What Happens When Graduation is a Dead End
Immigration, and Education
Without DACA or a pathway to citizenship, hundreds of thousands of young undocumented people cannot realize their full potential—to our collective detriment.
First generation immigrant families have always faced unique obstacles to fully realizing their educational potential, including language barriers, economic challenges, and cultural differences. But with a relentless work ethic and a steadfast vision for a better future, those hurdles have been surmounted by every generation.
One crucial obstacle for many, however, is out of their control: a broken immigration system that prohibits them from earning legal status and citizenship. The lack of status can block an array of educational and professional opportunities and trigger toxic stress in families who are routinely marginalized. Only the federal government can remove that giant roadblock to educational equity and the attendant benefits to our society and economy.
On paper, the right to an education is not contingent upon citizenship: the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyer v. Doe guarantees the right to an education regardless of immigration status and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits schools from sharing student information with immigration officials. In concert, these policies designate schools as a sanctuary space for young undocumented students. But high school graduation marks the expiration of those protections and where the paths of the documented and undocumented diverge.
Undocumented immigrants cannot legally work, vote, receive financial aid, or drive in most states. Growing up undocumented means watching restricted rites of passage, like getting a license, a first job, or applying to college, tick by. One student described the process as a warped sense of time: “I feel as though I’ve experienced this weird psychological and legal stunted growth. I’m stuck at 16, like a clock that has stopped ticking. My life has not changed at all since then. Although I’m 22, I feel like a kid. I can’t do anything adults do.”
The stress and frustration caused by winnowing opportunity and the ubiquitous fear of deportation (for oneself or a family member) bleeds over from students’ home lives into classrooms. In a 2018 study conducted by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 90 percent of school administrators reported noticing behavioral of emotional problems among immigrant students amidst the immigration crackdown. Seventy percent noted an academic decline and 68 percent observed an uptick in absenteeism.
These disruptions can have ripple effects that impact the entire class. Children experiencing toxic stress find it harder to sit still and teenagers are disproportionately drawn to high-risk behaviors. Their classmates are inevitably affected and their teachers are conscripted as social workers.
Growing up undocumented means watching restricted rites of passage, like getting a license, a first job, or applying to college, tick by.
Of course, undocumented students pay the highest price: forty percent of undocumented youth age 18-24 have less than a high school education; the same is true of only eight percent of their U.S. citizen counterparts. Without supportive counselors and teachers to help undocumented students discover financially viable ways to attend college, they are far less likely to apply. And by and large, high school counselors are ill-equipped to navigate state laws and scholarship opportunities that make higher education feasible for high-achieving undocumented students. If the only accessible opportunities are jobs that require experience, not education, finishing high school and going to college can feel aimless—and the futility of preparing for a workforce that marginalizes undocumented immigrants regardless of their accolades depresses aspirations.
Those who do go to college are forced to accept that years of schooling may lead to a dead-end; without work authorization, they are barred from entering the professions for which they have trained. The United States is educating a workforce whose potential we in turn smother with legislative dysfunction.
This is not speculative. We have indisputable evidence of the profound benefits of legal status: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In the face of congressional paralysis on an issue with supermajority public support, the Obama Administration used its discretionary authority to provide temporary protection from deportation and work authorization that enabled undocumented youth to continue their education and pursue careers.
It is self-evident that imposing a ceiling on the ambition of young, talented people is senseless—for both undocumented students and the economy. DACA temporarily remedied that cruel reality, and Dreamers proved that when given the opportunity, they contribute to American communities in myriad ways.
Ninety-seven percent of DACA recipients are currently employed or enrolled in school, and the group is set to contribute $460 billion to the US economy over the next decade.
DACA recipients’ average hourly wage jumped 69 percent since receiving legal status; Dreamers over age 25 saw an 84 percent increase. Receiving DACA has directly and significantly raised the wages of Dreamers, which in turn generates a higher tax revenue and more spending power.
All the data should lend urgency to legislative solutions that will create a path to citizenship like the DREAM Act. Instead, President Trump has spent the entirety of his first term trying to deliver on his campaign promise to end a program supported by 74 percent of Americans. Although he has not succeeded in terminating DACA outright, new applications have not been accepted since before the Administration’s first attempt to end the program in 2017. Thousands of undocumented immigrants who were not yet 15 when the Trump Administration initially ended the program are still barred from applying for legal status, and their time in the protected space of K-12 education is running out: 98,000 undocumented students graduate high school each year.
Consequentially, most undocumented students currently pursuing higher education do not have DACA. Two percent of all students in higher education—450,000 people—are undocumented.
Whether they graduate into a labor market ready to harness their talents and benefit from their earnings hinges on this upcoming election and our subsequent ability to pass a bill that creates a path to citizenship for these young people and their communities.
Over the past four years, hundreds of thousands of Dreamers watched as the legislation that held the key to their livelihoods was truncated, weaponized, and threatened; millions of other undocumented people watched, too, as the legislation that represented a crucial first step to a broader pathway to citizenship was dismantled. Everyone deserves a fair shot at success—and for 650,000 Dreamers and 11 million undocumented immigrants, their future is on the ballot.