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Immigration crackdown fears fuel uncertainty for undocumented students

April 25, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Each year, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools, and most are protected from deportation under an Obama administration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. But many DACA students are on edge, unsure about what the future holds for them or their families. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Most are protected from deportation because of an Obama administration policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows those brought here illegally at a young age to go to school and get work permits.

President Trump tried to reassure those young people, often called dreamers, again this week that he doesn’t plan to go after them. But a lawsuit filed last week claimed one dreamer has been deported, and DACA students are on edge.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of our partner Education Week traveled to Los Angeles and spoke to three DACA recipients to see how their lives have changed.

We have agreed to use only their first or middle names. This is part of our weekly series on education, Making the Grade.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Twenty-five-year-old Jose has something in common with President Trump: They both graduated from the prestigious business school Wharton. Unlike many of his classmates, Jose didn’t choose a career on Wall Street.

JOSE, Undocumented Teacher: Teaching sixth grade math is the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: His students know he is a DACA recipient, at a time when the federal government is cracking down on undocumented immigrants.

JOSE: I had a lot of students in tears asking me if I was going to be taken away, and if they could hide me. I had students asking me, if their parents were deported, if they were going to be allowed to leave with them, or if they would become a part of the foster care system here.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Immigration arrests are up 33 percent nationwide, compared to the same three months last year. For Jose and others, this adds to the climate of fear.

STUDENT: ICE has basically set up shop at the Mexican grocery store. And they are there throughout the day. Now my mom is like, when we need to go to the store or something, we go out — we go out at night.

STUDENT: It’s hard for me to talk about, because I know there might be a chance that, like, my parents can be taken away. And that just scares me.

JOSE: I tell my students that they are important, that their families are important, that our community is important.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., more than 750,000 have been granted DACA status. To qualify, they would have had come to the U.S. as children, be in high school or graduated, with no felony record.

Randy Capps is with the Migration Policy Institute.

RANDY CAPPS, Director of Research for U.S. Programs, Migration Policy Institute: We don’t usually punish children for the sins of their parents. Even if they had crossed the border illegally, they didn’t know they were doing it. They were too young to know that.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: He says the DACA population has the support of many Republican, business and university leaders.

Even President Trump, known for his tough talk on the campaign trail:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: … has softened his stance.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects that I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases, not in all cases — in some of the cases, they’re having DACA, and they’re gang members, and they’re drug dealers, too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids. I would say mostly.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Trump’s change in tone has not been popular with some of his supporters, like Iowa Representative Steve King. He says he will never be convinced that the DACA program makes sense, because illegal is illegal.

REP. STEVE KING, R-Iowa: If you reward people for breaking the law, you get more lawbreakers.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: He says DACA recipients compete for jobs with U.S. citizens and are an economic drain.

According to a 2007 Congressional Budget Office report, undocumented immigrants overall do access more services than they pay in taxes. But DACA recipients, who came to the states as children, are mostly U.S.-educated and far more likely to move up the economic ladder.

King disagrees, on principle.

REP. STEVE KING: It’s an injustice to our founding fathers, to the people who have fought and bled and died for this freedom that we have to simply give it away to people that have violated the law, while we have at least five million people outside America that are in line, that do respect our laws, that are waiting to come into America.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: California has the highest number of DACA recipients. It’s also among of the most welcoming. DACA students here can get state loans for college, in-state tuition, and even a driver’s license.

Yet, this year in California, financial aid applications for all undocumented students were down nearly 60 percent, because students feared revealing their status might put them at risk. Then a media campaign helped bring those numbers up.

For Yael, a DACA student receiving financial aid at UCLA, today’s rhetoric reminds her of how she felt in high school.

YAEL, Undocumented College Student: I wasn’t able to say I’m undocumented without just bursting into tears. It was just, like, painful, painful and heavy shame that I felt.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Yael came to the U.S. when she was 4. She volunteers to help other undocumented immigrants in her free time.

YAEL: I feel privileged to be here at UCLA. When I think about my future, unfortunately, everything seems really uncertain right now.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: For high school senior Elena, classes are a refuge.

ELENA, Undocumented High School Student: I motivated myself to take challenges, like honors, A.P. Classes, extracurricular activities.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Elena came here when she was 6. She has more than the typical teenage concerns.

ELENA: The fear that my parents might be deported makes me feel both sad and scared at the same time. Like, sometimes, going to school, I’m worried. I’m like, what if I don’t see my mom again?

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Elena volunteers for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.

ELENA: When I was a little girl, I didn’t really have someone to be there for me, because my parents, of course they didn’t understand the language. So, when I had the opportunity to be in this program, it was like, yes, I really want to do it, because I want to help someone. Maybe they’re in my situation or like a similar situation, so I want to be there for them.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: If President Trump doesn’t deport DACA recipients, Representative Steven King says he will feel betrayed.

REP. STEVE KING: They can take up the task of rebuilding the countries that they came from. The education that they have with them, the language skills, the cultural skills, the experience of being here in America, I think it could be a fantastic improvement, and one of the best things that America could do for everyone south of our border.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: But Jose echoes thousands of other DACA recipients when he says he can’t imagine returning to Mexico, a country he left when he was just 2.

JOSE: Losing my job, losing the ability to teach my kids, being separated from my family, losing everything that I know, I don’t think it can get any worse than that.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: I’m Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Los Angeles, California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, online, a special education teacher in Chicago who has DACA status remembers the day her family was separated by deportation.

That’s at