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ECC's immigrant president reassures undocumented students

Erie Community College's new president has a message for students who are undocumented immigrants: He understands their fear and supports them.

College presidents around the country issued statements objecting to the Trump administration's rescinding Tuesday of a federal program that allows young undocumented immigrants to live, work and study in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

More than most college presidents, ECC's Dan Hocoy has lived what many immigrant students are experiencing. He is one of them.

"It's personal, because I personally identify with the students," Hocoy told The Buffalo News.

He knows the fear that accompanies undocumented immigrants. He lived that, too, having overstayed visas in the United States on a few occasions when he was younger.

"I certainly know the discomfort of that, of the possibility of being caught and exiled for 10 years. On several occasions, I exceeded my visa and found myself undocumented, which isn't that different from how a lot of people end up undocumented," he said.

Of course, Hocoy was able to return to Canada and renew his visa. He readily admits his experience doesn't compare to the risks faced by undocumented students who could be deported to countries they have never known.

"I felt that fear of being caught," he said. "I can only imagine what it would be like for someone else coming from a country where they didn't have the luxury of going back."

Hocoy was born in 1967 in Trinidad and Tobago, to a Chinese father and Malaysian mother. Race riots erupted on the Caribbean island nation near the coast of Venezuela when Hocoy was a toddler. His maternal grandmother, who is from Jamaica, was nearly killed in an arson fire that burned down her home. The family decided to flee the island rather than risk further harm. The Hocoys ended up in Toronto in 1969 at the onset of winter – a world away from the tropical land they knew.

"We left with nothing. We left in a hurry," Hocoy said.

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His parents spoke mainly Hakka, a Chinese dialect, and did not know any English. Hocoy remembers going to school in Toronto and gesturing with his hands to make teachers aware that he needed to use the bathroom. He learned English quickly, though, and served as the family translator, including filling out federal tax return forms as an 8-year-old boy. Growing up, education became the great equalizer for Hocoy and his younger sister.

"It delivered us from unfamiliar territory to places we grew to support and cherish – places that eventually became home," he said in a statement after the Trump administration announced it will no longer accept new requests under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Hocoy, a clinical psychologist, took over as president of ECC in July after two years as president of Antioch University Seattle and a year as associate vice chancellor for advancement in the Antioch University System.

Hocoy now is a naturalized citizen of Canada and of the United States, and he presides over one of the largest community colleges in New York, with more than 10,000 students.

Hocoy said he's not sure how many current students at ECC are registered under the DACA program, established in 2012 during the Obama administration to accommodate undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and have lived here since 2007.

"We've had undocumented students apply and be accepted. Some have scholarships," he said.

Others already have graduated.

The Trump administration said it would give Congress six months to pass immigration legislation protecting undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children, a group known as Dreamers.

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The State University of New York does not keep track of Dreamers, but an estimated 42,000 New Yorkers currently are enrolled in DACA.

Some college presidents worry that rescinding DACA will prompt Dreamers to drop out of college or not apply. Canisius College President John J. Hurley on Wednesdy expressed "deep dismay" over the DACA decision.

"This announcement simply adds to the level of anxiety that foreign born residents of the United States have felt over the past ten months," he said in a written statement to the campus community.

Hurley also urged Congress to pass the DREAM Act to provide undocumented young people "a degree of permanence and security in their lives."

Repealing DACA creates "a climate where people feel unsafe to register at a public institution," said Hocoy, who sought to reassure students.

The college put up a new poster at its Oak Street building that reads, "Hate Has No Home at SUNY Erie," and it is handing out T-shirts with the same slogan.

"We want to encourage undocumented students to come to SUNY Erie," Hocoy said.

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