Mariana Sarmiento Hernández is a Dreamer, an advocate, and now the resource coordinator in the Office of Diversity Initiatives.
As a student, Sarmiento Hernández worked for several years with advocates, faculty, and staff to persuade UNLV administrators to create the position to help students succeed in college amid the challenges of life with uncertain immigration status.
“I am basically continuing what I did as an undergraduate,” said Sarmiento Hernández, ’17 BA Sociology. She is pursuing a master of social work and has experience as a graduate assistant in Service Learning and Leadership. “I have been training faculty and staff on how to work with undocumented students and providing students with one-on-one guidance to help them find the resources they need on and off campus.”
Sarmiento Hernandez brings a unique perspective to the role, Chief Diversity Officer Barbee Oakes said.
"She was part of the impetus to form both a student support network and a faculty task force to provide education, advocacy, and support to those with limited immigration status here,” Oakes said.
Much of the guidance Sarmiento Hernández provides is based on personal experience as a so-called Dreamer, an undocumented immigrant brought to this country as a child.
Sarmiento Hernández arrived in Nevada with her family as a 1-year-old. She grew up in Las Vegas with the pressures of pursuing the American Dream along with the uncertainty of making it through school without legal immigration status.
Sarmiento Hernández qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that allows some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to receive a renewable two-year deferral from deportation and become eligible for a work permit.
“DACA students face so many barriers to completing their degrees,” she said. “Immigration policy is constantly changing, and there is a lot of anxiety over what will happen. Even if these students make it all the way to graduation, there is still a lot of uncertainty over whether they will be able to use their degree if immigration policy changes and they cannot legally work.”
Oakes said creating the resource coordinator role was an important step for the university, given Nevada has one of the largest populations of undocumented immigrants in the country.
“Our K-12 school system has countless students who are either undocumented or who are members of families with mixed immigration status,” Oakes said. “It is critical that we ensure all students have access to college and get the support they need to complete their higher education so they are empowered to work in our communities.”
According to the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources, universities need to have up-to-date knowledge on legal and institutional policies related to DACA recipients. Incoming students should be informed about institutional agents and should always be asked for permission before sharing any information.
A study released this year by the Pew Research Center estimates that Nevada’s had 210,000 undocumented immigrants in 2016. That represents 7 percent of the state’s overall population. According to the study, 20 percent of Nevada students in kindergarten through grade 12 live with parents who are undocumented immigrants.
Sarmiento Hernández notes DACA students are not the only ones with uncertain immigration status.
“Immigration is a spectrum of different statuses,” she said. “You can fall from one status to another. Immigration policy changes fast and it can be difficult to know what to do, depending on your country of origin, or how you entered the country.”
For example, refugees and people who come to the United States with temporary protection status have different paths to apply for residency or to renew their status, and it is not always easy to understand what to do without legal help or without the means to pay for application and renewal fees. Then, there is always a chance the rules will change altogether, Sarmiento Hernández added.
DACA students, for instance, are required to apply for renewal every two years at a cost of $495, which does not include attorney’s fees. Plus, under current policy, the federal government is accepting renewals only through 2020, unless the matter is taken up by the Supreme Court.
UNLV has a number of resources to help immigrant students navigate college life while keeping up with the complexities of federal policies that could affect their status.
Mayra Salinas-Menjívar, legal services fellow at University Legal Services for Immigrants within the UNLV Immigration Clinic, said the role of resource coordinator is key to helping immigrant students find answers to their questions and find the right services for their needs. The resource coordinator also is critical to helping the various service and resource providers across campus get their information out to students.
University Legal Services for Immigrants launched in 2018 as a pilot project. The project is supported by a grant from NextGen America, matched by the university, and builds on the immigration clinic's tradition of informally helping members of the UNLV community. The project combines outreach to the university community, direct legal services, and problem-solving to overcome common challenges immigrant students face.
“Our services are not super widely known,” Salinas-Menjívar said. “We need help with outreach and getting information about changes to federal immigration policies out to students, especially nowadays that these changes are happening very quickly.”
As a social work student, Sarmiento Hernández completed her practicum at the immigration clinic. During her time with legal services, Sarmiento Hernández worked with immigrant students, immigrant children who came into the country without their parents, and people who were in immigration detention.
“Mariana’s role is vitally important,” Salinas-Menjvar said. “Immigration issues have a way of forcing their way into different parts of a student’s life, where other people would not imagine it being a factor – financial aid, the ability to work or be licensed in your field, whether you can travel. Mariana is a very thoughtful person and has a way of keeping in mind what support a student might need that no one else is thinking of.”