Undocumented High School Students Are Now the ‘Post-DACA Generation’

Diversity and Equity

Undocumented High School Students Are Now the ‘Post-DACA Generation’

Without legal protections from deportation and for college and work, these immigrant youth face an uncertain future.

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Jun 14, 2023

Undocumented High School Students Are Now the ‘Post-DACA Generation’

For thousands of high school students who are graduating, this time of year is all about looking to the future — namely, preparing for college in the fall.

Their undocumented peers, however, might feel like they’re going backward.

That’s because the federal policy that has, for the past 10 years, given immigrant youth who lack permanent legal status in the U.S. the ability to work and pay for college has been effectively cut off.

This year marks the first time since 2012 that a majority of undocumented high schoolers who are graduating won’t be able to apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known simply as DACA, according to a new report from the immigrant advocacy group FWD.us.

In 2012, the DACA program was implemented by the Obama administration as temporary relief for young immigrants who grew up in the U.S. but face barriers to employment and higher education due to their legal status.

They’re part of what the report dubs the “post-DACA generation.”

Note: Estimates rounded to thousands. States with 1,000 or more undocumented high school graduates are shown. Source: FWD.us analysis of augmented 2021 American Community Survey data. Map: Nadia Tamez-Robledo

People in this situation often identify as “undocumented,” referring to the fact that they don’t have official forms granting them permission to live in the country. FWD.us estimates that 120,000 undocumented students are graduating from high school this year. Only a fifth of them are eligible for DACA protection, as the rules are currently written.

“Not all, but in many states, they don't have access to a higher education,” Phillip Connor, senior demographer at FWD.us, tells EdSurge. “And that’s the big distinction from the previous ‘generations.’”

It’s not just because the program is in limbo as opposing sides wait for a ruling on its legality from a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. It’s also because the program limits eligible applicants to those who arrived in the U.S. before June 15, 2007 — 16 years ago.

As of this year, “undocumented high school graduates who would be eligible for DACA would have entered the U.S. before they were 2 years old,” according to the report. “By 2025, no undocumented high school graduates will be eligible for DACA under current rules.”

A Fractured Landscape

About 100,000 undocumented students will graduate from high school every year for the next three years, according to the report, and there are an estimated 600,000 undocumented children in K-12 public schools. They have the right to this education thanks to Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet as each year passes, the number of these students who are eligible for protections in their postsecondary lives will shrink.

That presents challenges for them as individuals. The uncertainty they face can make these young immigrants feel hopeless about their futures. They often encounter barriers that block them from pursuing the pathways open to their peers who do have citizenship or permanent legal status. Regardless of whether they have DACA protections, undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid for college.

That kicks college options to the states. And research from the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, a project of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, shows how fractured the postsecondary landscape has become for undocumented youth in the U.S. Some states, like California, Minnesota and Rhode Island, provide what the project describes as “comprehensive access” to in-state tuition and some state financial aid for college for undocumented students. Other states, like Louisiana, West Virginia and Vermont, have no known policies on the subject. Meanwhile, several other states bar undocumented students from enrolling at their public universities.

Beyond the implications for their personal lives, Connor argues, the country as a whole also suffers because young immigrants are afforded inadequate protections.

“Since the establishment of the DACA policy, they have contributed $100 billion to the economy in the past 10 years,” he says. “That’s a considerable impact to the economy, as essential workers, filling labor shortages. And we know they also have a very high labor force participation rate.”

In the FWD.us report, Connor writes that the limitations on what undocumented graduates can do amounts to a “huge waste of years of K-12 education that states have invested in every student to prevent them from going further if they want to, and another cruel roadblock they face in the country they call home.”

In a separate analysis of the country’s 580,000 DACA recipients, Conner documents estimates that nearly half have attended college and nearly 80 percent are in the workforce.

The states with the most undocumented students graduating this year are Texas (18,000), California (14,000) and Florida (13,000). But Connor says that just because other states have far fewer total undocumented graduates doesn’t mean they’re feeling less of an impact from the DACA cutoff.

“In a state like Indiana with 2,000 undocumented graduates, that’s a considerable number,” Connor says. “We're often drawn to the top states, but in these other states, that’s a larger kind of impact because of their relative size.”

The researcher says that advocates for undocumented youths don’t have much hope that the federal judge presiding over the DACA case in the 5th Circuit will rule in favor of the program’s legality. FWD.us and other groups say the solution is for Congress to create a pathway to citizenship.

“The U.S. economy cannot afford to lose this graduating class of undocumented students, perhaps permanently,” the report says.

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