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Undocumented and Educated

Helping students and families navigate their opportunities, amid the realities of immigration policy in the United States
Undocumented and Educated

In the four years since the Obama Administration launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, young, undocumented immigrants have gained visibility, opportunity, and some measure of stability. But their immigration status, and that of their parents, still inflicts a corrosive burden, says Roberto Gonzales, who has chronicled their experiences before and after the DACA protections. For educators who work with immigrant students, the weight of that burden requires new support services and a distinctive kind of outreach, particularly as young people move through high school and become aware of the ramifications of their status.

Lives in Limbo

“Kids grow up, from kindergarten on, with the idea that if you work hard enough and dream boldly enough, there can be something for you. You can be successful. That’s the ethos of this country,” Gonzales says. But as undocumented students move through the education pipeline, the broken mechanics of immigration policy gradually come to dominate their lives.

Gonzales explores the impact of that broken policy in Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America, a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal a landscape of lost potential. He followed 150 undocumented young people in the Los Angeles metropolitan area over a period of 12 years, finding that even those with college degrees wound up on the margins of society, stuck in low-wage jobs, permanently constrained, and often raising their own children in poverty.

“For many of the kids I followed,” says Gonzales, “as they hit 13, 14, 15, years old — as their friends were taking after-school jobs, getting driver’s licenses, thinking about college — there was this dramatic awakening for them, that their futures were not going to be what they had been told. Even for the high-achieving students fortunate enough to get tracked positively and to get into good classes and get into college and have mentors — even for them, once they venture outside of this trajectory and get their first taste of the limitations their status imposes, they can fall off a cliff.”

The DACA Era

Things changed in 2012 when President Obama created DACA. Under its protections, according to a new brief from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), almost 730,000 people who came to the United States as children have received a two-year reprieve from deportation and a temporary eligibility to work legally in the United States and to get a driver’s license. Of the 1.3 million people that MPI estimated to be immediately eligible for DACA (those who met age, time of entry, and school enrollment criteria), 63 percent have applied (leaving a still-sizable percentage of eligible young people who have not). More than 90 percent of those eligible to renew their DACA status and extend the two-year benefits have done so.  

Gonzales analyzed the transformational impact of DACA in a report published earlier this year, chronicling how it has expanded young people’s educational and work opportunities, resulting in better performance at school, increased wages, renewed hope, and a revitalized motivation to succeed.

But he found that significant obstacles remain, despite DACA protections. They include:

  • The significant variability of opportunity (or lack thereof) across localities and states.
  • The continued financial challenges of tuition, even in parts of the country where in-state tuition rates are available to DACA enrollees. (Undocumented people are not eligible for any federally funded student aid.)
  • Difficulties navigating the licensure requirements attached to many specialized vocations. Nearly 30 percent of all jobs in the US today require a license, and pathways to licensure can be uncertain or blocked for undocumented people, even if they’ve already received (and paid for) specialized training. 
  • The lack of a permanent solution, making long-term planning a challenge.

Even as the country marked the fourth anniversary of DACA this summer, it was also absorbing the implications of a Supreme Court decision in June that blocked a larger Obama administration program to protect parents of citizens or permanent residents from deportation. For these adults, including many whose lives Gonzales had chronicled, who are now the parents of citizens, the decision is crushing. “It drives these parents and their children deeper into the shadows, where they will continue to suffer the effects of daily living that is narrowly circumscribed by legal limitations and the fear of deportation,” Gonzales says.

DACA survives, but its future is far from guaranteed. With the politics of immigration at the forefront of election campaigning, uncertainty about the future of the program is rising.

Undocumented Learners: Best Practices

So what are schools, districts, and advocates doing to help DACA-eligible students navigate their complex situation?

Helping families and children understand their rights. All eligible students can and should apply for DACA while still in high school. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, some families may wonder whether DACA is still available, so additional outreach may be needed this year in particular. Undocumented adults may worry that there are new risks involved in enrolling their children in school.

Schools are legally forbidden from asking about immigration status, and some students may not disclose (or may not know) their status. Districts and schools with immigrant populations should communicate proactively with all families, with messages of inclusion and to encourage DACA enrollment and renewal, as modeled by this resource from the Boston Public Schools. From early on, they should spread the message to students that everyone can aspire to go to college and pursue interests and career goals. That message should include the fact that undocumented students can legally attend college in the U.S. 

Ensuring that staff members know about the resources available to undocumented students, as well as the limitations. Variation at the state-level — involving tuition rates, state scholarships, and licensure requirements, among other things — makes it important for school counselors, teachers, and other academic advisors to be aware of the opportunities and restrictions available to DACA-enrolled young people in their localities. The DACA recipients that Gonzales interviewed said teachers and counselors had often encouraged them to pursue postsecondary education but knew little about the legal realities their students had to face.

Creating a strong mentoring system. Gonzales identified a single characteristic shared by each of the high-achieving undocumented students he followed: “To the person, they could name three or four adult mentors in their lives,” he says. “These were teachers, counselors, adults within the school community who really helped forge a pathway for them.”

Looking to colleges as a model for student services. At the postsecondary level, some colleges have taken the lead by creating resource centers for undocumented students, and these have been effective at providing the specific support these students need, Gonzales says. These resource centers include an identified staff person who acts as a liaison to students in navigating the bureaucracy of higher education. They also provide trainings for staff and faculty, and they convene support groups and clubs for undocumented students — creating opportunities for leadership and for civic and community engagement.

Without such targeted help, Gonzales says, undocumented students often get bounced among offices — the international office, the student affairs office, the financial aid office — “and they end up having to tell their story over and over again, often while standing in a long line,” which can raise fears of exposure.

This successful model is starting to be replicated in middle schools and high schools, Gonzales says — where the impact can be even greater.

Staying aware of the challenges of adolescence. Navigating adolescence is challenging for all children, but it’s uniquely so for undocumented children. Added to the typical turbulence is the stigma and exclusion associated with their immigration status, the self-seclusion or secrecy that families often feel compelled to impose, and feelings of depression that can arise as students come to appreciate the limitations of their status.

As kids come to see that they will have difficulties accessing opportunities their peers might take for granted, they begin “worrying about what teachers will say, what their friends will say,” Gonzales says. “Many of them choose to keep it a secret. So what does it mean to keep this big secret? Some kids separate themselves — from peer networks that have been critical to their success, from teachers, from clubs — because it becomes tiring to them to have to make excuses.” 

DACA has helped to lessen what he calls “the mental health repercussions of being undocumented.”

“Today, there are more supports to prevent kids from falling off. There are new opportunities for guidance, allowing these young people and their families some breathing room — some chance to maintain their aspirations.”

Advocating for policy changes, starting with a pathway to legalization. Other needed changes include access to federal and state financial aid, and consistent access to in-state tuition rates. And there’s a continuing need to build organizations and systems that connect and share resources, leveraging the new awareness on college campuses and across society.

“When we get beyond rhetoric of campaign politics, I think very consistently our American public favors some kind of a pathway to legalization, especially for young people,” Gonzales says. “But what has been difficult is this very awkward marriage of policy and politics that’s really gotten in the way of us doing what’s best for kids, for their families, for their communities, and for this country.”

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