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Programs and Resources to Support Undocumented Students in their Quest for Higher Education (Part I)

By Jessica Gallegos

Photo by the University of Nevada, Reno

A 2008 executive order issued by then President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), providing eligible undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children protection from deportation and a work permit, both of which are renewable every two years. The executive order has faced numerous challenges since its inception, with it most recently being declared illegal by a federal judge. As DACA is being reviewed again by the federal judge and will possibly go up to the Supreme Court in the coming year, recipients and potential applicants have been left with an uncertain future.

Such worries exacerbate existing challenges for undocumented students. The current pause on the reviewal of new applications has caused eligible people to miss out on its benefits, signifying that they continue to live in fear of being deported to a country to which many have little to no connections. The inability to obtain a work permit also compounds economic difficulties, as it prevents them from being able to follow better job prospects or apply to jobs that align with their skill sets. Currently, 40 percent of undocumented children come from families that are under the federal poverty line (Jones 2018). This barrier thus worsens their economic situation, making improvements to their status harder.

Yet, a key hope that many undocumented immigrants who were brought as children have is to pursue an education. An aspect of the American dream, an education provides the opportunity to improve socio-economically, to follow a passion, or even to help others. Attending an institution of higher education can open many doors, creating the potential to perhaps offer some respite from other concerns. However, although the Plyler v. Doe decision ruled that all children, including undocumented children, have a right to public education up to the 12th grade, higher education is not guaranteed.

This has enabled a multitude of barriers to be erected to the access of higher education, varying from the federal to the state level. Therefore, this paper examines possible programs and resources that high schools and college campuses can offer to better help undocumented students, including DACA recipients, become more knowledgeable about their legal options and academic prospects, as well as avenues to help other community members better understand their needs.

Struggles Undocumented Students, including DACA Recipients, Face

Before discussing how institutes of secondary and higher education can better support undocumented students, it is important to have an understanding of the struggles they face.

A key aspect that presents itself as a significant barrier to access to higher education is a lack of financial aid. On the federal level, undocumented students are not eligible for financial aid and most cannot apply to work-study jobs or to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a tool that can help colleges determine financial aid eligibility. In addition, state financial aid can vary greatly. Currently, 23 states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, with 17 states also providing some type of financial aid (Wood 2023). Such policies have been found to increase higher education enrollment rates for Hispanic and Latinx non-citizens by 34-54% (Kaushal 2008). However, five states require students to pay out-of-state tuition rates, furthering the financial burden that undocumented students must carry to attend college (Wood 2023).

Although general scholarships do exist, including some specifically for undocumented students, certain scholarships may require applicants to be U.S. citizens or to hold a social security number, making some undocumented students ineligible. Such difficulties can cause students to become disillusioned with their academic prospects, causing some to opt for two-year colleges over four-year programs or to completely give up their hopes of obtaining a college education and instead join the workforce. Due to these factors, the Urban Institute estimates that between one-fifth and one-sixth of high school undocumented students dropout each year (Mendoza). Some students become disillusioned at the idea of possibly losing it all if they are deported or if policy changes end the DACA program, causing them to reconsider the use of a higher education.

Additionally, such economic and academic difficulties have been tied to struggles with health and well-being. One study found that a person’s documentation status can affect their health, as academic and concerns about the future were “significantly associated with higher perceived stress scores, which was in turn, associated with poorer self-rated health” (Enriquez et al. 2018). This can be very detrimental, especially as these concerns can remain through the duration of their undocumented status, which can be long-term. Long-term and chronic stress has been linked to cardiovascular and mental illnesses, among other health complications (Mariotti 2015). In another study, respondents also highly reported the prevalence of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, noting that “issues often went unrecognized” as they can become normalized among the numerous struggles that the community faces (Raymond-Flesch et al. 2014). Further compounding these issues is the difficulty to obtain affordable and accessible healthcare. A study carried out by an interdisciplinary team from the University of California found that DACA-eligible young adults tended to avoid care or sought care outside of mainstream medicine, as “cost, limited health care literacy, difficulty navigating health care logistics, and fear and mistrust of providers” limited their health care access (Raymond-Flesch et al. 2014). Others also found it difficult to find providers that could give “culturally sensitive care” or had negative experiences with providers who were not knowledgeable about having an undocumented status (Raymond-Flesch et al. 2014). While for some DACA recipients, the program can ease some access to healthcare by allowing for job-based insurance, the fear of disclosing their status and a lack of knowledge around benefits has continued to be limiting.

Furthermore, current policy changes to the DACA program are affecting recipient’s well-being by challenging their sense of belonging. With the aforementioned changes to DACA policy resulting in its precarious position, many recipients have noted the manifestation of a more hostile and discriminatory environment, as well as a renewed fear of deportation, especially now that their information is held in a government database. A study found that the prevalence of feelings of exclusion and vulnerability among DACA recipients lowered their sense of belonging in American society (Mallet-García and García-Bedolla 2021). In particular, the study attributed this to “renewed anti-immigration rhetoric and perceptions of discrimination” (Mallet-García and García-Bedolla 2021). This is important to note, as “perceptions of anti-immigrant sentiment are associated with negative outcomes such as poorer health and overall well-being and lower levels of integration” (Mallet-García and García-Bedolla 2021).

These difficulties emphasize the need for colleges to provide specialized support and resources for undocumented students. Although certain colleges may provide specific scholarships or have an extracurricular club for undocumented students, long-term and easily accessible programs are necessary to adequately support students from when they first apply to when they graduate. Doing so will allow undocumented students, including DACA recipients, to maintain focus on their academic and personal goals, enabling them to better succeed in their pursuit of higher education.

*This blog will be posted in three installments, with the second part being posted next month! Return to learn about pre-college counseling programs available for DACA recipients.

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