Can the Federal Government Support DACA/Undocumented Students? Here’s How.

by Ellen Lee, Policy and Research Intern

As I prepare to graduate, I reflect on the ways in which my journey in higher education as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student could have been improved through policy changes. I am one of more than 450,000 undocumented students in higher education — 216,000 of whom are DACA-eligible and from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Even though I do not identify as Latino, almost half of all undocumented students are Latino, making them an important part of the Latino community.

The federal government, including the Biden administration and Congress, must ensure that DACA and undocumented students are supported in and through higher education and can be part of the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. As a DACA recipient, I pay $495 every two years to receive deferred action from deportation, a work permit, a social security number, and a driver’s license. While I am one of the lucky few with DACA, I am still ineligible for federal financial aid, making it difficult to afford higher education. The federal government has the opportunity to support DACA/undocumented students¹ by implementing three policy changes: 1) immediate term: make DACA/undocumented students explicitly eligible for emergency aid, 2) short term: grant access to federal financial aid to DACA/undocumented students, and 3) long term: pass the DREAM Act to provide a permanent status for DACA and undocumented students.

Immediate Term: Make DACA/Undocumented Students Explicitly Eligible for Emergency Aid

DACA/undocumented students are facing costs due to the pandemic, just like their peers, but without access to federal emergency aid, they further struggle to cover those costs. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress appropriated billions for student emergency aid, but undocumented students have not received this funding. The US Department of Education (ED) limited emergency aid to students who were eligible for Title IV financial aid, which excludes DACA/undocumented students. ED has not explicitly stated if these students can receive the latest round of funding, but must make this clear so undocumented students can begin to access this funding.

Institutions have tried to support where possible, but not every institution may have the funding available to provide emergency aid for their DACA/undocumented students. In my experience, I was able to apply for funding from my institution and within a week, $500 was deposited in my bank account. For me, this $500 covered my DACA renewal application fee of $495. I am fortunate that my institution was able to provide this for me through their private resources. However, most DACA/undocumented students around the country were unable to receive any funding without access to the federal aid they helped bring in.

Short Term: Grant Access to Federal Financial Aid

Access to federal financial aid can make pursuing a postsecondary degree more affordable and attainable, but DACA/undocumented students, are currently ineligible for aid, including Pell Grants, Work-Study, and subsidized loans. I heard stories from DACA/undocumented students who forwent higher education due to a lack of financial aid, and my parents told me that I was unlikely to get a degree. A degree felt unaffordable and out of reach, but I was persistent to reject this narrative and find a way. The public institutions in my home state did not provide the funds to fully support DACA/undocumented students. Instead, I looked at private institutions across the country that had programs and scholarships specifically for DACA/undocumented students. Most low-income, first-generation college goers enroll close to home, but I found an institution out West and left the comfort of my East Coast community to pursue my dreams of higher education.

The Biden Administration recently proposed two policy changes pertaining to DACA/undocumented students’ education. The most recent budget proposal includes granting DACA recipients access to federal Pell Grants. While this is a step in the right direction, the budget proposal still excludes many otherwise eligible students. By only including current DACA recipients, the proposal neglects undocumented students who could not apply for DACA for various reasons, including the cost of applying for DACA and a pause on applications during the last administration. Most recently, the Biden Administration also included DREAMers in their free community college plan. While this is also a step in the right direction, the use of “DREAMers” lacks clarity on which students qualify given that there is no clear federal definition beyond the colloquial understanding of undocumented immigrants who entered into this country at a young age. The Biden Administration needs to consider the implications of eligibility and ensure they include large swaths of undocumented students.

Long Term: Pass the DREAM Act to Provide a Permanent Status for DACA/Undocumented Students

The DREAM Act can provide a pathway to citizenship, and ensure that DACA/undocumented students who have completed a degree can fully participate in the country’s workforce without continual fear of deportation or repeated, costly applications. Without legislation to make these programs permanent, DACA and its benefits, including potential access to federal aid, could be rescinded at any time. Further, permanent legislation would provide clarity around access to higher education for undocumented students and create a sense of belonging. The most recent DREAM Act 2021 proposed that recipients maintain conditional resident status for ten years, during which they still would not have access to federal financial aid. Therefore, this legislation would not cover current and incoming students. This is why the immediate- and short-term actions outlined above are needed.

As my graduation from a four-year, private institution nears, I think about how I was able to attain a bachelor’s degree against all odds when many other DACA/undocumented students could not. Moving forward, I will use this privilege and degree to serve my communities and keep opening doors for other DACA/undocumented students to accomplish their dreams of pursuing higher education, but I am only one person in a long fight against educational injustice. While several advocacy groups have worked to help DACA/undocumented students, the federal government has the opportunity to fight alongside us. By implementing these policy changes, they would unleash the floodgates of motivated and talented DACA/undocumented students who also want to pursue higher education to serve their communities. In doing so, not only will DACA/undocumented students gain a sense of belonging and unprecedented opportunities, but the investment in these students will contribute to the nation’s long-term economic recovery.

¹ We acknowledge many terms are used for this population of students and we opted to use “DACA/undocumented” because it is the most inclusive term to describe the obstacles both groups face in higher education, yet distinctly highlights the privileges the executive order DACA affords to undocumented students. Keep an eye out on a forthcoming piece on the language.

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