The U.S. is home to an estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants who have entered the country without legal permission (a valid visa, green card, U.S.citizenship, etc.). Approximately 1.6 million of those undocumented immigrants are students who are currently attending public K-12 schools and roughly 65,000 of these students graduate from high school every year (Pew Hispanic Center, 2008). On June 15th, 2012, President Obama made a change in the U.S. Department Homeland Security policy, which will specifically aid undocumented students, after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minor Act (DREAM Act) failed to pass Congress. Obama’s change in policy has become better known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA will give undocumented students the opportunity to attain legal employment authorization and remove the worry of being deported from the U.S. for a period of two years, which can be renewed indefinitely. While the new policy is very controversial, Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals will improve the education system by lowering dropout rates, creating a sense of empowerment and increase the number of students with higher education pursuits among undocumented students, while also bringing about other benefits to their communities, such as lowering gang activity, and stimulating the U.S. economy.
In order to illustrate the benefits of DACA, it’s important to try to understand the quagmire many undocumented students struggle with in America. Before undocumented students begin their academic careers, many of them are smuggled into the U.S. at a very early age through no fault of their own. Their parents are willing to take the risk in bringing their children across the border through dangerous environments, such as crossing a desert or riding train tracks, because the education system in the U.S. is of a higher quality and will improve the lives of the children dramatically. However, their parents fail to realize that growing up as an undocumented student comes with many disadvantages. These drawbacks are not apparent throughout kindergarten, elementary and middle school since they have the same access to resources as the other native born students, but with time, the setting changes and the disadvantages emerge.
Many documented students begin to experience difficulties when they reach high school. It is a time when students try to figure out which career path they would like to pursue and formulate a plan to reach their goals. During this time frame, it is also common for teachers to become mentors whose goal it is to encourage students to go to college, but imagine how difficult it would be to convince an undocumented student to go to college. They don’t qualify for most scholarships, are not eligible for financial aid, are stigmatized as unworthy and socially alienated, live in constant fear of being deported, and cannot get a driver’s license. The most damaging factor is that it’s illegal for any employers to hire them. In short, there is no incentive for an undocumented student to struggle with college tuition for four years, only to earn a degree that is worthless because they can’t legally be hired in the first place (Glenn, 2011). For many, high school is also the first time when undocumented students are forced to provide evidence of their citizenship status. For example, filling out a college application requires the submission of a social security number and scholarships specify the requirement of U.S. citizenship. During this time, high schoolers also try to find a job to pay for school related events, such as prom, but the ones without documents are unable to do so. Similarly, students begin to study for their driving test and are able to obtain a driver’s license and a car to drive to school, and unregistered students don’t have the ability to take the driving test, much less own a car. This is yet another example of not only the disadvantages an undocumented students must struggle with but also an example of the stigma, feelings of unworthiness, and social alienation that they deal with on a daily basis, through no fault of their own.
Contrary to popular belief, Obama’s new immigration policy is not a form of amnesty for which anyone who crosses the border can qualify. DACA’s rigorous requirements will ensure that only people who qualify can take advantage of this new program. The target population of DACA is undocumented immigrants under 31 years of age, as of June 15, 2012, who entered the U.S.before they were 16 years of age. To qualify for DACA, the individual applying must have been living in the U.S. continuously for no less than five years, have either a high school diploma or have served in any of the military branches, in addition to having no criminal record (Fitz, 2012). These requirements are very significant since the majority of the people who will qualify will be undocumented students who have been in the U.S. long enough to call it home, understand the social norms and have been able to assimilate without becoming criminals. Consequently, this population will have to understand the English language and, similar to any high school graduate in the U.S., they must attain the education qualifications needed to attend any public or private four-year university (Gildersleeve, 2010). The new policy is not a form of amnesty which is available to anyone; instead, it will protect a specific population of undocumented immigrants—most of which are students without a criminal record—from deportation and allow them to work. It is a process they’ll have to go through every two years to ensure their eligibility.
Furthermore, Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals will attempt to lower high school dropout rates by incentivizing undocumented students to graduate. Currently in the U.S., there are approximately 1.3 million students a year, including undocumented students, who do not meet the requirements to graduate. One common risk factor in high school dropouts is belonging to a low-income family, which makes the student seven times more likely to drop out of high school (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010). This is significant since over 40 percent of undocumented students live below the federal poverty level (Topiel, 2009). This statistic helps exemplify the never ending cycle that binds undocumented students: they fail to graduate high school because they come from a low-income family and consequently grow up to fall below the poverty line themselves, ensuring that their children also become seven times more likely to drop out of high school (Green, 2003). Solis calls this the “cycle of violence,” as the undocumented students from lower-class families often have poor performance in academics, leading to teasing and bullying from their peers. Something as simple as speaking English with an accent can cause racial, psychological, and physical violence. Consequently, countless undocumented students are more likely to defend themselves by joining groups of others who are bullied like themselves. The alienation undocumented youths endure in school puts them at risk to join violent gangs only to feel protected from society’s violence against them in the first place (Solis, 2003). But DACA can give provide healthy tools for undocumented students. Put differently, DACA will lower dropout rates by emphasizing the importance of graduating since it will be a requirement to qualify for the program, and as an added result, it will help deter criminal behavior before it begins. Undocumented students will be motivated to avoid gangs and any criminal record that would disqualify them from DACA. The program will grant numerous students the right to get a job as well as a high school diploma, which will become more valuable tools to escape the vicious social cycle which keeps the undocumented below the federal poverty line and in street gangs.
Additionally, DACA will allow a stay in the U.S.of two years without the fear of deportation. For an undocumented student, this means having the ability to live without uncertainty and fear, a change from “the current historical moment” where policies at the local, state and federal level ultimately control and influence their futures (Abrego, 2011). This is imperative as many undocumented students have spent most of their lives in the U.S., yet they can easily be deported back to a country that is essentially foreign to them, for something as simple as a traffic violation or illegally crossing the street. DACA will stop discrimination and deportations by including undocumented students in the U.S. work force. This is ideal since Abrego reports that the “fear of deportation is likely to become more prominent in their lives as they transition out of high school into less protected spaces.” DACA will allow students to grow up with the courage to stand up for their rights without fear of unwanted fates by graduating and assimilating into the U.S. work force. It will be especially empowering to children of these DACA-aided students.
To further illustrate this fact, Rogelio Rodriguez studied the effects the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act had on undocumented Mexican American women. One group of women did not qualify for the amnesty and a second group did qualify for the amnesty. The control group was Mexican American women who were born U.S. citizens. The study demonstrated the effects that can result when a policy excludes a specific population and found that there was a significant difference in psychological distress in the women who did not qualify. The higher stress actually increased their level of hostility for being stigmatized as criminals (Rodriguez, 1990). More importantly, the stress level among undocumented women who did qualify for the program was significantly lower, which made them more likely to speak up for their own rights when facing discrimination in a less hostile manner. Rodriguez’s study is crucial because it demonstrates the consequences of being included versus being excluded from a program, such as DACA, and many undocumented families deal with this issue on a daily basis.
Furthermore, DACA will lower dropout rates because undocumented students who fail to graduate from high school will not be eligible to obtain a driver’s license. By graduating, students will earn their employment authorization documents, which they will be able to use as “legal proof of identity and/or legal status” for the purpose of getting a legal driver’s license in any state (MALDEF, 2012). The exception would be in Arizona where the Governor Jan Brewer enacted an executive order to stop this on August 15, 2012 (MALDEF, 2012). A driver’s license empowers the undocumented student even more so since it gives them the opportunity to go to school out of state or become a commuter student who still lives at home and helps provide a steady income. It can affect every aspect of a young person’s life, from work to dating. More importantly, a driver’s license with a picture of the individual creates the sense of belonging in the U.S. With these incentives in mind, DACA will lower dropout rates because undocumented students will have everything to gain by graduating; the motivation to get a job, a driver’s license, owning a car, traveling and potentially going to college and above all avoiding the fear of deportation.
Not only would undocumented students benefit from DACA, but the U.S. would also benefit financially. For instance, it is estimated that the U.S. will lose approximately $337 billion due to the dropout students from the Class of 2010 alone in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes. It is estimated that if the dropouts from the Class of 2006 had actually graduated high school, the nation could have saved an estimated $17 billion in Medicaid over the course of their lifetimes (Alliance for Excellent Educations, 2010). DACA can potentially increase the personal income of students in all ethnicities, since undocumented students come from many parts of the world. By raising the graduation rates among all ethnicities, enough to match the current level of Caucasian students, the result would add “more than $310 billion to the U.S. economy” as soon as 2020 (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010). According to Fitz and Garcia, a program designed to help highly achieving undocumented students, such as DACA, could potentially benefit 700,000 students by 2020 (2010). Fitz and Garcia also discovered that in 2006 over 31% of science and engineer majors graduating from college are of Latino decent, an ethnic group that is largely represented among undocumented families. If 31% of the undocumented students who are going to benefit from DACA would go on to graduate from college with a science or engineering degree, it is estimated that it would add approximately 252,000 new engineers, scientist and technical workers to the U.S. workforce by 2020 (2010). Not to mention that a study done by UCLA North American Integration and Development Center estimates undocumented students who would qualify for a program like DACA would generate roughly $1.4 trillion to $3.6 trillion in income throughout their lives, while deporting these students costs billions. DACA will not only save the U.S. Government money, but it will also be a mechanism to stimulate the U.S. economy and livelihood.
Many anti-immigrant organizations were outraged in 2001 when ten states, including Texas and California, decided to help undocumented students by allowing them to pay in-state tuition, the same price as their naturally born American counterparts. Although this was a great advantage for the undocumented student population, it did not really fix the problem (Mendoza, 2011). In California, only 1.07% of the undocumented population is enrolled in college. Students who graduated high school still could not afford college since they couldn’t legally work. DACA can improve the education system by allowing students who graduate from high school to actually work and go to college to pursue a career, as it would then be feasible to pay in-state tuition. DACA will encourage undocumented students across the nation to go to college. In fact, undocumented students are already very promising individuals who “exhibit academic achievement, leadership participation and civic engagement” (Perez, 2010). Of the undocumented students currently attending high school, and who DACA would directly affect, “90% report volunteering, 95% participated in extracurricular activities…. [and] 78% held a leadership position such as club president” (Perez, 2010). In short, DACA will liberate undocumented students who are already doing everything they can to be competitive in the world of academia.
Ultimately, the fate of the undocumented student population in the U.S. is going to be determined by politicians and legislation. For the time being though, DACA will benefit thousands of undocumented immigrants in its first two years of implementation. Although DACA hopes to improve the education system, by lowering dropout rates and increasing the number of students who go to college, it only targets a small population of the undocumented immigrants that live in the U.S., leaving many people in legal limbo. Obama has succeeded in acknowledging that undocumented immigrants have human rights to language, education, culture, work, and above all belonging to the U.S. without fear of repercussions or deportation, but the need for another method of including the rest of the undocumented immigrant population still exists. One way to help the people that have been excluded by DACA is through an amnesty that encompasses more undocumented immigrants. Amnesty worked for President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and it will work for Obama in 2013. He can demonstrate how releasing undocumented students from their legal binds will bring great change, improvements and gains to school districts, universities, departments of motor vehicles, the U.S. workforce and the U.S. economy, but more importantly hope for the next generation of leaders in America.
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