There’s no special handshake. No code word. But for one secret group on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, identification papers – or, rather, a lack thereof – are a common denomination.
The UW’s student organization the Purple Group is for students, known as "dreamers," who came to the country illegally, often as young children.
This type of student group has become more common on college campuses in the past decade, although some groups remain more hidden than others.
About 25 students showed up for a recent Purple Group meeting, led by a UW freshman who goes by the nickname Grace. For most of the two-hour meeting, Grace jotted notes on a whiteboard about upcoming events and school deadlines. She asked her real name not be used due to her legal status.
‘We Know What We’re Going Through’
Grace said turnout for Purple Group meetings can vary since members hear about gatherings through word of mouth or a private Facebook group, which has more than 100 members.
Students around the table are in pre-med, engineering and lots of double majors. They’re ambitious, but here at least, they’re not competitive.
This group gives undocumented students a safe place to meet and swap tips about scholarships, financial aid, networking and ways to navigate the maze of college administration when you don’t have same legal status as others.
However, it also goes much deeper than paperwork and logistics.
Martha Flores Perez started coming to this group eight years ago when it first began. She’s now back for graduate school. Perez said this group gave her a connection she never found anywhere else on campus.
“Not even if I joined feminist groups or other people of color groups,” Perez said. “It was never the same. I could never feel comfortable enough to disclose my situation and what I had to get through every quarter just to pay tuition and make ends meet.”
Around the room, newer members of the group agreed with her.
“Our situation is so complicated and coming here, we don’t have to explain to anybody – we just know,” said a young woman, who also asked to withhold her name. “We know what we’re going through. We don’t have to say anything.”
Another student chimed in, “It’s like as soon as you get in here and you know everyone is undocumented, you’re just like, ‘Cool, that’s my bro right there. You guys are my sisters now.’”
Those open-arm gestures sparked some laughter and knowing looks from around the table.
Coping With College Stress
For undocumented students, high school dropout rates are high. Only a small percentage make it to college. Many come from low-income families, making it a struggle for them to keep up with tuition and graduate on time.
“When I got accepted to UW, my mom said, 'not worth it,' because there's no support for undocumented students,” Grace said.
That prompted her to start asking around. Even before she enrolled at UW, Grace sent an email blast to dozens of teachers and staff. She even tried to contact UW President Michael Young.
“Hi, I’m an undocumented high school student,” she said in her messages. “I got accepted to UW. I need help. What kind of help do you have? What can I do?”
Grace's emails led to some allies and resources. Then, once on campus, she wanted more. An advisor told her about Purple Group, which had started in 2008 then disbanded a few years ago as students moved on.
Grace made it her mission this year to revive it.
“It’s great to hear that some of the original members of the group are still around,” said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor of education at Harvard. In 2008, when he was teaching at UW, students approached Gonzales with the idea for Purple Group and he signed on as faculty advisor.
Gonzales specializes in issues concerning undocumented immigrant youth and young adults. His work, as well as other studies, highlight the stress undocumented youth face and how it shows up in their lives.
Gonzales ran down a long list of symptoms: chronic headaches, toothaches, ulcers, trouble sleeping, trouble getting out of bed in the morning, eating problems, thoughts of suicide, and attempted suicide.
Support groups, like the UW’s Purple Group, can give students a place to come out of hiding, let down their guard and find ways to cope.
In the past decade, Gonzales said he’s seen an explosion of more visible campus groups for undocumented college students. He said most are focused around advocacy, or in places with a longer history of immigrant rights, such as California or Texas. Gonzales noted that students in those states also tend to be more open about their legal status.
However, for the students in Washington who started Purple Group, secrecy was non-negotiable; even though official campus groups could fundraise and use other school resources.
“They were really adamantly against being an official group,” Gonzales said. “They were against having a name that identified them as being a Latino student group, an immigrant rights group, or being undocumented.”
Since the group’s start in 2008, public support has grown for immigration reform and for undocumented youth in particular. In 2012, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. This year, Washington also became the fourth state where undocumented students qualify for taxpayer-funded college aid.
Despite all that, Purple Group members still want secrecy: Their families still risk deportation and the stakes are just too high.
As Grace wrapped up the Purple Group meeting, she ended with a bit of reflection about the gathering.
“You know, we’re offering each other insight and we’re being each other’s guides,” Grace said. “I like that. I like that humanity in us.”
For information about Purple Group, you can contact faculty advisor Maggie Foneseca. (firstname.lastname@example.org)