Financial assistance

DACA has opened doors to education for some, but many students still face obstacles

“I was very disappointed at first,” Camarena said. “I just started thinking that if I had a different legal status here I could be someone much more important – maybe have a better career.”

Her mom was sad. Her father was proud that she thought of the family business and thought practically.

The political immigrant advocacy group FWD.us estimates there are 600,000 students like Camarena without legal status in U.S. K-12 schools, including about 8,000 in Colorado.

Last June, Advocates celebrated the 10th anniversary of the founding of DACA and the impacts it has had for many. DACA is a program that provides work permits and temporary deportation relief to people who were brought into the country illegally as children.

Prior to the creation of DACA, young people without legal status described encountering demoralizing barriers in high school. Students lost motivation when they realized college was out of reach without typical access to in-state financial aid or tuition. Other opportunities, including internships and trades that require professional certifications, were also prohibited.

When legislative efforts to help these students stalled, President Barack Obama created DACA by executive order.

Some beneficiaries are now parents themselves. The impact of status extends beyond recipients. In Colorado, an estimated 20,000 US citizens live with DACA recipients.

Educators and advocates have anecdotal stories that the creation of DACA has helped motivate some young people to have hope for the future and pursue an education. One of the requirements to apply is to be in school or have a high school diploma or GED.

The researchers published a study in 2019 based on findings from Harvard University’s national UnDACAmented research project that tracked the impact of DACA over many years in hundreds of recipients. The study found that among students who had dropped out of high school, achieving DACA status encouraged them to return to school. Many more have earned college degrees and started careers.

Marissa Molina, Colorado State Director for FWD.us, was a former DACA recipient herself. She was in college with her parents paying her out-of-state tuition just before DACA was introduced.

“Because I had this huge tuition burden, I was going to drop out,” Molina said. “I didn’t see the point of continuing because I had no prospect of ever being able to use what I was learning. For me, DACA has been truly transformational.

Unlike most, Molina has since found an independent path to adjusting his legal status.

DACA itself gives recipients temporary status, two years at a time, but does not provide a way to obtain permanent residency or citizenship.

Since former President Trump first tried to end DACA in 2017, the government has only been allowed to process new applications for limited periods of time. Camarena applied during one of those windows last year, but her application was not processed.

Although the Supreme Court granted Trump a defeat in 2020 and restored DACA, a legal challenge again suspended the processing of new applications.

This time, the states in a Texas-led case argue that DACA was flawed from its inception, created without going through legal and administrative procedures, and is harming their states. A federal judge agreed. The Biden administration has appealed the case and the pleadings were heard last month.

A decision is expected this fall, but supporters are not optimistic. Instead, they are urging Congress to pass legislation to expand and enshrine a new path to legal status for those who were brought into the country as children.

Since DACA’s rules of origin have not changed – including having been in the United States prior to 2007 – FWD.us believes that the majority of undocumented students in US schools would no longer be eligible for DACA even though new applications were being processed. This year’s high school students were born in 2004 and 2005, and unless eligibility is expanded, soon no high school students will be eligible.

Although the program is under threat, Molina believes young people, even without legal status, now have higher expectations than she did growing up.

“There are students now who have never known a world without DACA,” Molina said. “We live in a different space. Particularly for Colorado. Our state really understood this problem and tried to do better and do well with our students. We have access to current state financial rates. We continue to hear positive messages and our governor is talking about DACA. It can be difficult for a young person to imagine a world without this in place.