When Precious Porras heard that a federal judge in Texas recently declared the Deferred Action for Childhood Programs (DACA) illegal, she was upset and frustrated. Over the last nine years, since 2012, the program has sought to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from deportation. Now, district court Judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling, which aims to block new applicants from receiving that same relief, has threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, thrusting them into limbo.
“This has been a back and forth for so long, especially in the last five years and under the last administration,” said Porras, Dominican University’s newest chief diversity officer, in a Zoom call.
Created under the Obama administration, the DACA program has helped more than 600,000 young undocumented immigrants, known as “Dreamers.” The program grants recipients work permits but does not offer a pathway to citizenship. Recipients must apply for renewals every two years.
“I know the impact that [the ruling] has” on undocumented students and those who have loved ones that are undocumented, Porras said.
“That disruption in their lives – I mean, that is their lives,” she said. “Everything else becomes secondary. That’s frustrating to me to see how their lives are just put on pause.”
Porras, who became the university’s chief diversity officer in March, felt compelled to reach out and extend her support to staff, faculty and students, who may have felt shaken by Hanen’s decision. In a statement released by the university days after the ruling, Porras wrote that she and Barrington Price, vice president of student success and engagement, were saddened by the news and reaffirmed their commitment to the DU community, including those who may face “uncertain futures because they are undocumented.”
Porras and Price also shared that DU renewed its Sanctuary Campus Covenant, which vows to “do what it can, within the boundaries of the law, to protect residents from deportation.” Under the covenant, the university has sought to create a safe space for undocumented students to gather and find community and provide access to legal aid for help with filing renewals or financial assistance, as well as mental health resources.
For Porras, releasing the statement was one of many steps she hopes to take in continuing the university’s mission of inclusion. In fact, she believed the ruling itself served as a reminder to educate people “on the systems” in the U.S. that have been built to “uphold whiteness, white supremacy and to oppress other folks.”
Porras said the Texas federal court’s decision was one that not only impacted people from marginalized communities, but it was a “legal decision made in our legal system.” That system, she said, can only be dismantled if people get involved, participate and advocate.
At Dominican University, Porras sees herself as just that – someone who isn’t afraid of taking a closer look at DU’s policies that may affect staff and students, including those of color. She is also working on building better relationships with other university leaders such as the provost, the dean’s office, members of incoming President Glena Temple’s cabinet and several other program directors.
“I am one person,” Porras said. “I don’t have staff. I cannot fix every single problem by myself. I need to have my community behind me.”
Porras comes to DU with nearly two decades of experience in diversity and leadership in higher education. Before Porras made her way to suburban River Forest, she was at the University of Kansas, where she took on several different roles in the Office of Multicultural Affairs before becoming the assistant vice provost of equity and inclusion.
Aside from administrative work, Porras poured herself into initiatives that often sought to build a positive, welcoming and supportive environment for university staff and students. That included leading workshops or training on cultural education, creating mentoring programs for students and working with the Office of Admissions to recruit more students of color.
Reflecting on her years in higher education, Porras said her work and passion are driven by personal experience. Porras, who is biracial, grew up in a single parent household and was from a rural town with less than 200 people. In school and in her community, she was the only student of color.
“I experienced racial discrimination daily, including being called racial epithets daily,” said Porras, whose mother is white and father is Black. “I remember thinking like I didn’t have anywhere to go with that as a child.”
“That was really hard because my mom – my white mom – didn’t understand. My family didn’t understand,” Porras said, adding it was only when she reached college that she saw an opportunity to be part of a change.
Porras said she is often reminded of the reasons why diversity is important and why it is necessary to talk about, think about and build upon. And why it is her life’s work.
To this day, Porras remembers the stories – and the names – of two men who died in 1998. At that time, she just started her career. In the summer of 1998, James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old Black man, was brutally murdered by three white supremacists in Texas. Byrd was dragged to his death, after his ankles were chained to a pickup truck.
Just months later, the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student from the University of Wyoming, made headlines. The 21-year-old Shepherd was “attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and left to die,” according to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an LGBTQ nonprofit created in his memory.
“I remember thinking, I just want to educate others so that this doesn’t happen anymore,” Porras said, adding this type of work – social justice – is a process and a goal.
On Porras’ computer, a quote from civil rights activist John Lewis flashes every now and then. It’s a message she has kept close, as she begins her new journey at Dominican University.
The quote from Lewis, she said, encourages her to remain optimistic.
“Our work is not the work of one day or one month. It’s the work of a lifetime,” she said, reading the words aloud. “He ends with, ‘Don’t be afraid to get in trouble, necessary good trouble.’”