Advocates working to unlock internship, research opportunities for undocumented students

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, implemented by the Obama administration in 2012, offers undocumented people protection from deportation, access to financial aid to attend college, and work permits. Around 800,000 people have enrolled in DACA since its creation, but legal challenges against the program have left its future—and its ability to protect undocumented people coming of age—in doubt.

This is the first year the majority of the approximately 100,000 undocumented high school graduates in the U.S. are ineligible for DACA’s legal protections. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision that DACA was implemented unlawfully; the ruling allows current DACA recipients to renew their status but bars the program from accepting new applications.

Related: Georgetown University lauds new federal regulation protecting undocumented students >

Higher education leaders and top legal experts continue to explore ways they can support undocumented students amid DACA’s uncertain future. Last week, a group of undocumented student leaders from University of California, Los Angeles, presented a letter to Michael V. Drake, the president of the University of California system, to propose the UC system begin to hire undocumented students for a variety of positions, such as research and teaching assistants or paid interns, The New York Times reports.

Undocumented UC students who are locked out of DACA protections “are being systematically denied opportunities afforded to their classmates,” the letter said. Although the controversial move would not protect undocumented students from deportation, advocates argue it would provide these students with employment opportunities to help them meet their basic needs and enhance their education and career prospects.

A new legal argument?

Their campaign is based on a new legal analysis that says a 1986 federal immigration law prohibiting U.S. employers from hiring undocumented workers does not apply to states. Drafted at UCLA and backed by Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; Adam B. Cox of New York University Law School; and constitutional and immigration scholars at Cornell, Stanford, and Yale and other universities, the analysis goes against current interpretations of the law and could have a significant impact not only on California, home to the largest population of undocumented students in the nation, but also on the 11 million undocumented people across the country.

California has resisted federal immigration controls before, including issuing drivers licenses to all state residents regardless of immigration status and offering in-state college tuition to undocumented students. However, hiring undocumented students would lead to legal challenges from conservative groups, conflicts with the federal government, and debates with other legal experts.

However, the proposal is reflective of a real problem, says Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, a research department focused on organized labor and labor rights. “Some of the finest students in my career have been undocumented students. And yet I can’t hire them as researchers or teaching assistants,” he told the Times. “This is not only detrimental to their education and career, but it negatively impacts the university as a whole.”

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