Larissa Martinez jolted the nation when she revealed that she is undocumented during her 2016 high school valedictorian speech. Her words spread like wildfire across social media and newscasts during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, at the height of anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail. Yale-bound with a 4.95 GPA and 17 advanced placement classes under her belt, Martinez, then 18, says she felt the need to speak out against then-candidate Donald Trump's characterization of other Mexicans who had crossed the border as "rapists and criminals." The issue is still in the crosshairs of a thorny debate: After a week of negotiations, proposed Senate bills on immigration and the fate of Dreamers crashed to a halt.
Now a sophomore studying history and political science, Martinez, 20, is pursuing her degree without the protections of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era executive action meant to shield undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors (known as Dreamers) from deportation. She's ineligible for the program because she came to the country in 2010, three years after the necessary date to qualify.
If Congress fails to act and Trump makes good on his promise to end DACA, thousands of college-bound or already-enrolled DACA recipients could find themselves in a position Martinez knows well. Amid a tangled web of state laws governing who can attend college where and at what price, students who lose their DACA could find that even if they do gain admission to college, paying for it could be a greater barrier than their legal status. Without DACA, the price of their tuition could go up, and without work authorization, their ability to pay would plummet.
“A lot of the arguments are that we aren’t working hard enough, or that we’re lazy... I don’t understand why they won't let us prove otherwise."
"I really want to go to law school, [but] I don't qualify for loans because I'm undocumented," Martinez tells Bustle. "Without loans and without work authorization, sometimes I really just wonder how feasible that is at all."
She says she'd be faced with few choices: leave the country after completing her degree at Yale, or work without authorization like many undocumented people do. Her voice trails off as she considers low-wage jobs far outside the career path she's imagined.
“A lot of the arguments are that we aren’t working hard enough, or that we’re lazy," Martinez says. "I don’t understand why they won't let us prove otherwise."
Undocumented Students Can Go To College — But Have No Idea If They Can Work After Graduation
While public education from grades K through 12 is granted to all children in America regardless of legal status, no such right exists for a college education. And although undocumented students are barred from receiving federal financial aid, there is no federal law on the books that says that undocumented people can't attend college. Because of this, they are subject to different laws depending on where they live. Individual states decide whether undocumented students can enroll in public universities and if so, how much undocumented students pay in tuition. Private universities generally make their own rules.
"As of right now, leading up to March 5, 122 individuals are losing their DACA grants and work permits each day."
There are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduating from U.S. high schools every year, and only a portion of them qualify for DACA in its current iteration. The way DACA impacts college-bound students is that under the program, recipients qualify for in-state tuition in some states, if they meet the state's residence criteria. That's in sharp contrast to non-DACA recipients, who are subject to the local laws where they live.
"As of right now, leading up to March 5, 122 individuals are losing their DACA grants and work permits each day," Jess Hanson of the National Immigration Law Center tells Bustle. "After March 5, that number is expected to increase to about 1,400 people per work day losing their DACA grant and work permits." Two federal judges have issued injunctions to keep DACA in place.
"Undocumented parents frequently shoulder the financial burden of sending a child to college via savings earned from off-the-books, low-wage jobs."
Grants and scholarships are in short supply when it comes to undocumented students. Tanya Cabrera chairs the Illinois Dream Fund, a privately funded scholarship for undocumented immigrants, including both those who have and don't have DACA. She points out that letting DACA protections expire could push out some of the 42,000 DACA students currently enrolled in the state of Illinois. Since a majority of these students pay for college out-of-pocket, she says many would have a hard time attending four-year schools and finishing on time — especially because undocumented parents often shoulder the financial burden of sending a child to college via savings earned from off-the-books, low-wage jobs. Without the work permit offered through DACA, Cabrera says undocumented students could fall into a vicious cycle, even if they do graduate.
"If I’m a high school senior and I’m looking to go to college, maybe I'll be starting off at a community college," Cabrera says. "It's going to impact these students financially and when you have a population that's graduating and doesn't have access to DACA, what does that do for our economy?"
A Tangled Mess Of State Laws On Undocumented Education
Most states allow undocumented people to enroll in public universities whether or not they have DACA, but they require non-DACA recipients to pay out-of-state tuition. That can cost nearly three times as much as in-state tuition.
In two states, Alabama and South Carolina, undocumented students aren't allowed to enroll at the states' public universities — but because of Obama's executive order, DACA recipients have been permitted to attend. In the 48 other states, undocumented immigrants can enroll in public universities with or without DACA. (Georgia is an exception; some public schools in the state do not accept undocumented students.) Georgia, Arizona, and Indiana have passed laws prohibiting undocumented students from paying in-state tuition rates — but that doesn't apply to DACA students, who always pay in-state rates.
On the other end of the spectrum, at least 20 states and Washington, D.C. have “tuition equity” laws or policies, meaning that regardless of a person’s immigration status, a student can qualify for in-state tuition if she or he attended high school for a certain number of years in the state and meets other criteria. This applies to all undocumented students, even those without DACA. Hanson says that around three-quarters of DACA recipients live in states with tuition equity.
“So for approximately 76 percent of DACA recipients, aside from of course losing their work permit, losing the stability of having status for a period of time, notwithstanding those very significant effects in their lives, their ability to attend school and pay in-state tuition would not change," Hanson says.
"You could be incurring between two and, say, eight years of student debt without the promise of actually being employable when you graduate."
With the future of DACA uncertain, officials in California are signaling to the state's growing college-age undocumented population that tuition equity will remain in place. The state is home to more than 3 million immigrants without legal status.
"Nothing will happen to their ability to apply for [it] even if their DACA goes away," says Rachel Ray, managing attorney at the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center. “We really want students to continue to feel encouraged to go to school, even if they don't have DACA."
But for students in parts of the country that don't offer tuition equity for undocumented people, limited scholarship and grant money can be intensely competitive, and private loans can carry high interest rates. Without the work authorization, paying those loans back can be nearly impossible.
"You could be incurring between two and, say, eight years of student debt without the promise of actually being employable when you graduate," Ray says.
A Toxic Mix Of Debt And Deportation
Ultimately, Martinez was offered admission to one of the few higher education institutions in America that promises to meet the demonstrated financial need of all its students.
"Of course there’s always that fear that if I get deported before I graduate... at the end of the day, was it worth even getting here if I wasn’t able to finish?"
At Yale, she has access to a lawyer and she receives a stipend to buy books and other necessities. But as an undocumented student, she's ineligible to study abroad, or work on campus, or take part in a paid internship.
"It’s really interesting because I really did think that once I got here I was going to be on the same playing field as everyone else," Martinez says. “But the reality is that no, being undocumented really does follow you, like, forever.”