As DACA’s future hangs in the balance, students remain hopeful

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When Flor Camarena was about to graduate from Denver High School, there was a time when she wasn’t sure if she could go to college.

But her counselors, whom she confided in about her lack of legal status, helped her find schools that supported her and programs that gave her hope of financial aid.

This fall, she is entering Metropolitan State University in Denver. Because she has already earned some credits, she will start in second year. But not having legal status in this country, where she has lived since she was a baby, has an impact on her educational choices and prospects.

Camarena has applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program which would protect her from deportation and give her permission to work and apply for financial assistance, but she is unsure if her application will ever be processed. .

Instead of studying criminal justice to become a detective as she had wished, Camarena will instead major in business management.

“I started thinking about how DACA could be removed and just thought about the outcome,” she said. “Once I study, yes, I’ll get my degree and my certification, but then I’ll work for the law — I wouldn’t get a good job because of my legal status. Even if I get DACA, it’s still not a very legal status to have to work with the law. I just didn’t see it happen.

But she makes the most of it. She hopes that with a business degree, she can help her parents grow their restaurant business.

“I was very disappointed at first,” Camarena said. “I just started thinking that if I had a different legal status here, I could be someone much more important – maybe have a better career.”

Flor Camarena applied for DACA, which protects beneficiaries from deportation, gives permission to work and expands access to financial assistance.

Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Her mom was sad. Her father was proud that she thought of the family business and thought practically.

The immigrant advocacy group FWD.us estimates there are 600,000 students like Camarena without legal status in U.S. K-12 schools, including about 8,000 in Colorado.

Last June, Advocates celebrated the 10th anniversary of the founding of DACA and the impacts it has had for many. DACA is a program that provides work permits and temporary deportation relief to people who were brought into the country illegally as children.

Prior to the creation of DACA, young people without legal status described encountering demoralizing barriers in high school. Students lost motivation when they realized college was out of reach without typical access to in-state financial aid or tuition. Other opportunities, including internships and trades that require professional certifications, were also prohibited.

When legislative efforts to help these students stalled, President Barack Obama created DACA by executive order.

Some beneficiaries are now parents themselves. The impact of status extends beyond recipients. In Colorado, an estimated 20,000 US citizens live with DACA recipients.

Educators and advocates have anecdotal stories that the creation of DACA has helped motivate some young people to have hope for the future and pursue an education. One of the requirements to apply is to be in school or have a high school diploma or GED.

Researchers published a study in 2019 based on findings from Harvard University’s national UnDACAmented research project that tracked the impact of DACA over many years in hundreds of recipients. The study found that among students who had dropped out of high school, achieving DACA status encouraged them to return to school. Many more have earned college degrees and started careers.

Marissa Molina, Colorado State Director for FWD.us, was a former DACA recipient herself. She was in college with her parents paying her out-of-state tuition just before DACA was introduced.

“Because I had this huge tuition burden, I was going to drop out,” Molina said. “I didn’t see the point of continuing because I had no prospect of ever being able to use what I was learning. For me, DACA has been truly transformational.

Two students, a young man and a young woman, sit at long tables in a campus building.  There is a large illustration on the wall titled

FWD.us, an immigrant advocacy group, estimates that Flor Camarena is one of 600,000 students across the United States without legal status in K-12 schools.

Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Unlike most, Molina has since found an independent path to adjusting his legal status.

DACA itself gives recipients temporary status, two years at a time, but does not provide a way to obtain permanent residency or citizenship.

Since former President Trump first tried to end DACA in 2017, the government has only been allowed to process new applications for limited periods of time. Camarena applied during one of those windows last year, but her application was not processed.

Although the Supreme Court inflicted a defeat on Trump in 2020 and reinstated DACA, a legal challenge again suspended the processing of new applications.

This time, the states in a Texas-led case argue that DACA was flawed from its inception, created without going through legal and administrative processes, and is harming their states. A federal judge agreed. The Biden administration appealed the case and oral arguments were heard last month.

A decision is expected this fall, but supporters are not optimistic. Instead, they are lobbying Congress to pass legislation to expand and enshrine a new path to legal status for those brought into the country as children.

Since DACA’s rules of origin have not changed – including having been in the United States before 2007 – FWD.us estimates that the majority of undocumented students in US schools would no longer be eligible to DACA even though new applications were being processed. This year’s high school students were born in 2004 and 2005, and unless eligibility is expanded, soon no high school students will be eligible.

Although the program is under threat, Molina believes young people, even without legal status, now have higher expectations than she did growing up.

“There are students now who have never known a world without DACA,” Molina said. “We live in a different space. Particularly for Colorado. Our state really understood this problem and tried to do better and do well with our students. We have access to current state financial rates. We continue to hear positive messages and our governor is talking about DACA. It can be difficult for a young person to imagine a world without this in place.

Teachers and counselors have also learned a lot over the past decade, Molina said, and have more access to resources to help students.

“Your legal status doesn’t prevent you from getting your degree,” Camarena said. “My advisers, they made sure I was aware it was possible. They always made me feel safe.

And when Camarena wasn’t sure she could go to college and pay, it was also her advisers who helped her find a path.

“I also think that because there are more stories of people who have graduated and gone on to careers, there is also community knowledge,” Molina said. “It’s much harder to be told today that you can’t go to college.”

A young woman smiles as she talks with other students at a table.

Flor Camarena does community service work with MSU Denver’s Immigrant Services Program. When her DACA application is processed, she hopes to have opportunities for other students, such as internships and co-op studies.

Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Although Camarena has had some disappointments, being able to get an education is an expectation, so she continues to have hope. But that does not mean that its obstacles have disappeared.

This summer, she had the opportunity to do community service with Metro’s Immigrant Services program. Although she is not eligible for work-study, she will receive a stipend for the work through another assistance program. But if DACA doesn’t materialize, she doesn’t know if she will continue to have enough alternative financial support to complete her education.

She says all she wants is the same opportunities she sees her peers having – the ability to access internships, apprenticeships, work-study.

Still, she said she decided to focus on what she could do for now: start her fall semester and look forward to working with her parents’ restaurant.

“I spoke to people who inspired me to want to work for myself, not for someone else,” Camarena said. “At this point, I put everything aside and decided to work with what I had.”

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected]

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