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Bellingham
Tuesday, June 2, 2020

AS VP Not Allowed to Assume Position Due to Undocumented Status

Written by: Laura Place and Questen Inghram

This story was updated on Tuesday, June 27. 

After being elected Associated Students vice president for governmental affairs, sophomore Ana Ramirez, who is undocumented, has been told by university and AS administrators that she will not be able to assume the position due to her current lack of work authorization under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

DACA is a federal program that allows undocumented people who came to the United States as children to defer deportation and obtain work authorization.

“I just really want to do my position, preferably paid,” Ramirez said last week before meeting with administrators. The typical salary for a vice president on the board is $11,107 a year.  

Ramirez, a member of Western’s undocumented student organization Blue Group, said she is the first undocumented student elected to the AS Board. According to a June 19 press release, she filed to obtain DACA status days after being elected, and is currently waiting on approval.

Western administrators said that under federal law, she cannot legally be paid for her position until her DACA is approved, according to Paul Cocke, director of university communications and marketing.

“Until or unless an undocumented student candidate receives DACA approval, that student cannot be employed by the University in any capacity,” Cocke said in an email. “The University clearly communicated to Ana Ramirez her status of not being able to work at the University as an undocumented student until she received DACA approval.”

Cocke’s statement was in response to the press release sent out on Monday, June 19, by Ramirez stating that the university has not offered Ramirez another option that would allow her to fill the position.

Ramirez said she is planning on suing the university for discrimination at the end of the month.

Cocke did not confirm if Ramirez will be replaced with someone else, but said the AS Election Coordinator will review Ramirez’s situation in order to make a final decision and run it by the AS Board.

“No one has taken the role away from Ana; rather she received the most votes but is currently ineligible to serve based on candidate requirements,” Cocke said in an email.

On Thursday, June 22, Ramirez, along with some of her professors, Victoria Matey of the Blue Group, and other Blue Group members met with administrators in hopes of finding a solution, Matey said. After meeting an hour and a half, Western’s Assistant Attorney General Robert Olson concluded Ramirez would not be able to fulfill her position without DACA.

“They were there to say no instead of saying, ‘Let’s find a solution,’” Matey said. “They think law is everything. But law has to change, because laws are created to benefit white people.”

While administrators say DACA requirements were clarified early on, Matey said they don’t always understand the difficulties surrounding applying for and receiving DACA. Along with having to be renewed every two years, the DACA application requires undocumented immigrants to hand over detailed information, including former and current addresses, bank statements and employment records.

“I remember clearly when I first met with my lawyer [about DACA] and he told me, ‘I want you to understand that you’re giving yourself up,’” Matey said. “It’s terrifying — you literally give them everything.”

Strict guidelines also increase risk of not having an application approved, Matey said. Along with the combined lawyer fees and additional $500 application fee, it’s an unrealistic prospect for many undocumented students, she said.

“This is not an inclusive program. There’s no pathway towards citizenship — it’s us handing them money to be working, in their terms, legally,” Matey said.

Ramirez said her attorney believes there are alternate ways Western can let her assume the position, such as a stipend, using a university special grant or fund, paying for tuition or housing, providing a scholarship, using a W-9 or deferring payment until Ramirez’s DACA comes in.

“Administration had told Ramirez’s advisor that they would look into the situation and explore other possibilities for Ramirez to get paid while she applied for DACA and her DACA is approved,” Ramirez’s press release said. “It has now been five months since administration was first informed of Ramirez’s case and they claim to not have found an alternative way of paying her yet.

AS administrators consulted with Western attorneys to explore “creative alternatives” that would allow Ramirez to keep the position, but none of the options were viable, said Eileen Coughlin, senior vice president and vice president of enrollment and student services, in a June 13 email provided by Cocke. When asked to clarify which “creative alternatives” were explored, Cocke did not specify.

“Attorneys in the Attorney General’s Office at Western researched the issues. Their legal advice came after a thorough review; this review did not occur until after the April 24-28 election, when she won election to an AS board position,” Cocke said.

In her press release, Ramirez details the difficulty of accessing AS meetings, as well as being unable to organize meetings with both AS and Western administrators about her DACA status.

On June 6, Ramirez was kicked off a committee by Coordinator of Student Activities Casey Hayden, and was turned away from an AS meeting on June 19 by AS Board Program Adviser Eric Alexander, according to her press release.

After being kicked out of the June 19 meeting by Alexander, he later reached out to Ramirez to find a time to meet with her. When Ramirez insisted that her lawyer be present, Alexander declined to meet, Ramirez said.

Hayden and Alexander declined to comment and referred questions to Cocke.

In a June 7 meeting with Assistant Attorney General Olson, Ramirez said she was told there was a possibility she would lose her position.

“I am a representative of the undocumented community, a population that been historically forced to work for little or no pay,” Ramirez said in an email to administrators during the week of June 12. “It is truly heartbreaking to see Western, an educational institution, complicit in this horrible American practice, especially when I see the whole country telling me education will get me ahead in life despite my undocumented status.”

Cocke insisted that Ramirez was never offered the position unpaid.

“The law allows those not eligible for paid employment to volunteer as long as the volunteering is not for work that is normally paid. This is a protection so that those not approved through DACA are not abused by requiring them to do work that would otherwise be paid,” Cocke said. “No one from Western’s administration has asked Ana to volunteer in any capacity that is tied to the elected position.”

According to Cocke, the university communicated clearly with Ramirez about her employment. Ramirez signed a candidate registration form on April 3 that outlined how she was not eligible to work in the United States while still in the process of filing DACA paperwork, Cocke said.

Coughlin  emailed Ramirez on June 13 outlining further reasons for the decision.

“The University values and seeks to encourage strong student leaders. Despite your clear talent and leadership, the University is obligated to separate the individual talent and contributions from legal requirements as the law makes no exceptions based on those personal characteristics,” Coughlin said in an excerpt from her email, provided by Cocke in his response.

The AS Board of Directors stated their support for Ramirez in a letter sent to Dean of Students Ted Pratt, Alexander and Coughlin on June 13.

“Ana and her position have a strong impact on the student body because of the importance, meaning and effect of her work and the work she will do in the position, and it is important that Ana remains in the position and is allowed to complete the full term of the position,” AS Board members wrote in the letter.

Matey said the administration should offer resources to undocumented students in the process of obtaining DACA rather than assume the currently established legal route would be easy.

“We wouldn’t have DACA if it wasn’t for the people who fought for it,” Matey said.

As of Monday, June 26, Ramirez’s name was not listed on the AS Board website alongside the other newly elected board members.

 

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