Without DACA protections, undocumented students meet increased barriers to college

A new class of undocumented high school graduates is entering the college-application process without the protections provided by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era initiative that offers young undocumented immigrants, or Dreamers, work permits, access to college financial aid, and protection from deportation.

Long-running legal challenges have weakened DACA in recent years. After the Trump administration aimed to end the program in 2017, the government stopped processing new applications, although DACA renewals are still being granted. In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from ending DACA but did not rule on the program’s future, and continued litigation by Republican-led states has left the program in jeopardy, with a further ruling on DACA’s constitutionality expected by April.

Having reached high school graduation without an opportunity to secure DACA protections, undocumented students in the Class of 2023 are facing new barriers to higher education—policies at colleges that previously accommodated DACA recipients, as well as laws at the state level that limit access to in-state tuition, work permits, and food and housing assistance or even ban undocumented students from enrolling in any public university altogether, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Related: Georgetown reinforces its support for DACA

The Chronicle, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, recently profiled students who are part of this “Post-DACA generation” and whose dreams of attending college have been thwarted by the three states with prohibitive laws banning undocumented students from attending state colleges and universities: South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.

Shutting the ‘doors of opportunity’

Influenced by anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2008 presidential elections, policymakers in these three states say they wrote these laws, as co-author of the Alabama legislation explained, to “make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves,” The Chronicle reports.

At least 500,000 undocumented people have been subject to the ban across South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia since the legislation passed. To attend college, undocumented students ineligible for DACA protections in these states leave to enroll elsewhere and don’t return or enroll in private colleges; some decide not to enroll in college at all. The Chronicle, which interviewed dozens of students, high-school teachers, counselors, scholars, and immigration advocates, says these efforts “are part of a larger message being conveyed by state officials to undocumented students: The doors of opportunity are frozen shut.”

Restoring hope in the college dream

A growing number of undocumented students ineligible for DACA protections are struggling to find academic counselors who can guide them knowledgeably and are unsure about whom they can trust, says Roberto G. Gonzales, a professor of sociology and education at the University of Pennsylvania. Many student-services professionals are not trained to support this new Post-DACA generation, he notes.

“If you are a teenager today without access to DACA and you live in an exclusionary state,” says Gonzales, describing states with undocumented student bans, “there are very steep barriers now to navigate in order to attend higher education.”

Some organizations have stepped up to help undocumented students through the college application process. South Carolina’s Student DREAMers Alliance offers program leadership seminars to Latine youth, while TheDream.US provides funding and other programming for undocumented students in exclusionary states or other places like Arkansas and Ohio that prevent undocumented students from accessing financial aid. Georgia’s Freedom University, inspired by Freedom Schools in the South that helped Black students close educational attainment gaps, offers college preparation courses and social movement leadership training to undocumented youth banned from attending the state’s public institutions.

Celsa Allende Stallworth, an organizer at the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice who provides resources for undocumented students interested in attending college, says part of her work involves ensuring students don’t lose hope. ​​“All we can do is try to inspire them,” Allende Stallworth told The Chronicle. “We’re looking for resources and trying to help as much as we can, but we’re basically putting bandages on a wound that’s much bigger.”

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