Undocumented Youth Reaching for Higher Education

Carlos Rao waited four years after graduating from high school before going to college because he mistakenly believed undocumented immigrants like him were barred from attending. He’s been waiting even longer for Congress to adopt one of the many on-again, off-again proposals for immigration reform it has debated but never adopted. That legislation might grant him and millions of other immigrants legal resident status.

Each time a proposal failed, Rao, who had been working for below minimum wages in dead-end jobs, lost hope that his life would ever change.

“It was a really depressing time period,” he said. “That’s not what I wanted for my life.”

Rao is now completing his studies toward an associate degree in architecture at Miami Dade College and is planning to graduate this spring. He’s still waiting for the immigration laws to change, but these days he’s brimming with hope. He’s one of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, many of them college students, who have applied for permission to legally stay and work in the U.S. for two years without the threat of deportation under a new program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Unburdening Youth

President Obama established the deferred deportation policy by executive order last June after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), legislation that would have legalized the status of more than a million young, undocumented immigrants brought by their parents to this country as children. The DACA policy calls for a two-year halt of deportations of these very same immigrants as long they came here before age 16. If granted deferred action, Rao will get a work permit enabling him to earn money for tuition at a top university where he hopes to pursue an advanced degree in architecture.

“It will be a huge relief,” said Rao, 25, who came to the U.S. from Venezuela at age two. “I’ll have some normalcy in my life. I can go work for an architect without problems.”

A more permanent reprieve may be in the offing now that a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has announced formal plans to draft legislation overhauling the nation’s immigration system and granting legal residency, and even possibly citizenship, to most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living here. Given the wide partisan divide in Congress and the many failed attempts to tackle immigration reform, it’s hard to predict if or when lawmakers will pass such a complicated and controversial measure.

For now, Rao is happy for the opportunity to get deferred deportation. Under the new policy, only those who meet certain criteria are eligible. They must have come to the United States before age 16 and be under age 31 by June 15, 2012, when the executive order went into effect. They must have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 and have been physically present in the country on the day the policy went into effect and on the day they applied for deferred action. They must either be in school or have received a high school diploma or certificate of completion, or a GED certificate.

As many as 1.7 million people may be eligible nationwide, 140,000 in Florida, according to U.S. immigration authorities. While the large majority of the applicants were born in Mexico and in Central America, immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and elsewhere are also expected to apply. So far, 407,899 applications had been received as of Jan. 17, 2013, and 154,404 approved, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

At Miami Dade College, where 31 percent of the 180,000 students are non-U.S. citizen immigrants, the majority from Latin and South America and the Caribbean, 279 undocumented students were enrolled in fall 2012, according to college administrators. While some colleges around the country have been taking a wait-and-see approach to determine the effect of the policy on student enrollment, others like Miami Dade that have large numbers of immigrant students have been reaching out to undocumented students. Miami Dade hosted informational workshops about DACA last September at its various campuses for students interested in applying for the program. The workshops were led by Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Miami-based advocacy group.

“We have had students come forward saying they have been approved for deferred action and are now applying for college,” says Dulce Beltran, Miami Dade College’s registrar.

She says the numbers have not been significant.

Some of the 13 states that have passed their own versions of the DREAM Act, such as Massachusetts, allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, have said that students granted deferred action will also be treated as state residents, as long as they meet specific criteria. This is not the case in Florida, where DREAM Act legislation has not been adopted. Only those noncitizen students whose parents are in the country legally are eligible for in-state tuition. Out-of-state tuition at Miami Dade is $396.51 per credit, compared to $112.22 per credit for in-state. The college does offer scholarships through private sources for which immigration and residency status are not criteria for eligibility.

In Maryland, voters approved a DREAM Act last November, making it the first state to approve such a law through legislation and voter referendum. Under the law, public universities and community colleges allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates after they meet strict eligibility requirements.

Dr. Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland, strongly supported the measure.

“They worked hard. They excelled in our public schools,” he wrote in an op-ed article in the Washington Post. “They want to go to college so they can be more productive members of our workforce. They do not ask for a free ride. Yet they remain shadows because their parents came without immigration papers.”

(Loh’s use of the word “shadows” was a reference to the name undocumented student activists in Maryland call themselves. While their counterparts in other states call themselves “Dreamers,” an allusion to the failed federal DREAM Act. “Shadows” implies the student’s illegal status marginalizes them from the larger society.)

“It costs, on average, about $14,000 a year to educate each Maryland public school student. It is a waste of investment and talent to then slam the door on those with the ability and motivation — but limited money — to go to college,” wrote Loh, himself an immigrant and self-described “Latasian” (Latino-Asian).

He is Chinese, but grew up in Peru. He came to the United States alone as teenager.

Loh, who is also a lawyer, called education “the great equalizer in our democracy” and “the passport to social and economic mobility.” He said the U.S. Supreme Court upheld these values when it ruled in 1982 that undocumented children are entitled to a public school education.

Loh also pointed to a 2012 state commission report on the impact of immigrants in Maryland, including the benefits and costs of unauthorized immigration, attributing a 57 percent increase in the state’s workforce expansion from 2000 to 2010 to immigrants.

The report noted that the children of unauthorized immigrants would be part of the labor force in coming decades that will reinforce the economies of the U.S. and Maryland and prop up Social Security and Medicare benefits for current workers.

“It would be foolhardy, then, for state and local communities to withhold education and other opportunities from those future workers,” the report concluded.

At the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Kathleen Teehan, vice chancellor for enrollment management, said that as word spread about deferred action, the university began getting a few calls from enrolled students who have been paying out-of-state tuition rates and now want to pay in-state rates. She said the university has also heard from students who want to attend.

“I think as we get heavy into the enrollment period and students start filling out applications, we may see an increase, but I don’t think we’ll see an onslaught,” she said.

By the time Carlos Rao enrolled at Miami Dade College, he had already spent four years waiting on the sidelines of the long-running political debate on immigration as his peers around the country became outspoken activists and advocates for undocumented immigrants brought here as young children.

Activist Dreamers

Their parents either entered the U.S. illegally by crossing a land border or used fake documents to enter by airplane, or came legally with a valid visa and simply never returned to their home country as the visa term required. The activists called themselves “Dreamers.”

Rao finally got tired of just waiting. He wrote letters to journalists around the country decrying the status of young undocumented immigrants like him. He started meeting with immigrant activists and soon joined the movement of students who publicly outed themselves as “Americans without papers” — young people raised in the United States and American in every way but lacking the formal documentation to be considered fully American.

In 2102, he joined three other students in a four-month protest walk from Miami to Washington to highlight the Obama administration’s lack of action on immigration reform.

“I was fed up with being undocumented, and I had had enough,” he said. “I looked into activism. I had no idea this other world even existed until I got involved. It really transformed my life.”

At Miami Dade, the undocumented students are very politically active and even started their own organization, Students Working for Equal Rights, or SWER They showed up at the DACA workshops on campus wearing black T-shirts with “Undocumented?” printed on the front and “Got papers?” on the back.

The students receive broad support from the college’s administrators, some of whom are themselves from immigrant families, or have relatives who are immigrants. Though the students welcome the temporary reprieve offered through DACA, Rao and the other students haven’t given up hopes of being granted permanent legal residency or U.S. citizenship.

“If I’m still undocumented by the time I have a master’s degree in architecture, at that point, I would consider moving from the country, because there would be no reason to stay,” he said. “I know that anywhere in the world I could do anything that I could be doing here. That’s why education means the world to me. It’s the most important thing.”

Marjorie Valbrun is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who writes frequently about immigration issues.