Salt Lake Community College opens Dream Center for immigrant students

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Idolina Quijada, chairwoman of Salt Lake Community College Undocumented Student Resource Committee, says a few words at the ribbon cutting for the new Salt Lake Community College Dream Center in West Valley City, on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.

West Valley City • When Humberto Sanchez tried to sign up for classes at Salt Lake Community College, he had no idea where to start.

Being undocumented, he didn’t have a Social Security number. He wasn’t sure, either, if he should put his actual name down on the application or if that would give him away. He didn’t know what scholarships he could pursue. And he didn’t know who he could trust to ask for help — or who might report him and his family to immigration officials.

“But,” he said choking back tears, “that’s not the way it has to be.”

On Friday, Sanchez held a gigantic pair of scissors and snipped into a white ribbon to mark the opening of SLCC’s new Dream Center, which is meant to help students like him — students who are immigrants and want to go to school, students who don’t know where to start. This place was his idea.

“It came from my own struggles,” Sanchez said.

The Dream Center is housed at SLCC’s West Valley City campus. More than 70 people came for the unveiling, crowding into the lobby and competing for space with the hundreds of yellow, blue and white balloons. Many wore T-shirts that said, “I support undocumented students.” A few shouted, “Muchas felicitaciones” and took photos after counting down, “Uno, dos, tres.”

Mostly, the attendees hugged and cheered.

“We don’t have to go through this alone,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got each other. And now we have our own space to connect and support each other.”

Overall, SLCC has one of the most diverse college populations in the state, with 34% students of color. But this campus — one of 10 at the school — is also the only one in Utah to sit in West Valley City, which has a unique “minority majority” of residents. Nearly 50,000 Latinos call this city home, according to the most recent U.S. census estimates.

So it was the easy and obvious choice for the Dream Center.

“The reach will expand far beyond the walls,” said Richard Diaz, the interim director of diversity and multicultural affairs at SLCC. “This will be the first point of contact for many families in the community.”

The center will have academic advisors specifically for undocumented students, many of whom were brought to the United States as young children and are often nicknamed “Dreamers.” There will be scholarship assistance and financial aid. There will be help for those filling out applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, currently in limbo, which helps immigrants go to school and work legally.

There will also be a community here that understands what these students are going through.

Sanchez left Mexico with his parents and siblings in 2000 and fled to the United States to get away from poverty. He was raised in Salt Lake City, and is 20 now and studying sociology and graphic communication. He worries that under President Donald Trump’s administration, which has cracked down on illegal immigration, he could be deported.

“I hear him calling us animals,” he said. “It’s tough. Why do they have to treat us like this?”

He’s walked around campus, too, and seen hateful posters telling him to leave. One was tucked on top of a newspaper stand, he said, and colored red, white and blue. “Report and deport illegal aliens,” it said.

It shocked him. Then, Sanchez noticed more of the posters and stickers, too. Some had the phone number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were stuck on lampposts and bulletin boards and windows.

“It was a smack in the face,” he said.

He wanted to start this Dream Center as a way to oppose that. SLCC partnered with the University of Utah, which has its own center, to open this place. Now, there are two in the state. And there are 59 in the country.

Faculty members from the U. came to celebrate the opening, too, including the director of that Dream Center, Alonso Reyna Rivarola. “Being a student and being undocumented is very difficult,” he said. “It affects your learning.”

Reyna Rivarola and Sanchez hope that Utah Valley University and Weber State University, along with other schools in the state, might also be persuaded to create their own centers.

Agustin, an undocumented student who preferred to use only his first name for privacy, graduated from SLCC last year and attends Weber State now. He said he would love to see a center there — and is happy to see one open at his alma mater, where he still works to help first-year students like him.

“It’s hard to find the right people to help you out,” he said. “Having this center, it centralizes everything.”

At SLCC, there are roughly 500 undocumented students, said Idolina Quijada, chair of the school’s Undocumented Student Resource Committee. It’s hard to know the number for certain, she added, but “undocumented students are here to stay."

The opening ceremony ended Friday with the attendees releasing monarch butterflies — a symbol of Dreamers because of their long migrations between the United States and Central and South America. A few were painted on the walls inside. Next to them was a row of decorated graduation caps. One noted in glittery writing: “My dreams don’t have borders.”

One day soon, Sanchez hopes to wear his own cap when he finishes his studies at SLCC. “I’m just trying to go to school and work,” he said. “And this place is a sign of hope. It’s a sign that we’re welcome.”