The college application process is a labyrinth of forms, letters, and essays: a puzzle just as complicated as a Rubik’s Cube. Now, imagine seeing everyone around you receiving personalized instructions on how to solve the puzzle, except you. This was the experience of three recent college applicants. They were all undocumented immigrants at the time.For many undocumented students, successful enrollment in college is determined by the information given to them when they are going through the application process. However, the information gap that currently exists for undocumented students means that many opportunities for acceptance as well as financial aid are slipping though their fingers, unnoticed by college administrators. Navigating inconsistencies among schools’ admissions policies, without many advisory or informational resources, sets up yet another obstacle in an already intricate system.For Matias Delgado, a sophomore at Miami-Dade Community College, Eric Balderas, a junior at Harvard College, and Enrique Ramirez, a sophomore at Harvard College, this situation has now changed. On June 15, 2012, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which ordered the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services to exercise prosecutorial discretion for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and who met other requirements. These students, widely known as “DREAMers,” after the immigration bill that was first introduced in 2001 known as the DREAM Act, have all been granted DACA status and are now lawfully present in the United States. However, their stories of applying to college as undocumented students speak to the experiences many other high school students may be going through today, primarily those students who are still ineligible for DACA.
Is College Even an Option?
To many undocumented, non-DACA eligible students, college seems a very far reach. Delgado first explained to the HPR “how vague and nebulous the rules and policies around undocumented [students] were. You never knew what you could or could not do. You end up getting scared. You suck in all this negativity of things that could possibly happen to you.” Despite his stellar grades, he was told by a college counselor that his only option was community college. He based his decision on that advice, even though a variety of private scholarships and need-blind schools would have provided him with the assistance necessary to attend a four-year university.
About 30 percent of undocumented families live below the poverty line. Lack of work authorization makes finding employment especially hard for undocumented people. As a result, many undocumented immigrants work in the service sector or in “under the table” jobs, as house cleaners or construction workers, making the prospect of paying for college almost impossible. For students, the lack of a lawful immigration status before DACA (or today, for those ineligible for DACA) means having to pay international fees at community colleges and state schools. In some states, such as South Carolina, it means not even being granted acceptance to public institutions of higher learning.
Balderas and Ramirez received support from caring adults who guided them through the process. Balderas explained to the HPR that “the biggest difference in my experience has really been how informed our [high school] teachers and counselors had been, and it’s only made a difference in my case because otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the initiative to find out what my options really [were].”
For Ramirez, his college opportunity came down to a conversation he had at a college fair with a recent Yale graduate who was spearheading a college admission program for minorities and low-income students. Need-blind schools such as Harvard, Yale, and other top universities do not take financial necessity into account during the admissions process. For many of the undocumented students at Harvard, this meant full financial aid and a college acceptance. “I didn’t know that there was a chance for me to go to college, because of the things it entailed: not working, not being able to have a job. Even if I went to college, I wasn’t going to be able to study abroad, [or] do lots of other things. It just wasn’t an option. It wasn’t something I thought about until my sister went to college,” Ramirez told the HPR.
Trouble on Campus
The University of Chicago has publicly stated it will accept qualified students regardless of immigration status. Harvard has not made a public statement, but it does provide resources to the undocumented students that are accepted, on average nine per graduating class. Deborah Anker, head of the Immigration Clinic at Harvard Law School, provides one-on-one consultations to undocumented students at Harvard in order for them to explore immigration options such as DACA and other forms of gaining lawful presence in the states.
Meanwhile, Harvard’s public stance on DACA and comprehensive immigration reform remains hazy at best. Balderas explained, “I guess we can’t blame them too much for not being too open about it, because they do accept undocumented immigrants and have very generous policies towards us. But, at the end of the day, they have one way they present themselves to the public, which is very political. I guess that’s really the world we’re in.”
Anker told the HPR that private institutions should take more care in helping students with pending immigration statuses, similar to the way that she and her clinic have been providing consultations. “Private institutions [don’t have to make] immigration status a criteria of admission, which many of them still are doing. They can provide some high quality reputable legal counseling to students, not necessarily representation, but at least a consultation with a good immigration lawyer as to what the individual person’s options are, because they vary a lot.” Professor Anker’s suggestions address the information gap that exists not only during the college application process but also in understanding the broken immigration system once students are in college. According to her, private institutions with large endowments and independence from state policy, such as Harvard, can set a standard in providing resources to students regardless of immigration status.
Meanwhile, beyond being accepted into college, attending university can be challenging for many undocumented students or DACA recipients for a variety of other reasons. Some students are not comfortable with sharing their immigration status and may feel disconnected from others for this reason. For Ramirez, leaving his parents in a difficult economic situation while attending a prestigious institution led to pangs of guilt. He shared how “[during] the first couple of weeks [of freshman year], I was at the dining hall like ‘Oh my gosh, is there anyway I could just send some of this food home, because I can eat as much as I want.’ We never had food at home. We just had our next meal in the refrigerator. There was never an abundance.”
After the rollout of DACA, many students who chose to attend college rather than earn money and contribute directly to family income have been able to find on-campus jobs. Delgado works as a physics and science tutor while Ramirez has been working for Harvard. DACA has also provided undocumented students with lawful presence and authority of employment. “Lawful presence,” according to Michael Olivas at the University of Houston, should grant DACA students with the same rights as residents relative to receiving in-state tuition, the right to a driver’s license, and acceptance into public institutions. However, state policies have not made this clear, and many states have restricted the benefits DACA recipients are granted.
Such ambiguities in the implementation of the DACA program have kept many DACA-eligible students from seeking protection under the program, despite the fact that many more opportunities for college acceptance and financial aid will open up to DACA recipients. Olivas told the HPR, “DACA recipients should not be pitted against the undocumented ones like students who’ve aged out or who haven’t been here for five years, because the line was drawn this way or that way … A lot of them don’t sign up because they are afraid for their parents, others just don’t trust the government where they are from and it’s hard for them to get their mind around an actually useful and benevolent government program.”
For students like Balderas, Delgado, and Ramirez, lawful immigrant status in the United States is far from guaranteed despite their DACA approvals. While the noisy congressional debates on comprehensive immigration reform have polarized and scandalized American politics, the information gap that currently exists for undocumented students regarding college admissions and DACA benefits goes mostly unnoticed. Despite this, students like Delgado are not going anywhere: “There’s always that feeling that everybody gets when somebody tells you you can’t do this. To the person that told me that I couldn’t, I’d like to go back and show him what I’m doing now. I’m still not done here. I still want to keep studying and see where I go.”
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