When Flor Camarena was getting ready to graduate from her Denver high school, there was a moment she wasn’t sure she’d be able to go to college.
But her counselors, to whom she had confided her lack of legal status, helped her find schools that were supportive and programs that gave her hope for financial assistance.
This fall, she’s entering Metropolitan State University of Denver. Because she’s already earned some credits, she’ll be starting as a sophomore. But not having legal status in this country, where she’s lived since she was a baby, is impacting her educational choices and prospects.
Camarena has applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program that would protect her from deportation and give her permission to work and apply for financial aid, but she doesn’t know if her application will ever be processed.
Instead of studying criminal justice to become a detective as she had wanted, Camarena instead will major in business management.
“I started thinking about how DACA might be removed and I just thought about the outcome,” she said. “Once I study, yes I’ll get my diploma and certification but then getting into working for the law — I wouldn’t get a good job because of my legal status. Even if I do get DACA, that’s still not a very lawful status to have to work with the law. I just didn’t see it happening.”
But she’s making the most of it. She hopes that with a degree in business, she’ll be able to help her parents grow their restaurant business.
“I was initially very disappointed,” Camarena said. “I just started thinking about if I had a different legal status here I could be somebody much more important — maybe have a better career.”
Her mom was sad. Her dad was proud that she thought of the family business and was thinking practically.
The political immigrant advocacy group FWD.us estimates there are 600,000 students like Camarena without legal status in U.S. K-12 schools, including about 8,000 in Colorado.
This June, advocates celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the creation of DACA, and the impacts it’s had for many. DACA is a program that offers work authorizations and temporary relief from deportation for people who were brought into the country illegally as children.
Before the creation of DACA, young people without legal status described hitting demoralizing barriers in high school. Students lost their motivation as they realized college was out of reach without typical access to financial aid or in-state tuition. Other opportunities including internships and trades that require professional certifications were also off limits.
When legislative efforts to help these students stalled, President Barack Obama created DACA through an executive order.
Some recipients are now parents themselves. The impact of status reaches beyond the recipients. In Colorado, it’s estimated that 20,000 U.S. citizens live with DACA recipients.
Educators and advocates have anecdotal stories showing that the creation of DACA helped motivate some young people to have hope for the future and to pursue education. One of the requirements to apply is to either be in school or have a high school diploma or GED.
Researchers published a study in 2019 based on findings from the National UnDACAmented Research Project at Harvard University that tracked the impact of DACA across many years in hundreds of recipients. The study found that among students who had dropped out of high school, earning DACA status motivated them to reengage in their education. Many others went on to complete college degrees and started careers.
Marissa Molina, the Colorado state director for FWD.us, herself was once a DACA recipient. She was in college, with her parents paying her out-of-state tuition, just before DACA was introduced.
“Because I had this huge tuition burden, I was going to drop out,” Molina said. “I didn’t see a point of continuing because I had no prospects to ever be able to use what I was learning. For me, DACA was truly transformational.”
Unlike most, Molina has since found an unrelated path to adjust her legal status.
DACA itself gives recipients temporary status, two years at a time, but doesn’t provide a way to earn permanent residency or citizenship.
Since former President Trump first tried to end DACA in 2017, the government has only been allowed to process new applications for limited windows of time. Camarena applied during one of those windows last year, but her application hasn’t been processed.
Although the Supreme Court handed Trump a defeat in 2020 and restored DACA, a legal challenge again put processing of new applications on hold.
This time, states in a case led by Texas argue that DACA was flawed from its inception, created without going through legal and administrative procedures, and that it’s harming their states. A federal judge agreed. The Biden administration has appealed the case and oral arguments were heard last month.
A decision is expected this fall, but advocates aren’t hopeful. Instead, they are pressing Congress to pass legislation to broaden and enshrine a new pathway for legal status for those who have been brought into the country as children.
Because the original rules for DACA have not changed — including having been in the U.S. before 2007 — FWD.us estimates that the majority of undocumented students in U.S. schools now wouldn’t be eligible for DACA even if new applications were being processed. This year’s high school seniors were born in 2004 and 2005, and if eligibility isn’t expanded, soon no high school students will qualify.
Although the program is in jeopardy, Molina believes that young people even without legal status now have more expectations than she did growing up.
“There’s students now who have never known a world without DACA,” Molina said. “We live in a different space. Particularly for Colorado. Our state has truly understood this issue and has tried to do better and do right by our students. We have access to in-state financial rates. We continue to hear positive messages and our governor speaking up about DACA. It might be hard for a young person to imagine a world without that in place.”
Teachers and counselors have also learned a lot in the last decade, Molina said, and have more access to resources to help students.
“Your legal status does not prevent you from graduating school,” Camarena said. “My counselors, they made sure I was aware that it was possible. They always made me feel safe.”
And when Camarena wasn’t sure she could go to college and pay for it, her counselors also were the ones who helped her find a way.
“I also think that because there are more stories of people who have graduated and gone on to have careers there’s also community knowledge,” Molina said. “It’s much harder to be told today that you can’t go to college.”
Though Camarena’s had some disappointments, being able to get an education is an expectation so she continues to be hopeful. But it doesn’t mean her obstacles are gone.
This summer, she’s had the opportunity to do some community service work with Metro’s Immigrant Services Program. Though she doesn’t qualify for work study, she will get a stipend for the work through another assistance program. But if DACA doesn’t come through eventually, she’s not sure if she’ll continue to have enough alternative financial support to finish college.
She says that all she wants is the same opportunities she sees her peers have — the ability to access internships, apprenticeships, work-study.
Still, she said she’s decided to focus on what she can do for now: starting her fall semester and looking forward to working with her parents’ restaurant.
“I have talked to people that inspired me to want to work for me, not for somebody else,” Camarena said. “At this point, I just put it all aside and decided to work on with what I got.”
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.