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Blog: Instability of Legal Status Continues to Hinder Higher Education Access Despite the Success of DACA by Dr. William Perez

Thursday, April 7, 2016

President Obama’s 2012 executive action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), has provided temporary legal residence and work-permits to about 750,000 young adults that have applied for DACA as of March 2015. That is less than half of the 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants age 15 or older that the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates are potentially eligible to apply1. Among these beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries are high school and college students, college graduates, and graduate students pursuing masters, doctoral, and other professional degrees.

While there is a growing body of research that describes the positive impact of DACA on higher education access and workforce opportunities, these studies often do not consider how unstable immigration status can be and that students can lose DACA at any moment. With the exception of naturalized citizenship, immigrants can lose their legal residence status for a variety of reasons including minor legal infractions and inability to pay for renewal fees. As of June 2015, 75 percent (377,767) of the DACA applicants eligible to renew their status had been approved or were in the process of being approved. However, that means that 95,111 (25 percent) of those that initially had received DACA in 2012-2013 have fallen out of status, including 32,140 that were denied renewal and 74,591 that had missed the window to apply for renewal.

The $465 application fee remains a barrier to DACA renewal. In families where there are multiple DACA grantees, renewal fees can be particularly burdensome. USCIS does not allow for DACA applicants to pay with credit cards and partial fee waivers are very limited. Although immigrant-serving organizations have taken steps to help make the renewal process more affordable for low-income applicants, creating microloan and application scholarship programs, the scale of these programs is limited.

Over the years there has been a steady increase of news stories about DACA-eligible young adults that have not been able to apply. For example, a news article published in vox.com in 2014 described the experiences of a young man from Houston, Oscar Hernandez, who wanted to go to the University of Texas but couldn’t afford the DACA application fee. He’s from a low-income family with two other siblings that are eligible for DACA but his mother could only afford to pay for one of them so she made the heartbreaking decision to pay for the oldest. Another article published by Generation Progress described the case of Pedro Garcia, a college student from southern Texas who was delayed in applying for DACA for financial reasons. Not only is it hard for him to find jobs to pay for school because he does not have a work permit, but when he went away for college he was not able to go back home to visit his family for three years even though he was only six hours away by car. There are multiple border patrol checkpoints on the highways between his school campus and his parents’ home and without DACA he feared being stopped and deported. These two examples are not isolated cases. In a survey commissioned by United We Dream in 214, 40 percent of respondents who had DACA reported that they knew someone who’s eligible but hadn’t applied due to the inability to pay the $465 application fee.

For DACA recipients, falling out of status means becoming deportable again. The instability of “legality” can have a profound impact on the higher education access of undocumented students resulting in various educational trajectories from fewer educational obstacles for students with DACA to more educational obstacles for those that fall out of status, including an abrupt transition to the Mexican educational system and Mexican society for those that are deported or forced to return to Mexico due to parental deportation. In a study I conducted last year with the support of a Fulbright fellowship I surveyed and interview deportees and returnees in Mexico that had graduated from high school and/or started college in the U.S. Most were not able to continue their higher education studies in Mexico due to various bureaucratic hurdles. Even after years of trying, one young woman we interviewed stated, “I’m afraid to go to school here. I don’t know the process. I haven’t been in school for five years.”

The consequences of not renewing within the requested timeframe can be significant—including expiration of recipients’ Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and Social Security Number, as well as accrual of time in the U.S. without legal status referred to as “unlawful presence” under immigration law. Accrual of unlawful presence can trigger penalties that may prevent an individual from applying for permanent legal status if it becomes available to DACA grantees in the future.

In the short-term, falling out of status means that students are no longer able to work legally, renew driving licenses, seriously complicating college persistence and completion. More importantly, these barriers were never removed for the 850,000 eligible young adults that have not yet applied for DACA. Although progress has been made since the passage of DACA four years ago, far too many undocumented youth remain locked out of higher education. Institutions of higher education need to reframe the conversation to be inclusive of this silent majority of DACA-eligible young adults that have not applied, those that have fallen out of status, and those in danger of falling out of status. Institutional resources to support students should include access to legal services, and scholarships or short-term loans to pay for initial and renewal DACA application fees.

Author Biography 

William Perez, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on the social and psychological processes associated with academic success and higher education access among immigrant Latino students. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading academic experts on undocumented students. In 2009, he received the 2009 Mildred Garcia Prize for Excellence in Research from the Association for the Study of Higher Education for his book, We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American DreamHe has been interviewed or quoted as an academic expert in various media outlets including NBC Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTime Magazine, the LA TimesHispanic Magazineand NPR’s All Things Considered. He has received various awards for his research on immigration and education including the Stanford University Distinguished Scholar Alumni Award, the early career scholar award from the Hispanic Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association and the Fulbright Fellowship. His book, Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Educationwas selected for the 2013 Critics Choice Award by the American Educational Studies Association. For the past two years he has been selected for Education Week’s annual ranking of the top 200 university-based scholars in the U.S. who are doing the most to influence educational policy and practice.