Deportation isn’t the only risk for DREAMers

Losing DACA can mean losing an education.

Immigrants and advocates hold a sign outside the White House on September 5, 2017 ahead of the Trump administration's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Chlidhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee
Immigrants and advocates hold a sign outside the White House on September 5, 2017 ahead of the Trump administration's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Chlidhood Arrivals (DACA) program. CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee

Now that the Trump administration has rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative — which allows nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to lawfully live and work in the United States — most of the conversation has been focused on the looming threat of deportation. The administration has attempted to assure DACA recipients that “no action” will be taken against them for the next six months.

Regardless of whether DACA recipients will be immediately at risk of deportation, however, the program’s end introduces other serious problems. For one, after DACA elevated educational opportunities for many people who were previously unable to afford college, students’ education could now be placed in jeopardy.

A large nationwide survey conducted last month found that 45 percent of DACA recipients are currently in school, with 72 percent pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher. The vast majority of the survey’s respondents said the DACA program has allowed them to “pursue educational opportunities” that were previously closed off to them. Now, some of these students may not be able to afford to continue their education.

Although there’s no federal law that prevents undocumented students from attending colleges or universities, affordable higher education has historically been out of reach to undocumented immigrants.

A pair of 1996 federal laws known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) prevent people who are “not lawfully present” in the United States from being eligible for post-secondary education benefits like in-state tuition.

Undocumented people also cannot receive most types of financial assistance to attend school. Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 limits federal financial aid to citizens and permanent residents (more colloquially known as green card holders). Most state financial aid packages are off limits for the same reasons. And although private scholarships are not governed by citizenship requirements, they come with their own set of qualifications that tend to shut out undocumented immigrants.

The DACA program, however, opened up more opportunities for students. Because DACA recipients are considered “lawfully present,” they become eligible for in-state tuition. They are also eligible to apply for some private scholarships.

Now, educators and school officials across the country are scrambling to figure how to retain their students.

For the past four years, Ohio’s Department of Higher Education has allowed DACA students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges provided they can prove they are Ohio residents. It’s unclear how many DACA recipients are currently enrolled at Ohio State University, but the school released a statement last week saying it would seek to protect these students as best as it can.

About 1,200 DACA recipients currently attend state schools and community colleges in Virginia, where Attorney General Mark Herring said in 2014 that DACA students are considered lawfully present and can therefore qualify for enrollment if they are accepted.

Glen Dubois, the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, noted that schools are awaiting guidance from the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia about how they can “support the individuals who seek opportunity with us.” Virginia Tech, which has about 30 undocumented students, said in a statement that school officials would remain supportive of DACA students and will update the school’s immigration page as they get answers for the “many questions that are being raised.”

Officials from Arizona state universities sent out letters of encouragement, saying that the schools would support students within the confines of the law. As of 2016, about 240 DACA recipients pay in-state tuition at three Arizona’s state universities: Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University. An additional 2,000 DACA recipients attend Maricopa Community Colleges (MCC).

Given that Arizona officials are already battling over in-state tuition for undocumented students in the Grand Canyon State, DACA recipients may be on shaky ground there. Earlier this year, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court decision to grant in-state tuition; MCC appealed the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court last month. While the decision is being appealed, students can continue paying in-state tuition rates.

In some states, losing DACA status doesn’t just affect students’ ability to pay in-state tuition — it could shut them out from enrollment altogether.

For example, both South Carolina and Alabama prohibit undocumented immigrants from enrolling in any public colleges whatsoever. The two states carve out an exception only for DACA recipients to attend certain post-secondary institutions. Similarly, Georgia State University and Augusta University said earlier this year they would begin accepting undocumented students who can verify their lawful presence (a legal term that does not equate legal status), which suggests only DACA recipients may qualify.

Nationwide, 560 college and university presidents have publicly denounced President Donald Trump’s decision to end DACA. American Council on Education (ACE) President Ted Mitchell wrote a statement late last month assuring students that “the nation’s colleges and universities will actively, strongly and persistently urge Congress to swiftly approve legislation to enable you to maintain your current status.”

Now that the Trump administration is phasing out the DACA program, it’s unclear how the timing will play out for DACA recipients who are trying to figure out their next steps.

The White House has encouraged current DACA recipients whose employment authorization cards expire before March 5, 2018 to apply for a one-time, two-year renewal by October 5. DACA recipients whose cards expire after March 5, 2018 are ineligible for renewals.

These staggered expiration dates means students will shore up complications related to losing their DACA status at different times in their education. The last remaining DACA recipient could have their card through sometime in 2020, based on when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes and approves that application.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Huron University College is offering $60,000 scholarships to DACA recipients affected by the rescission.