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Undocumented College Students Are Preparing to Have Their Lives Wrecked by Trump

Obama gave thousands of undocumented youth the opportunity to enroll in college and find work opportunities upon graduating. Now, those students are bracing for life under a Trump presidency.
November 16, 2016, 5:03pm

Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images

Since 2012, President Obama's Deferred Action for Child Arrivals has allowed 844,000 young undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States to work and attend school without fear of deportation. The executive order also made it easier for undocumented immigrants to attend college, since their deferred status qualified them for in-state tuition rates and made it easier to identify themselves on application forms.

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Those students' futures are now in jeopardy, as Donald Trump has promised to overturn Obama's executive orders on immigration, including DACA, within his first 100 days as president.

"This makes education for undocumented students less of a possibility," Cairo Mendes, an organizer with Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) in Boston, told me.

Mendes is himself an undocumented student at the University of Massachusetts Boston. When he was nine, he and his family came to the United States from Brazil on a tourist visa and simply never left. Growing up, Mendes knew he was undocumented, but he thrived in school anyway, earning straight As throughout middle school and early high school. But when he realized how his status could affect his future in the United States, he became depressed about the options available to him, and his grades started to slump.

Before DACA, the opportunities for young undocumented immigrants were bleak. Most ended up in low-skill jobs like service and construction, without benefits or worker protections, according to Pew Hispanic. Those who wanted to enroll in college had to apply as international students, paying much higher rates than their peers, even if they lived in state.

President Obama passed DACA in 2012, which offered deportation relief to a subset of young undocumented immigrants. DACA came with a few caveats: Recipients had to have come to the US before they turned 16, be enrolled in school or a job-training program, have no felony convictions, and be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012. Those who qualified could get a Social Security card and work authorization, as well as the opportunity to enroll in college at in-state tuition rates.

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The policy had lasting effects, according to a national study from 2015. Of the undocumented immigrants surveyed, 65 percent were enrolled in school, and 92 percent said they were pursuing educational opportunities they couldn't before DACA. Sixty-nine percent also said they'd found better paying jobs with better working conditions.

Before DACA, Mendes couldn't even imagine going to college. He'd heard rumors that undocumented students weren't allowed to enroll, and so when he graduated high school in 2010 with a low GPA, he figured there was no point in trying.

Then he heard about the Student Immigrant Movement, a group that's fought for ten years to stop the deportation of young people. The group gave him the courage to come out as undocumented to his peers, and in 2012, he qualified for DACA status. He enrolled in school full-time.

Mendes is now in his junior year, and although he can't vote, he obsessed over the presidential election. When he saw that Donald Trump had been announced the president-elect, his heart sank.

"I was numb, angry, frustrated," he told me. "I thought about my mom, my family, about the youth I work with. I couldn't go back to sleep."

In the days after the election, Mendes noticed a difference in the mood on campus. "As a campus where the student body is comprised of mostly people of color, the atmosphere was heavy, as if people were grieving," he told me.

Across the river in Cambridge, Jin Park, an undocumented junior at Harvard, shares similar concerns. While his tuition is covered thanks to Harvard's "demonstrated need" policy, the election still raised real concerns about his future.

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"Everything is different," said Park, whose family emigrated from South Korea when he was seven. "It has to be different now, because the president ran on a campaign to exclude me and the 11 million undocumented people in this country."

Park was a member of Harvard's Count on a Dream, a student group that advocates for immigrants on campus and works with the school's admissions office closely. His sophomore year, Park created a list of scholarships that undocumented immigrants could apply for. (Deferred status doesn't qualify students for federal financial aid, but there are still a variety of private scholarships they can apply for.)

When President Obama issued DACA, Park said he "felt like I had a place in this country." The policy opened doors for both work and education, and Park said he didn't "have to be afraid of applying for a job or something that could improve my life or my family's life."

DACA hasn't been perfect. Recipients aren't eligible for federal student loans, so paying for school can be next to impossible, and three states—Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia—still deny undocumented immigrants access to their public universities. As one undocumented student put it to VICE earlier this year, deferred action is "nothing more than bread crumbs to keep us from starving."

But without DACA, thousands of undocumented college students will be thrown back into the same challenges they faced before 2012—from paying exorbitant rates for tuition, losing scholarships and financial aid, and sacrificing job opportunities after graduating, since they will no longer have legal work authorization.

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Stephen Legomsky, former chief counsel at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, told USA Today that Trump could easily overturn DACA. There's also the fear that the Trump administration could use the information obtained from DACA applications to detain or deport young immigrants, a measure currently against DACA policy. As of now, Trump hasn't proposed any specific laws regarding immigration enforcement other than his plans to increase deportations, but it does leave the population more vulnerable than before.

At this point, it's hard to predict Trump's actual plans on immigration. The weekend after the election, Trump reaffirmed his intention to deport upward of 3 million undocumented immigrants. But on Saturday, unnamed sources who claimed to be close to the president-elect told Univision that Trump will reveal a plan to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants—perhaps an indication that 11 million people is simply to large a group to just round up and ship off.

Whatever his plans are, many undocumented students are concerned. Mendes told me some undocumented youth don't know whether they should bother applying for college anymore, falling into the same sense of hopelessness he held before he was granted DACA status.

But Park told me that although the outlook is "bleak and sad," he won't let that determine his future.

"I'm not going to stop going to school because of Trump," said Park. "The American dream is something I can work for. I grew up here. I am an American. Every undocumented immigrant says that [because] it's not about papers. It's about something more."

Follow Alejandro Ramirez on Twitter.