July 16, 2015
Credit : AP/Samantha Sais.

This story originally appeared in our summer magazine, an annual publication that features engaging pieces on issues affecting young people.

The myriad of bureaucratic terms being used in today’s debate over immigration has created confusion among many including immigrants, advocates, and young people. The centerpiece of the discussion is “DACA,” President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Undocumented people who qualify for DACA are deferred from deportation and receive two-year work permits and are also eligible to receive a Social Security number.

At the heart of the debate, however, are the undocumented immigrants themselves, people who have been living in constant fear of one day being taken from their homes and into deportation procedures. One of these people is Carlos Estrada, who has moved back and forth between Mexico and the United States since he was three years old. Fluently bilingual in Spanish and English, confident, and charismatic, one would be tempted to think he has mastered that impossible immigrant balancing act between fitting in and preserving his identity.

Carlos Estrada at his graduation from UC Santa Barbara.

Carlos Estrada at his graduation from UC Santa Barbara.

But asking him about his path towards higher education—now a gate-keeping factor for almost all upwardly mobile jobs in the United States—quickly reveals the enormous struggles he has faced and continues to bear. “It was really tough,” he says after a pause when asked about financing his education. “My freshman year, there weren’t a lot of scholarships for undocumented students. So I ended up having to pay out of pocket, which was a huge strain on my parents.” In California, where Estrada attended the University of California Santa Barbara, qualifying undocumented students are able to pay in-state tuition, which is meant to provide some financial relief, but even that wasn’t enough. “They had to sell pretty much everything they owned to pay for my education, and by my sophomore year, I knew I was going to have to drop out. Then, the president made the announcement about DACA.”

Since the program was first announced by President Obama on June 15, 2012, advocates and scholars have described the financial, educational, and even health benefits that DACA has had on the qualifying undocumented population. “DACA has allowed our students to take advantage of opportunities they historically have not had access to,” says Alberto Morales, former Assistant Director of the Georgetown Scholarship Program at Georgetown University. “They are going abroad for the first time, doing internships at prestigious organizations, and working on-campus jobs.” In states where DACA is tied to in-state tuition, higher education has become more affordable for qualifying undocumented students.

Furthermore, DACA beneficiaries can access some forms of financial aid by filling out the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a Social Security number. Filling out the FAFSA generates the Estimated Family Contribution number, which universities use to determine the amount of university-based financial aid a student will receive.

“DACA made it so I was able to apply for FAFSA and financial aid, while I didn’t qualify for most scholarships because they required citizenship or legal residence,” Estrada says. “If DACA wasn’t announced, I would have had to drop out of college my sophomore year.”

Immigration SidebarHowever, it is clear that DACA alone is not enough to increase higher education attainment. One reason is the soaring cost of education, compounded by the fact that undocumented people, including those eligible for DACA, are prohibited from accessing federal financial aid such as Pell grants, work-study, and federal loans.

For “DACAmented“ students, undocumented students with DACA, the path towards obtaining a degree continues to be fraught with obstacles, with some states explicitly banning undocumented and DACAmented students from accessing state financial aid and from enrolling in public colleges and universities. In addition, the very nature of DACA means that students who qualify for the program only receive relief in two-year increments. “I still have no legal status,” Estrada explains. “They’re just telling me ‘we’re not going to deport you, for right now.’”

For students who are not eligible or have not applied for DACA, their future is even more uncertain. “It further marginalizes the undocumented in two groups,” Morales says of the binary between the DACAmented and undocumented, which serves to further the narrative of “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants. “They can’t participate in paid internships, work-study, or on-campus employment opportunities…. Students are working to meet their basic needs and to send money home, so there is a constant dilemma on how to maximize college opportunities while meeting financial demands.”

Some colleges and universities are taking the proactive step of creating programs to support students who do not have legal status. During his time as an administrator of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, Morales worked to raise awareness among faculty and staff of the presence of undocumented and DACAmented students on campus and provided a blueprint for different ways to support them. “Universities need to set up specific discretionary funds available to undocumented students so they have access to additional financial resources when they need it,” explains Morales. At Georgetown, discretionary funds help students apply for DACA, which costs $465, and pay for things like unforeseen medical bills, allowing students to focus on their college experience.

While millions of undocumented people wait for congressional action on comprehensive immigration reform, millions of undocumented and DACAmented young people continue to wait for the moment they are able to fully harness their talents. As young people like Carlos wait for full legal status, efforts should be dedicated towards the expansion of education resources to all undocumented people, including those who do not qualify for the 2012 DACA program. Progressive organizations and advocates should work at all levels—federal, state, local, and institutional—to provide opportunities for all students to thrive.

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