From 2012 to 2017, nearly 15,000 New England residents participated in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA students are ineligible for federal financial aid programs, but state and institutional aid can flow to undocumented students. As of March 2017, 20 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, offered in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.
It’s a moving target. President Donald Trump announced in September that he would repeal DACA on March 5, charging that President Barack Obama had created it unconstitutionally through executive action. The dynamic raises questions of whether protecting the DACA recipients reflects morality, regardless of its legal beginning. Trump gave Congress until that date to pass legislation addressing the legal status of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, including nearly 800,000 approved for DACA.
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s request to speed up its appeal of two federal judges’ nationwide injunctions to keep pieces of DACA. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “That’s good news for the so-called Dreamers trying to avoid deportation. But it doesn’t provide what the students and colleges advocating on their behalf want the most: certainty.”
One thing that is certain is that life for immigrants is difficult in the Trump era. In addition to trying to end DACA, the president has brandished anti-immigrant rhetoric and pushed various travel bans—some challenged, some accepted. The administration’s proposed immigration reform rests on four pillars: 1) creating a path to citizenship for DACA participants, 2) securing the border, including the controversial border wall, 3) eliminating the diversity visa lottery and 4) limiting family-based immigration spouses and minor children. Meanwhile, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials asked Boston police to detain 68 suspected illegal immigrants last year, nearly four times as many as in 2016. (Boston’s Trust Act forbids the police from participating unless ICE has a criminal warrant.) Among highly visible matters, the Trump administration has canceled Temporary Protective Status for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. Its Office of Refugee Resettlement denied undocumented teenagers their right to end unwanted pregnancies.
Against this backdrop, NEBHE hosted a packed session at the College Board’s New England Regional Forum in Boston last week on the uncertain climate for undocumented students and related state and institution responses. The session moderated by NEBHE Associate Director of Policy & Research Candace Williams, featured: NEBHE delegate and Connecticut state Rep. Gregory Haddad, who has been a leader in supporting immigrant students; Pooja Patel, a former NEBHE policy research intern, now with the National Association for College Admissions Counselors; and Jason Corral, staff attorney at Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic.
Asked about what institutions are doing, Patel noted that while a few respondents to her NEBHE survey of New England colleges and universities reacted defensively (Of course, we wouldn’t accept those students. They are breaking the law.), many are grappling with how best to serve undocumented students, including providing legal representation and advice. Tufts University has tried to actively recruit these students. One institution pointed out that it fully covered undocumented students’ healthcare, Patel noted. And the very day of the NEBHE session, Southern New Hampshire University was unveiling its work with The Shapiro Foundation and TheDream.US to offer full scholarships to DACA students to pursue associate and bachelor’s degree programs through one of the university’s online programs. Notably, SNHU said its DACA scholarships could follow students out of the country if they were to be deported.
State of DACA
Most undocumented students in New England attend community colleges (because they’re less expensive) or selective private institutions (because they have resources to help), said Patel. Still, she added, many undocumented students face massive obstacles.
California has been among the states that provided both in-state tuition rates and student aid for undocumented students. This year for the first time, applications have gone down because students don’t want their names out there if that could get them deported.
Connecticut state Rep. Gregory Haddad, whose district includes the University of Connecticut, said he felt a moral obligation to support DACA from the beginning. One young woman he spoke with learned she was undocumented when she went to fill out a financial aid form; another saw a story on TV about “dreamers” and found out then that she was one.
In 2011, Connecticut began offering in-state tuition for undocumented students who were Connecticut residents and graduated from a Connecticut high school and required them to file an affidavit that they had or would apply for U.S. citizenship. In 2014, when the rule was renewed with the requirements loosened somewhat, Connecticut considered legislation allowing institutional aid for undocumented students and requiring higher education institutions to create an aid pool with 15% of tuition revenue paid by documented as well as undocumented students.
Haddad notes that DACA and immigration is an economic argument. If DACA ended tomorrow, Connecticut would lose an estimated $315 million, according to the Center for American Progress. (Massachusetts would lose an estimated $606 million.) “Immigration is a way we can grow our economy,” said Haddad, especially as employers such as Electric Boat fret about an outflow of talent.
DACA opponents, on the other hand, dredge up the old arguments that immigrants are taking aid away from “our kids” but these kids are already paying into the pool, Haddad said. Some people bring up illegal activity, added Haddad, yet there’s consensus that dreamers deserve a path to citizenship. As immigration reform moves toward merit-based strategies for citizenship, Haddad said we should start helping young people get on that path now. He also added that the presence of dreamers visiting legislators in the Connecticut State Capitol has been very important.
Jason Corral told the NEBHE session how the 30-year-old Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic where he is an attorney is working to prepare and protect undocumented students.
After 9/11, he said, people starting viewing immigrants as people they should fear. Obama was the most efficient enforcer of deportation; Trump is just picking up where Obama left off, but he has been more draconian with attacks on programs such as Temporary Protective Status and proposals for travel bans. What they share in common is creating a feeling that you don’t belong here.
As Trump’s attacks on immigration escalated, Harvard University President Drew Faust resisted a move to make Harvard a sanctuary campus. Corral and a lot of others were upset. But now, Corral sees the genius in Faust’s rationale. The issue was you don’t have to label yourself a sanctuary city to respect the U.S. Constitution and put resources behind protecting students. Those resources included hiring Corral as a special lawyer representing undocumented students, faculty and staff and hiring social work staff.
Corral noted that undocumented status can carry a stigma, whether the immigrant has came over the border from Central America or is more affluent, perhaps overstaying a visa.
Corral’s focus these days: Will undocumented students have housing during breaks in the academic year if they’re afraid to go back to their home countries? What about their parents coming to visit them? Are undocumented students safe to do jobs and internships or medical residencies? The students are confident in their abilities to carve out paths for themselves, Corral said, but they are worried about their families. In the face of threats to “chain migration,” some of the parents say they just want their kids to achieve.
Corral said he was surprised that as an immigrants advocate, he shares many concerns with law enforcement in terms of building alliances to keep communities safe. An audience member asked if immigrant students tended to avoid confrontation given the heightened tension over deportations. Corral said he tells students who are concerned about this that they are their own best advocates. This may be especially true of high achievers at Harvard. But Corral added that he warns them that if a rally includes arrests for trespassing or blocking traffic, for example, that could lead to deportation. Sometimes, he even hesitantly advises them to be anonymous.
The shadows, all over again.
John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.