Why Obama’s immigration announcement is also about education

The day after President Barack Obama unveils his plans for new changes to enforcement of the country’s immigration laws, he’ll make his case for the changes at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. Talking about what is on its face an immigration and work permit program at a school is no coincidence.

Obama’s 2012 immigration order created a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It temporarily halted deportations and offered two-year, renewable work permits to people 30 and under who entered the U.S. illegally before turning 16. The Migration Policy Institute estimates about 1.2 million people were eligible when the program began and more than 580,000 have had their applications for the program approved as of last month. A nationwide survey released earlier this year found 70 percent of DACA recipients started a new job, more than half reported being more financially independent.

In Miami, Yesmyn Alcarazo applied for DACA as soon as he could. Then 21, he had been helping in the office of his father’s mechanic shop since graduating from high school but a new job wasn’t what he had in mind.

The same survey of DACA recipients found that 23 percent, like Alcarazo, have used their new status to go back to school.

Alcarazo moved to Miami from Peru with his family in 2002. It wasn’t until Alcarazo started filling out college applications seven years later that his parents explained they were living in the country illegally.

At first he just felt surprised. “After that, frustration,” Alcarazo said, “because all of your friends are planning to go to college. I was actually making the plans, I didn’t find out until the very end. I had sent applications and everything and then I found out.”

But he didn’t give up on the idea of going to college.

“I did the research,” he said, “but I would have qualified as out-of-state and it’s really expensive. I couldn’t burden my parents.”

Now 23, Alcarazo is a year into getting an associate’s degree at Miami Dade Community College. The campus was one of two in Florida to start offering in-state tuition to DACA recipients last year.

Students with DACA are not eligible for federal financial aid but with a scholarship from TheDream.us, a group that supports undocumented college students, Alcarazo can take classes full-time. Without the funding he said he would likely follow a pattern common among undocumented students.

“We’re a working family, we’re not rich and school isn’t exactly the cheapest thing,” he said. “I would probably do one semester on and one semester off to work.”

A survey by the National UnDACAmented Research Project found about 43 percent of DACA recipients pursuing a college degree “stopped out” from their studies at least once to spend time working to support family or save money for school.

“What was reported very often [by DACA recipients] was because they could now legally work it made it more possible for students to afford college,” said Margie McHugh, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “And to feel they could do something like take on an additional class.”

This summer Florida became the 17th state to pass a law granting in-state tuition waivers to students who are undocumented or part of the DACA program if they meet certain criteria, like graduating from a high school in the state that they attended for at minimum number of years.

Higher education boards or campus officials in eight more states have adopted policies granting in-state tuition to undocumented students at some or all of their public colleges and universities.

The combination of in-state tuition and the opportunity to work legally helped helped Maria Banderas, who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 4 or 5, put her skepticism about applying for DACA aside.

“It is just an executive order, not a law, it’s just something that can be changed when the next president comes in,” the 20-year-old biology major said over the phone from the Hispanic Center for Academic Excellence at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. “Another thing that made me skeptical was the fact that the government would have all of my information.”

She said her parents urged her to take the risk and she spent her first year with work authorization juggling two jobs, one a full-time as a customer service representative for AT&T and a part-time position bussing tables at a restaurant.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Banderas said. “I was never sure it would be a possibility, but it was something that I was always going to try to get to do. I feel like with DACA and in-state tuition here, that really helped me a lot.”

Between the 2004-05 school year and 2012-13 the number of students applying for an in-state tuition waiver at Utah’s public colleges and universities rose to 929 from 149, according to the system’s communications department.

Jonathan Puente, director of the Hispanic Center at SUU said he talks to students like Banderas all the time.

“They have to pay everything out of pocket, which is a huge roadblock,” he said. “We help them find private scholarships but we have lots of students who want to come to college but don’t have the money.”

Six states make state-funded financial aid or privately funded scholarships available to undocumented students. In 2013, California’s first year of offering financial aid, nearly 20,700 people completed the state’s Dream Act application and 6,943 received a CalGrant award, which covers tuition or additional school expenses for low-income students. This year the number of applications rose to 26,676. Out of those, 8,282 received CalGrants and 6,400 got one of the state’s new middle class scholarships, according to the state’s Student Aid Commission.

DACA hasn’t only sent people into the country’s higher education system.

At Seattle Education Access, Jeff Corey, the group’s program manager, said they’re seeing an increase in undocumented people entering programs to complete high school diplomas or a GED and transition into college. DACA applicants must have either credential to qualify.

“Three years ago we worked with undocumented students and had to be really careful advising them about which programs to go into,” Corey said. “We told people right off the bat that they cannot go into healthcare because of the background checks it usually requires. Now, people can to go into new growing fields like IT and healthcare where we’re seeing lots of job openings.”

But Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute said whether people can access programs like Corey’s varies from state to state.

“We wish there was more evidence of systematic activities to support these youth,” Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute said. “Are we comfortable as a nation that one’s ability to benefit from this federal immigration program is greatly impacted by your state of residence? If you are a DACA eligible youth in Georgia, there is a set of state policies that make it extremely difficult to access majority of adult ed programs.”

Groups like Floridians for Immigration Enforcement would like to see more states limiting undocumented students’ access to public higher education.

“In-state tuition for illegals is in fact an amnesty disguised as an educational initiative,” the group argues on its website. “College entrants slots are fixed and limited. In-state tuition for illegal aliens places U.S. citizens in direct competition with adult illegal aliens for limited slots and tuition benefits.”

Republicans in Congress have already promised to respond forcefully in the new year to the expansion of deportation deferrals Obama will outline tonight, which many expect to cover as many as 5 million more undocumented immigrants.

That opposition keeps Utah student Maria Banderas on edge.

“I’m still a little bit worried,” she said, “because it still only temporary. But it does feel like there is some hope, whereas before DACA I felt like nothing was going to be done about it.”

Extending that hope to more people with new, legal access to work could make more take the bet that Banderas has, that investing in an education while she can will pay off in the future.

Related: Growing up undocumented, students find hope in DACA

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.