2016 Election Brings Hope, Anxiety for Undocumented Students

By Allie Bidwell and Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

Students across the country are paying close attention to the 2016 presidential race, in which candidates have promised everything from free college to increased protections for student loan borrowers. But for undocumented students who are attending college under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the outcome of the election could make or break their higher education aspirations.

President Barack Obama took executive action in 2012 to create DACA, which allows certain undocumented immigrants to receive renewable two-year work permits and exemption from deportation, so long as they entered the United States before their 16th birthday, and before June 2007. While the program confers non-immigrant legal status, it does not provide a path to citizenship. The program was expanded in 2014 to include undocumented immigrants who entered the country before 2010, eliminate the requirement that applicants be younger than 31 years old, and lengthen the renewable deferral period to two years.

According to a policy brief from the Migration Policy Institute, about 820,000 people had applied for DACA as of March 31, 2016, with 728,285 approvals. Ninety-three percent of DACA recipients who were eligible for renewal received it and over 22,000 have been granted advance parole. And these individuals are reaping the benefits of the program, with 91 percent obtaining a driver’s license or state ID. A 2015 survey from United We Dream found that 30 percent of the 1,750 DACA recipients surveyed said they were able to return to school and were able to more easily pay for their education because they were able to work.

Despite the success of DACA, the program is under threat on multiple fronts. To start, the Supreme Court in June 2016 issued a preliminary injunction of the expanded DACA and its sister program Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). As a result, the programs have been temporarily halted and new applications will not be accepted at this time, though existing DACA recipients will not lose their status.

The next administration could also make or break DACA through changes to immigration policy made during continued work with Congress or by executive action. For instance, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said that within the first 100 days of her presidency, she would introduce immigration reform that includes a clear path to citizenship. She has also committed to defending DAPA and supporting DREAMers, as well as promoting naturalization for immigrants. While Clinton’s plan would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition for higher education, they would continue to be ineligible for federal financial aid.

Some immigration advocates—such as United We Dream Action (UWDA), a nonpartisan network led by immigrant youth across the country—have still been critical of Clinton’s positions, insisting she must go further to support undocumented students and protect them and their families from deportation.

Republican nominee Donald Trump, as many have noted, has taken a wildly different approach on immigration. His immigration reform proposal does not directly address DREAMers or DACA students, but does include three principles: the building of a wall across the country’s southern border, increasing legal enforcement, and a plan that improves jobs and wages for American citizens. Some members of the press and immigration advocates have made the assumption that Trump would end DACA and DAPA, as outlined in the Republican Party Platform.

But as the campaign progresses, he has wavered on his adamant claims that he would deport millions of illegal immigrants, The Washington Post reported this week.

Some have also criticized the Republican party as a whole for its positions related to immigration and undocumented youth. Within the party’s platform, leaders express support for building a wall along the southern border, repealing DACA and DAPA, and enacting mass deportations.

And at the state level, there is a movement brewing to prevent DREAMers from accessing higher education. Sixteen states (Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin) have enacted legislation to “lock out” undocumented students from higher education, either requiring them to pay out-of-state-tuition or barring them from enrolling at public institutions altogether. Only 20 states currently offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, though they continue to be barred from receiving federal financial aid, and in most cases are ineligible for state aid.

Many states are beginning to “realize little by little … that [the] federal government has not acted on immigration and these students are going to stay there and live there,” said Gaby Pacheco, program director at TheDream.US, an organization that offers national scholarships to about 1,700 undocumented students attending 75 institutions around the country, including to students who are locked out. States, in turn, may “lose out on an opportunity for their home-grown students to access higher education,” she said.

Institutions in states that allow undocumented students to enroll or pay in-state tuitions are also doing what they can to help bridge the financial gap, dedicating institutional resources to help students pay for college and other expenses.

The University of California system in May announced a new infusion of cash to support undocumented students through three different avenues: student loans (as undocumented students are ineligible for federal loans), student services and other financial support for items like textbooks, and the system’s Undocumented Legal Services Center. The system has committed to provide more than $8 million each year for the next three years.

And at Colorado State University (CSU), undocumented students are eligible for institutional merit- and need-based aid, as well as up to $1,500 per semester through institutional work-study. They are also included in the school’s Commitment to Colorado program, which guarantees that Pell-eligible students will have their tuition and fees covered. The school has also worked with its health network to provide undocumented students with up to $1,500 in health care per semester, which is paid for by CSU through a grant. There are currently 125 undocumented students enrolled at CSU, 100 of whom are DACA recipients.

Tom Biedscheid, director of student financial services at CSU, said that his office “has a hunch” that undocumented students “are actually retaining and persisting at a higher rate than most of our other students.”

If DACA were to go away, these students could face numerous challenges, including missing out on opportunities for internships, job prospects, and scholarships, said Joe Donlay, associate director of student financial services at CSU.

Expanding DACA and creating more opportunities for these students, such as a pathway to citizenship, “would be a great thing,” Biedscheid said, noting that many DACA students have gone on to work in their communities and be highly productive members of society who are contributing. And that potential economic value should be the focus of the debate, rather than the immigration status of student.

“No one is talking about what these students and families will bring to the economy in the future,” Biedscheid said.

And while these students are aware that DACA and other means of support might go away, most remain undeterred about their future and pursuit of higher education.

Undocumented students who “come into academics have the sense of always having hurdles or barriers to break down,” Biedscheid said, so despite the obstacles they face, “it appears they are more successful than other first-generation students because they are good at figuring out ways around things.”


Publication Date: 8/23/2016

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.

Related Content

Annual Business Meeting and Policy Update


Policy Update Webinar


View Desktop Version