her passion—including Vanessa Singh ’22, Adriana Perez-Flores ’22, Daniel John ’22, Yamelin Jaquez ’22 and Julio Martinez-Cuin ’22—have created the campus coalition.
The group’s goal is to bring attention to the potential problems that immigrants face, as well as the challenges that undocumented students affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy face in pursuing higher education and entering the workforce.
“My inspiration was that in high school, I had a club just like the Immigration Coalition, and it was what got me through high school, because my advisors guided and comforted me through senior year when DACA was in the news every day,” said Singh, the secretary of the coalition and a first-generation student at Lehigh. “I wanted to recreate that and help other students experience what I experienced.”
Jagdeo, who is president of the coalition, said that in light of the current political climate in the United States, the club wants to create a space that provides support to immigrant students, including information about immigration policies.
“I think there's a lot of misconception when it comes to why people are immigrating here in the first place, and where the roots of that immigration come from,” said Jagdeo, whose parents both immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago. “In the current political climate, there is a lot of talk on immigration and DACA students. I think it's important that we, as a campus, provide support and understanding.”
In 2017, after the Trump administration pushed to repeal the DACA policy implemented by then-President Obama in 2012, the Cultural Greek Council organized on campus a “Stand with the Dreamers” march. Because there have been few campus-wide conversations since then, Jagdeo said, the coalition wants to encourage more dialogue.
DACA was created to support undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16, allowing them to gain eligibility for a work permit and to receive two years of deferred action from deportation.
The club has been well-received, organizers said. At the recent club fair, more than 100 students stopped by the Immigration Coalition’s table to learn about the student organization.
“The formation of this club is already creating momentum on campus to work on the issues of immigration and to improve attitudes about immigration,” said Cadenas, assistant professor of counseling psychology and faculty advisor for the club, whose work primarily focuses on the psychology of undocumented and Latino immigrants.
Cadenas, an immigrant from Venezuela who was undocumented when he was an undergraduate student, is passionate about the students’ efforts and is working with the coalition to bring immigration attorneys to campus to help with immigrant students’ legal cases and to create a support group. The coalition plans additional efforts.
“I think that the motivation for creating the club was that this could be a vehicle for them to create something of their own for themselves, to create community among immigrant students, and to advocate for things that will be helpful to them,” said Cadenas.
The club helped the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity host several events in September to grow the Immigration Coalition’s outreach. Those events, which were led by OMA and Kappa Alpha Psi, included a panel discussion at which attendees could ask questions of immigrant students who are currently attending Lehigh, as well as an information session with immigration attorney Julianna Opet, who spoke about applying for jobs as an immigrant.
Jagdeo said that many times, undocumented workers, if they are able to find work at all, accept low-paying jobs. Because of the difficulties that some immigrants face when applying for jobs, the club is working towards helping immigrant students ease into the workforce.
The Immigration Coalition meets bi-weekly on Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m. in Williams Hall room 351.
Story by: Kelley Barrett