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Undocumented College Students Prepare For A New President And New Policies

The election could change the lives of undocumented college students in America.
Aaron Hawkins, Halina Loft

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled 4-4 on an immigration lawsuit, effectively halting a federal program that allowed undocumented parents to apply for lawful presence in the U.S.

Though the decision did not directly affect undocumented young people, those who are enrolled in public and private universities find themselves questioning whether they’ll be able to remain in the U.S. and finish their degrees.

The lawsuit claims that President Obama’s executive order, designed to authorize undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses, imposes non-discretionary administrative costs on state

Back during the Court’s oral arguments in May, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is typically the swing vote, expressed concern that the President had overstepped his authority.

“You’re talking about discretion here. What we’re doing is defining the limits of discretion. And it seems to me that that is a legislative, not an executive act. All of the cases, the briefs go on for pages to the effect that the President has admitted a certain number of people and then Congress approves it,” said Justice Kennedy, in one of the hearings. “That seems to me to have it backwards. It’s as if that the president is setting the policy and the Congress is executing it. That’s just upside down.”

The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) - is one of Obama’s two executive orders regarding immigration cases.

The other program, implemented in 2012, is called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Young people under age 31 can apply for a social security number and a work permit. To date, there are over 700,000 DACA-mented people and many chose to use their lawful presence to go to college.

Still, the Supreme Court case came as a reminder to DACA students: They remain vulnerable, and their statuses are only temporary.

“Any moment DACA could be taken away. We will fight the decisions of course, and fight for a longer term solution.” said Renata Borges Teodoro, a senior who plans on graduating next fall from UMass Boston. “But everything that is happening that is anti-immigrant is a threat.”

Teodoro is planning on renewing her DACA status earlier than usual and beat any potential changes.

As of now, DACA immigrants’ statuses remain intact - but only as long as the Obama administration is in office and the executive order stands.

The Federal Policy Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Migrant Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) Sarang Sekhavat says what might happen under a Clinton or Trump presidency is unclear. A new administration could uphold the programs and make minor changes, discontinue DACA but allow people to maintain their status until it expires after two years, or end the program altogether.

“Trump has given every indication that he’s going to go after anybody who’s undocumented without any regards for who should be prioritized, without any regard for humanitarian considerations. If we did see him become president we probably would see folks being rounded up to the extent that the Department of Homeland Security has the resources,” Sekhavat said. “This would be extremely worrying because that administration would have all their information from DACA applications. They would have their addresses and so people would be scared about, ‘Well is the government now going to come after me?’”

However, he says, even if DACA were to be cancelled, private universities’ own policies may still allow them to admit and protect undocumented students.

“I don’t think the administration would be able to require them to report the students, there are protections in place, confidentiality protections, to prevent those kinds of things. To make those kinds of change would require an act by Congress.” Sekhavat said. “The school wouldn’t be reporting the undocumented students but of course there’s not really much the school can do to actively shield them.”

Many private universities such as Tufts University, Wellesley, Harvard and MIT publicly promote the participation of undocumented and DACA students in their schools.

DACA and undocumented students cannot legally qualify for any federal financial aid, but as MIT’s Dean of Admissions and Interim Director of Student Financial Services Stu Schmill stresses, private universities have their own institutional funds and aren’t obligated to factor in citizenship.  

For MIT the equation is simple -- if you’re an admitted student, then you are eligible for financial aid.

“We make a commitment to the meritocracy so any student that we can admit we’ve committed to meeting their full financial need,” Schmill said. “We get students applying to us from all over the world all over the U.S. and we admit the best students from wherever they’re from.”

Schmill says there is no difference in MIT’s financial aid policies for international students and domestic students. Every admitted undergrad’s cost of attendance is about $64,000 for undergraduates, including books, housing and tuition. That said, few pay the full price, with 56 percent of undergraduates receiving MIT scholarships, the school’s need-based grant.

An underfunded state school, however, doesn’t have the same endowment as MIT. In Massachusetts, DACA students currently qualify for in-state tuition at all public universities if they can prove they are state residents. However, if DACA is revoked, they would be obligated to pay non-resident tuition, which is thousands of dollars more expensive.

“My family and I would not be able to afford a full course load” said Cairo Mendes, a DACA student at UMass Boston and an organizer for the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM). “So I would either have to take one class at a time, which would delay my education, or I would have to drop out completely, save money and return later.”

Undocumented students, Sekhavat warns, should be actively working to make sure those who can vote in their community will vote to support a pro-DACA president.

“These are just administrative policies. It doesn’t take long for us to change these, it could really happen very quickly, potentially within a few weeks,” Sekhavat said. “[A new president] could say, ‘Okay we’re done with this, everyone’s going home. We’re now sending you all back.’”

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