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Nearly 100,000 Undocumented Students Who Graduated From High School Last Year Can’t Apply for DACA

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The overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrant youth who graduated from high school in 2023 can’t apply for protections under the DACA program and are at risk of missing out on the same professional and educational opportunities available to their U.S.-born peers, The Nation reports.

“Around 80 percent of the nearly 120,000 undocumented students who graduated high school in 2023 do not qualify for DACA, and even fewer undocumented high school graduates will qualify this spring,” The Nation reported. “For a current minor to be under 18 when they came into the United States, the earliest they could have arrived is 2005. According to the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, this means a majority of undocumented students entering higher education are no longer eligible for DACA.”

It would seem that adjusting the program’s criteria to allow more high school students and recent graduates to apply for work permits and deportation protections under the policy would be common sense, but several factors prevent that. While hundreds of immigration law professors and experts agreed that former President Obama had the legal authority to expand DACA, which he sought to do as part of his DAPA announcement in 2014, he was hindered by a deadlocked Supreme Court.

While DACA did survive ensuing attacks from the Trump administration in the years that followed, a Texas-led lawsuit has since blocked any first-time applicants from enrolling in the program. Sam, a 20-year-old from Texas, is among them. She was first blocked by the Trump administration’s rescission of DACA  in 2017. Then, in 2021, she was again blocked by a court in her home state.

“Sam said that not being allowed to file was heartbreaking,” The Nation reported. “I remember being very upset and emotional,” she told the outlet. “I was 14 and in high school, and I just thought, ‘My one chance of living a normal life, completely shot in front of me.’” It’s hard to overstate the importance of DACA when it can even determine a rite of passage for teens, like getting a driver’s license. Not all states allow undocumented immigrants to apply for one. Evelyn, another young immigrant, told the Nation that she aspires to one day work at NASA. But without a work permit, it remains out of reach. 

“At the end of the day, you could have the most stellar degree, but if you have zero experience, it’s going to be really tough to find a job,” she told The Nation. 

Luis will graduate from Rice University next fall thanks to his hard work and policies from the two dozen states that allow eligible undocumented youth to access in-state tuition and state financial aid. But he worries that his little brother, who is also undocumented, will not be able to achieve his own higher education dreams. “We have to be perfect students in order for us to get opportunities,” Luis said.

Results from an annual survey found that young immigrants who have been able to enroll in DACA are more integrated in the U.S. than ever, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying they’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher. “Notably, 65 percent of respondents currently in school said that because of DACA, ‘[they] pursued educational opportunities that [they] previously could not,’” researchers said. “Furthermore, 49.5 percent of respondents who are currently not in school reported already having a bachelor’s degree or higher.” 

While DACA has clearly been essential to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients, the inability of many teens and young adults to apply, as well as the renewal delays that have threatened the livelihoods of some program beneficiaries, highlight the continued – and urgent – need for permanent relief. In a report last year, FWD.us estimated that by next year, “no undocumented high school graduates will be eligible for DACA under current rules.”

“These barriers unnecessarily and unfairly limit undocumented graduates’ ability to participate in the workforce, grow the economy, and contribute to their communities,” the report said. “Additionally, it is 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.”


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