Why Our Students Need DACA

When I first heard the news that the Trump administration planned to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), my thoughts went immediately to my former students.

I taught 11th and 12th grade English at Fremont High School in Oakland, California from 2005-2007, in the pre-DACA era. Fremont sits three blocks from the aptly named International Boulevard, which crosses Oakland from east to west and reflects the ethnic diversity of the city. Many of my students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants from all over the world, including Mexico, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Tonga, Liberia and Yemen. Many were also undocumented or were the children of undocumented parents.

This is borne out in county-level data. Alameda County, where Oakland is located, is home to over 1.6 million residents, approximately one-third (526,148) of whom were born in another country. An estimated one in four of those (129,500) are undocumented.

Several of my students were forced to confront the significant obstacles to pursuing college and career that are specific to undocumented immigrants. These obstacles prevent most of them from pursuing higher education: while approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school each year (40 percent in California alone), only 5 to 10 percent go on to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.

The reasons for this are many. First, an undocumented student must find a college or university that allows undocumented students to attend. Colleges and universities may set their own policies about whether to admit undocumented students, unless they are located in a state that does not allow undocumented immigrants to attend college.

Students who are accepted to college then must find a way to pay for it. If they cannot prove legal residency in a state, they must pay much higher out-of-state or international-student tuition rates, without the assistance of financial aid mechanisms such as federal student loans or work study, for which they do not qualify. Finally, even if they manage to attend and pay for college, their lack of work authorization means that undocumented immigrants have trouble finding jobs that match their skill level.

DACA helps with all of these issues by providing protection from deportation, a social security number, a work permit and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. These resources enable students to apply for financial support to attend college, obtain health insurance, open bank accounts and provide for their families by accessing jobs previously unavailable to them.

As I reflect on my role as a teacher in the lives of my undocumented students, I acknowledge that there is so much more I could have done to position myself as a support and a resource for them, as well as to advocate on their behalf. If I could go back in time, I would:

  • Better understand the significant disadvantages my undocumented students faced in life and research the options available to them;
  • Collaborate with the guidance counselor to share resources with all of my students and families;
  • Communicate early, often and emphatically to my students that I support their success not only in my classroom and in high school but beyond it;
  • Facilitate more conversations about immigrants, immigration, and immigration policies and provide a safe space for my students to share their fears and concerns; and
  • Provide more opportunities for students to engage in advocacy around issues that matter to them, helping them to develop their communication skills and learning to become change-makers in their communities.

For more resources for teachers, see here and here. Those of us who have left our classrooms can continue to show up for our students by urging Members of Congress to support the DREAM Act of 2017 and by educating ourselves and those around us about the benefits of DACA to our students, their communities and the economy.

I have watched my students go on to have successful college careers, get jobs, have families, and give back to their communities. All of them deserve the chance to achieve their dreams, regardless of whether they were born here or arrived as children. It is a promise we made to them, and a promise we must keep.

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