How can colleges help undocumented students in an uncertain climate?
Students protected by President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order have witnessed a dizzying political whiplash in the last several weeks that could potentially impact their status in the country. Spurred by a lawsuit filed by several states to end the program, President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that DACA would be discontinued in six months, unless Congress finds a way to enshrine it into law.
Nevertheless, the competing headlines have threatened to muddy the issue of how undocumented students can find assistance and counsel, financial and otherwise, in pursuing a higher education. In California, Nancy Jodaitis, the Director of Higher Education Initiatives at Educators for Fair Consideration, said it is incumbent on higher ed institutions to clarify what potential changes in DACA would mean for college accessibility, saying that tremors on the federal level do not necessarily doom the educational options for undocumented students striving for a postsecondary education.
“There are 10 states that do require DACA for in-state tuition, but it’s not across the board. And that is a misperception that administrators can counter; DACA doesn't have anything to do with people’s ability to attend college,” she said. “I think it’s really important for colleges and universities, legislators and educators to make a concerted effort to reaffirm the eligibility of students to attend college.”
Colleges can ensure students have access to information
Educators for Fair Consideration is based out of San Francisco, CA and was founded in 2006 as an organization to help undocumented students achieve their goals through advocacy in terms of spurring changes on the institutional and policy level. The organization provides direct financial support for students and organizations working to achieve these goals, and counsels educational institutions on how they can better assist and support enrolled undocumented students. The organization also offers space for career training, mentorship and professional development for undocumented students and young adults.
Jodaitis joined the organization a year ago after consulting with them on several initiatives. She was the lead author of the organization’s UndocuCollege Guide, which highlighted challenges faced and best practices utilized by higher ed institutions in terms of support for undocumented students. She noted that California was in a unique space in comparison with some other states, due to robust support in the state’s Legislature for the state’s immigrant communities and undocumented student population. The chaotic previous weeks regarding DACA recipient's futures have led the organizations to need to plan for the possibility that those students would no longer be able to access student assistant funding, which may have helped students support themselves as they attended school.
“How can we fill that gap, that students have access to college with financial aid? We’re not on track already to meet the need of college-educated workforce members,” she said, noting there was a fear that students would drop out if financial support were unattainable. “A lot of schools have been trying to hold informational sessions or working with community-based associations to get out the message on how to access legal resources. We’re also making sure we maintain the message that educational access has not changed.”
Protections for student information
Protections continue to exist for students irrespective of DACA’s immediate future, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), passed in 1974. It disallows higher ed institutions from voluntarily disclosing information without the authorization of the student, which can inhibit the Department of Homeland Security or officers from Immigration & Customs Enforcement from using school information to probe into the citizenship status of a student. California also has its own Dream Act, passed in 2011 and modeled after the federal act of the same name, which was not passed. It allows undocumented students who meet certain requirements to apply for financial aid in the state. Additionally, last week California’s state legislature passed a bill authorizing California as a “sanctuary state,” significantly curtailing law enforcement officials from asking about an individual’s immigration status, and also limits how local law enforcement departments can cooperate and assist federal immigration enforcement efforts.
Colleges and universities must be committed to outreach among undocumented students and potential enrollees that clarify the reach of these protections, Jodaitis said, to ensure that students do not potentially forego the opportunity for an education due to the fractious political climate.
“There are pathways for students to attend college with or without DACA. FERPA is not going to go away. That information cannot be shared without the student’s direct consent,” she said, noting that it was also vital for schools throughout the state to reach uniformity in terms of what was expected of them if they labeled themselves ‘sanctuary schools.’ “I think the baseline we’re looking to have instituted is non-cooperation with ICE and the sharing of information and resources available on campus. Those are protections that are already in place, and we want to make sure they’re instituted year to year regardless of who is President.”
A spate of colleges and universities in California (and throughout the country) have labeled themselves as ‘sanctuary schools,’ with a pronounced increase occurring in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Ptizer College, located in Claremont, CA, is a private non-profit institution, serving more than 1,000 students. On Nov. 30, 2016, Pitzer President Melvin L. Oliver and the school’s board declared the college to be a sanctuary campus. The designation meant the school would not voluntarily comply with ICE investigations into immigration status of any student. Pitzer also pledged that undocumented students would continue to have the right to access Pitzer financial aid, and they would continue to recruit undocumented applicants. Oliver said the campus had created a Sanctuary Working Group earlier this year that would “organize workshops, develop programs and curate a library of resources” for students who were Dreamers.
“The College offers the Undocumented Student Scholarship for students who are ineligible for federal financial aid. It is a need-based, four-year scholarship awarded to top-performing students who attended high school in California and are not citizens or permanent residents of the US,” Oliver wrote in an e-mail. “The College has ensured DACA students have funding for DACA program renewal fee and legal support and have secured student privacy with new data protection.” (the DACA fee is $495 per student, and must be repaid every two years).
It was also important, Jodaitis noted, for higher ed administrations to ensure that there were individuals on staff who were knowledgeable about legislation pertaining to undocumented students, including how they would be affected by changes in federal financial assistance accessibility. Additionally, schools would benefit from having college admissions staff be knowledgeable in the protections offered to students by FERPA and the California Dream Act. While a school like Pitzer or others may say they are a sanctuary campus, it is important that admissions officers understand the process of non-cooperation if they are ever contacted by investigators from ICE or another agency inquiring about the immigration status of a particular student.
Jodaitis said there was hope that continued advocacy, particularly in the aftermath of the attention being paid to the issue due to the uncertainty surrounding DACA, may lead to a renewed push for a clean immigration bill that could potentially include a path to citizenship, to make sure that the broader undocumented community that may not necessarily be affected by DACA is not forgotten. In terms of DACA recipients, Jodaitis and educators across the country are currently working to ensure DACA recipients with work permits that expire prior to March 5, 2018 are able to renew their work permit two more years (the deadline for this is Oct. 5). Jodaitis acknowledged the political climate had been particularly anxious in the aftermath of the uncertainty surrounding DACA, but it was important to acknowledge this anxiety has been long-standing among undocumented immigrant communities.
“It’s a real fear, and it feels like it’s amplifying, but it’s also a fear that undocumented immigrants have been living with for a long time,” Jodaitis said. “I think it’s really important to be really grounded in what undocumented immigrants’ needs are. I think those of us who have citizenship have a responsibility to respond to this attack on civil liberties...and to understand the distinction between the different attacks that are coming and the support that is still available.”