What colleges can do after DACA was ruled unlawful

by Joseph K. Clark

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program’s fate was questioned again this month. DACA, which protects from deportation to students and workers illegally brought to the U.S. as children, was ruled unlawful by a federal judge.

The ruling sent shockwaves through higher education. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas said the Obama administration violated federal law by setting up the program through executive order. Hanen ordered the government to stop approving first-time applications for the programs. However, students already covered by DACA won’t face immediate ramifications.

“I think many of us on campus, including our students, have had a sense that with a new administration, DACA is protected, and we do not have to worry about DACA now — everything’s OK,” Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University, said during a webinar Wednesday. “But that’s not the case.”

The ruling has ramifications for colleges and their current and prospective students. Roughly 216,000 college students are eligible for or are participating in DACA, according to a 2020 report from two immigration advocacy groups.


Many prospective students without protected status under DACA but were counting on the program will no longer have access to in-state tuition prices or be eligible for some scholarship programs. And they will face uncertainty about their legal status again after the Trump administration attempted to unravel the program in 2017.  Colleges should be ready to provide students with legal and mental health services, policy and higher ed experts said.

“For new initial applications that haven’t yet been approved, for students who may have been waiting to gather up money for a DACA application … it’s devastating news,” said Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

What does the new order mean for students?

The ruling orders that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security no longer approve first-time DACA applications. For some students, the loss of the program can be the difference between affording college or not attending.

That’s because unauthorized immigrant students can’t qualify for in-state tuition at some public colleges unless covered under DACA or a similar program granting temporary protection from deportation.

They also won’t be able to access some scholarship programs without a Social Security number. The DACA program makes unauthorized immigrants eligible to apply for certain immigration statuses.

Students who’ve already received DACA approval won’t be affected because the order allows the government to approve renewal applications. And it shouldn’t impact current recipients’ ability to travel outside the country, Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said during a webinar Wednesday.

Still, the situation could change, especially if the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, the judge noted in his order.

The ruling may also further rattle unauthorized students who lived in uncertainty for years when the Trump administration sought to end the DACA program.  “Now it gets even worse,” Feldblum said.

What can colleges do?

Policy experts said colleges should take several steps to signal their support for unauthorized students, including reaching out to those potentially affected.

“The morale of students is down,” said Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy, development, and communications at TheDream. The U.S. But colleges can send messages “letting them know that we have their backs — that no matter what happens, these students belong in the classroom,” she said.

Some colleges may raise funds for scholarships for affected students or help pay a $495 fee DACA requires for renewals.  Colleges can also host legal clinics on campus that unauthorized students can turn to for assistance.

Mental health services are essential as well. Colleges should clarify that counseling is open to all students regardless of immigration status, said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, senior advocacy manager at United We Dream.

“I know that as an undocumented student myself when I was going to school, I never knew I could go to the health clinic on campus,” she said.

Colleges should hire culturally competent counselors, Macedo do Nascimento said. Counselors should be familiar with DACA or Temporary Protected Status programs, which allow people to stay in the U.S. if returning to their home countries is unsafe.

“Not having to go into deep policy details just to explain to your therapist what that means would be a game-changer for many of us,” Macedo do Nascimento said.

Colleges Urge Congress to pass immigration changes

The Presidents’ Alliance also encourages Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children. So far, more than 500 college presidents and chancellors have signed onto the call.

Democratic lawmakers attempt to pass immigration legislation by inserting it into a sprawling $3.5 trillion spending package. According to one lawmaker, the changes would create a roadmap to legalization and green cards for “Dreamers,” a term commonly referring to young unauthorized immigrants brought here as children and people covered under TPS.

They hope to pass the package through a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows Congress to approve legislation with a simple Senate majority rather than the 60 votes usually needed to avoid a filibuster. The Presidents’ Alliance has supported immigration changes through this path.

“We are trying to build urgency around the reconciliation process,” Feldblum said. “We do believe that Democrats have to do it alone.”

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