Cinthia Zavala-Ramos ’21 delivered her valedictory address to a crowd of four hundred last May. She could not have known then that her speech would travel well beyond the walls of Socastee High School: Within days, 48,000 people had seen the video of her announcing her undocumented status.
But to Zavala-Ramos, only two people mattered: her parents.
“An hour before the speech happened I was in my house crying ‘I’m not gonna do it’ and I was rewriting everything,” Zavala-Ramos told The Politic.
“My parents came up and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I was like, ‘You know how I light-handedly mentioned what my speech was about? I’m going to read it to you in Spanish,’” she said.
“Then they realized what the speech was about, and I was just like, ‘I don’t want to put you at risk,’ and my Mom and Dad said ‘that’s the least of our thoughts; if you gave that speech you’d make us proud beyond words,’” Zavala-Ramos recalled.
An hour later, she stood before a glass podium wearing the same “Class of 2017” tassel and Honor Cord as high school valedictorians around the country but delivering a speech unlike any others that day.
“The face that stands before you is the face of a valedictorian, a Sunday School teacher, and a future Yale alumna,” Zavala-Ramos began. “All of these titles I have worked hard to create and earn for myself, in spite of the one this country has branded on me: the one title I don’t have to describe for you to recognize, the title that has sat on the lips of every reporter, every congressman, and every American in the past few months. The face that stands before you is the face of an undocumented or illegal immigrant.”
Some of her mentors and teachers thanked her for giving that speech, because they said it radically altered their political perspectives, by giving them a face they could identify with thelabel of “Illegal.” Others, including the school board chairman, Joe Defeo, were less receptive.
“It’s an inspiring story for anybody, but it’s no more inspiring than everybody else that graduates from Socastee High,” Defeo told local news. “If [students] are here illegally they should not be allowed to go to school and use taxpayer funds.”
In fact, Zavala-Ramos was a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, which gave her protection from deportation. When she was six years old, she and her family escaped gang violence in Honduras, traveling via foot and cargo trucks and spending nights in boarded-up concrete houses throughout Mexico. Zavala-Ramos said it is this hardship that led her to work rigorously at school.
“I tried to establish myself as a person of value. A lot of us do that at first because since we were young we’ve had this ingrained sense of shame. Because of that, I’ve always worked super hard academically just to prove myself in this country,” she told The Politic.
And it paid off. By the time she was preparing to enter high school, Zavala-Ramos was eligible to take classes at nearby Coastal Carolina University, which only high-achieving secondary students in the area could attend.
But South Carolina is one of three states, along with Alabama and Georgia, where the law explicitly bans undocumented students from attending public post-secondary institutions. Luckily for Zavala-Ramos, there was an exception: students with or actively seeking DACA could attend.
Zavala-Ramos applied for DACA after her fifteenth birthday and received its protection status in her sophomore year. She remembers the application process as one of patience and paperwork. Originally, the family paid a lawyer a thousand dollars to file the application.
“A year went by and it turned out he hadn’t submitted it yet,” Zavala-Ramos said. “I ended up having to do it on my own.”
Applying to Yale was different. Its admissions policy allows all undocumented students to apply as international students and be eligible for financial aid.
Zavala-Ramos readily acknowledged that few students, undocumented or not, graduate as valedictorian or matriculate to Yale and peer institutions. Seventy-six percent of the nation’s undergraduates attended public schools in 2014, where they are far more subject to the vicissitudes of federal and state immigration policy. And even prestigious private colleges and universities can be reliant on federal grants.
While some of DACA’s implications were far-reaching—it afforded all recipients the right to work and the ability to obtain a social security number—in other realms it ended the homogenized immigration policy that came before. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) had codified immigration policy in the public sphere since 1996. Compared to this 750-page behemoth of legalese, DACA was short and open-ended, barely passing two pages.
Neither a bill nor an executive order, DACA in fact refers to a set of policies adopted under the direction of a memo from the Department of Homeland Security. The “deferred action” conferred no actual change in legal protections, only a suggestion of temporary impunity for childhood immigrants who met certain other standards: The process Zavala-Ramos and others went through is not even elucidated in the memo.
For recipients, too, DACA had effects that transcended the legalities.
“DACA was such a firm thing for me,” Zavala-Ramos said. “I was finally able to get my driver’s license. I never in my life thought I would get a driver’s license, so I was able to be kind of normal for once. I felt safe.”
But she adds that many around her were skeptical of the program. For her, DACA was a gamble: By applying for the program, she exposed herself as undocumented. Now, Zavala-Ramos faces a pitfall to DACA she never anticipated: By receiving the benefits of the program, she’s made herself trackable to an administration that threatens deportation. President Barack Obama was able to pass reforms that had stalled in Congress by instituting policy via memo. But through this strategy, he also left DACA open for easy rescission.
DACA’s rescission also poses new dilemmas for Yale as an institution. Mark Dunn, the Associate Director of Admissions, told The Politic over email that Yale will maintain its admissions and financial aid policies for undocumented students. He included that a student’s undocumented status may be “something the Admissions Committee will consider… insofar as it might be an important contextual factor in understanding a student’s background and access to various opportunities.”
Yale’s single-digit acceptance rate ensures that its promise affects only a small percentage of the nation’s undocumented. Still, there is precedent for Yale and peer institutions’ admissions practices setting broader norm-setting. Seven years before the Philadelphia Plan planted the seed of public-sector affirmative action, President John F. Kennedy met with leaders from Yale and four other universities to discuss the problem of unequal representation of minorities in higher education. By 1969, Yale had quadrupled its percentage of black freshmen from four years prior.
Ed Boland, a former Yale admissions officer in the 1980s, wrote a book about his transition to teaching in an Inner-City Public School.
“Leading educational institutions like those in the Ivy League have a special responsibility to stand up against the array of detrimental federal policies that have been recently proposed,” Boland told The Politic.
“These schools and their constituencies, from administration to students, faculty to alumni — have always played an outsized role in American public life and they should forcibly resist these hostile policies and encourage other colleges to do so. There’s still is a lot of truth to the old adage, ‘So goes Yale, so goes the country.’”
Still, affirmative action faced questioning on the highest, constitutional level. Immigration law in education is a much more balkanized issue: Yale must interact with public institutions far more beholden to federal law and state laws that may be much stricter than Connecticut’s. Without DACA, Zavala-Ramos never would have attended the accelerated program at Coastal Carolina University. And without that program, her trajectory to the Yale would have been much steeper. While DACA itself was a form of legal suspended animation, the rescission creates a new grey zone in which students and administrators mostly have to wait — for states to legislate and interpret anew, and potentially for the federal government. While Trump has hinted at support for a modified DREAM Act, DACA applications are no longer accepted as of October 5.
For Cinthia Zavala-Ramos, the uncertainty and perpetual motion every first-year faces at Yale is a welcome distraction from the uncertainty facing her future in America. “If I think about it too much, I can’t function,” she told The Politic. “If I stopped to think or to breathe or to think of the reality of the situation, I couldn’t do anything.”