| by Jessie Raymond

News Stories

Group of students with the Teotihuacan Ruins in the background
The group of DACA recipients reconnect with their culture and history by visiting archaeological sites like Teotihuacan during the final week of the Dreamers’ Study Abroad heritage-seeking summer trip.

Fueled by a lifelong passion to advocate for underrepresented populations, Luz Vazquez-Ramos MPAIEM ’17 has created a unique opportunity for DACA recipients to visit their country of origin.

A Long Beach, California, native who earned her bachelor’s in Chicano Latino studies at California State University, Long Beach, Vazquez-Ramos spent a year and a half in the Peace Corps in El Salvador before enrolling at the Institute. With an interest in administration and nonprofits, she chose the MPA and International Education Management programs. “I wanted to be more involved in how to get students of color in the United States to go abroad,” she says. “That was my main focus.” 

The lack of diversity in international education has always stood out to Vazquez-Ramos—even at the Institute. “I remember my first International Education Management introduction class. Everybody stood up and introduced themselves, and everybody just talked about all these countries they’d been to, and it was beautiful, but at the same time I felt myself feeling smaller and smaller and smaller,” she says. “So when it was my turn, I just said that I was from California, I’d been in the Peace Corps, and that my goal was to make sure that this room had more people that looked like me in it.”

For her fifth-semester practicum Vazquez-Ramos created a one-time DACA study abroad opportunity through the nonprofit California-Mexico Studies Center (CMSC) in Long Beach. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, is a program enacted in 2012 that provides work authorization and relief from deportation for those who were brought to America as children. Her practicum became a pilot program for the Dreamers’ Study Abroad Program at CMSC, where Vazquez-Ramos is now special programs and operations director.

Program Director Luz Vazquez-Ramos
Program Director Luz Vazquez-Ramos leads a writing workshop to prepare participants for their ethnographic research papers, in which they reflect on their three weeks of independent travel in Mexico.

DACA recipients in the Dreamers’ Study Abroad Program must apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for advance parole, which allows undocumented individuals to travel outside the U.S. and—more importantly—to return legally. “Their crime on record is that they entered the U.S. without inspection and they were minors when they did it,” Vazquez-Ramos says. Reentering legally with advance parole allows them to take steps to readjust their immigration status; that is, to apply for legal permanent residency. She adds, “It’s a brain drain if we don’t work on this, because we’ve educated all these folks. They’re American.”

DACA Rescinded

Securing advance parole is a slow process. Still, from 2015 to 2017, the program took six cohorts of students, about 160 in total, to Mexico. In 2017, however, the Trump administration rescinded DACA, throwing the study abroad program—as well as the futures of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients—into uncertainty. USCIS stopped responding to applications for advance parole, leaving applicants in limbo and halting the Dreamers’ Study Abroad Program. 

Incoming president Joseph Biden vowed to reinstate DACA, so CMSC, in anticipation of summer 2021 trips, had participants apply yet again for advance parole. But nothing at USCIS changed. To raise pressure on the new administration, CMSC filed a lawsuit arguing the government was denying applicants’ human rights by neither accepting nor rejecting applications. With the threat of the lawsuit, increased media exposure—the story got picked up by the Los Angeles Times—and the help of a U.S. senator, CMSC was able to persuade a USCIS advance parole officer to grant parole to every person who had applied for summer 2021. 

Traveling South of the Border

This summer, implementing strict COVID-19 protocols, CMSC sent five cohorts of about 40 people each on monthlong trips. 

In a typical trip, participants fly from all over the U.S. (and occasionally other countries) for three weeks of independent travel in their country of origin; for most, that is Mexico, but for a few it may be any of several Central or South American countries. “They go with their families, most of them,” Vazquez-Ramos says. “They want to take their kids to where their family was from, or they are a musician and they want to learn more about music in their region.”

The trip ends with a final academic week together as a group at a hotel outside of Mexico City, where participants get to know each other, take field trips, attend lectures, write a 10-page ethnographic research paper on their experience, and process the emotions that the trip may have stirred up. “This week is really for self-care and processing,” Vazqeuz-Ramos said. “Yes, there are academics. Yes, there’s information. But at the end of the day, we want them to feel safe and feel like they can process what they’re going through, because they haven’t even gone home yet to deal with the reverse culture shock.”


Reflection on activities of summer
During their final week, program participants are encouraged to share parts of their stories and travel experiences. Many report that it is the first time they have expressed their feelings about their legal status and journey to the U.S.

The trip can be hard on participants. “With the turmoil from forced migration, many people are going to scenarios that are all over the place emotionally. There are bittersweet moments where they miss family or they’re saying goodbye to somebody at the grave. There are so many different things going on,” Vazquez-Ramos says. 


National Museum of Anthropology
At the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, the group learns about the 11 founding tribes that make up today’s Mexican culture.

At the end of that week, the group returns to the U.S. together. To ease the complications at the border, program staff have spent years developing relationships with USCIS and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. CBP gets a list of all program attendees in advance and assigns agents who are familiar with DACA and advance patrol to process the travel documents. “Everyone returns on the same flight, and they’re part of the same roster, they wear the same T-shirt,” Vazquez-Ramos says. “We’re not leaving without all these folks.”

Increasing Diversity in International Education

Very few colleges focus their study abroad programs on students of color, let alone DACA recipients, and Vazquez-Ramos encourages schools to do more. “Write a disclaimer that you’re not going to be sued if something happens,” she says. “Cover your butt, or do what you need to do. But utilize your institution and resources to help these folks achieve their dreams, because they are filling your campuses and they are doing these things.” 

The Dreamers’ Study Abroad Program works with students at nearly two dozen campuses around the country but doesn’t yet have formal contracts with any U.S. colleges, though interest is always growing, Vazquez-Ramos says. “When we came back with our first groups and we were in the news, we started getting phone calls from offices saying, ‘I have six students, and I want them in your next program.’” 

Though she is making a difference for these DACA recipients, Vazquez-Ramos calls the lack of diversity in the broader U.S. study abroad model “disheartening.”

“The international education world,” she says, “still does not focus on people of color.” 

Vazquez-Ramos will be the keynote speaker at this year’s virtual Human Rights Day conference, hosted by the United Nations Association of the USA, Monterey Chapter, on December 11. She will talk about the value of the Dreamers’ Study Abroad Program, which she says “changes the lives of our participants, as they get closure and a chance to renegotiate their identity, to reconnect with their heritage, their families, and return—with the much-needed opportunity to readjust their legal status in the U.S.”