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For DACA students, it’s hard to focus on a bright future when faced with deportation fears

Like many college students, 19-year-old Jimmy Rodriguez has a lot on his plate. But unlike most of his peers, Rodriguez, a DACA beneficiary, is pursuing a degree and a future in a country he may one day be forced to leave. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the unique challenges faced by undocumented students as part of our series, Rethinking College.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the Obama era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which has protected hundreds of thousands of individuals, also known as dreamers. They were brought to the U.S. by their parents illegally when they were children.

    The issue before the court is whether the Trump administration acted legally when it sought to terminate the program in 2017. Since then, DACA has been closed to new enrollees.

    Hari Sreenivasan recently traveled to Ohio to speak with DACA students about their experiences.

    It's the latest in our special series on Rethinking College, and it's part of our regular education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Man:

    After you have decided on what you want to study, you have to review the literature.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Like many college students, 19-year-old Jimmy Rodriguez has a lot on his plate. He's taking a full course load this semester at Lorain County Community College in Ohio.

    In the evenings, he practices with the school's soccer team. But unlike most of his peers, Rodriguez is pursuing a degree and a future in a country he may one day be forced to leave.

  • Woman:

    I know there are a couple of things I wanted to follow up with you on. And that is your paperwork for the DACA.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Rodriguez is a DACA beneficiary. His parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico in 2002, when he was a year-and-a-half old. He's never been back to Mexico.

  • Jimmy Rodriguez:

    DACA means the world to me. I'm able to get a job, a normal job, get my license, almost like a citizen, but not fully yet.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He wants to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. But those plans were almost derailed last year when he and his father, who's also undocumented, were caught up in a federal ICE raid while working at a garden center.

    Jimmy's dad caught some of the raid on his cell phone.

  • Jimmy Rodriguez:

    And they told us to shut up, to stop talking, that we were all illegal.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because he was protected by DACA, Rodriguez was released, but his father was detained for several months.

    He's out now and has been given a temporary work permit while he awaits his next immigration hearing.

  • Jimmy Rodriguez:

    It's always affected me since I found out I was undocumented, in school, in class, at work, at a game, thinking about your family, because you're not with them, so you're uncertain what's going to happen to them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 98,000 dreamers graduate from high school each year in the U.S. Many enter the work force right away, but it's estimated 20 percent of DACA beneficiaries are enrolled in college.

    On a recent afternoon, as Ohio State University fans cheered on their football team, a small student group met nearby to discuss their goals for the upcoming school year.

  • Woman:

    Who would we be targeting in the education systems?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The four leaders of the newly formed Student Community of Progressive Empowerment organization, which advocates for undocumented students, are all protected by DACA.

  • Liz:

    There are these kids that would have applied for it, but can't. So, they're undocumented.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nineteen-year-old Liz is a junior majoring in civil engineering. She prefers to go only by her first name, due to concerns about her family's safety.

    Liz has lived in Ohio since she came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 1. She's been on the dean's list and has a 3.7 grade point average. That type of academic performance would help most students get financial aid, but not dreamers.

  • Liz:

    The number one challenge that we face is a lack of financial aid. As DACA students, we don't get federal financial aid and a lot of public scholarships.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How are you financing your education?

  • Liz:

    A lot of my education is financed with my own money. I work part-time as a server. I have been working since I was 16 to save up for college.

    Other than that, I have had a handful of private scholarships.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Like most dreamers, Liz had to apply as an international student, but Ohio allows DACA recipients to qualify for in-state tuition if they meet residency requirements; 23 other states and the District of Columbia have laws or university system policies that allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition.

    Liz wants to become an engineer, but she says it can be hard to stay focused when faced with the possibility of deportation.

  • Liz:

    It's a lot of anxiety knowing that you might not graduate. You have this long-term goal, but it's not certain. You can't work harder and get it. You can't study harder and get it. It's just completely out of your control.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's not just undergrads who are concerned.

    You're hoping to build a database that researchers can use to fight cancer?

  • Han Gil:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Twenty-two-year-old Han Gil is a DACA recipient who is applying for Ph.D. programs while working at a lab on campus. The recent Ohio State grad, who also prefers to go by only her first name, was born in Korea and has been in the U.S. since the age of 4. She and other DACA beneficiaries must reapply every two years.

  • Han Gil:

    The programs I'm looking into are minimum five years. And reapplying costs money. It's hard for me to have any confidence in what I'm going to do in the future, when I can't even have the basics of knowing if I'm even going to be here or not.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Those kinds of concerns are all too common for undocumented students, says Yolanda Zepeda. She's assistant vice provost in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Ohio State University.

  • Yolanda Zepeda:

    What I find is, our students have to work a lot of hours in order to just pay for their schooling. That can very much extend the time to degree. And I have seen students who start out very enthused and very determined, and , over time, they just get tired.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ohio State University doesn't disclose the number of enrolled DACA students, and many dreamers choose not to reveal their status.

    But there are campus programs aimed at giving them support.

  • Anna Babel:

    A lot of it is taking your own initiative to make sure that undocumented student concerns are getting into the daily life of the university.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Around 300 faculty, staff and students have participated in a voluntary training program to become allies for undocumented students.

    Ohio State language professor Anna Babel is leading the effort.

  • Anna Babel:

    They can run into problems with court dates, if they have a court date and they don't want to tell their professor what's going on in their life, maybe it conflicts with an exam or with a required class period. Many language departments traditionally have requirements for study abroad, and undocumented students just can't do that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As Ohio State and other schools try to help dreamers, they are aware that immigration policy is contentious. They also know that there are many who want to end DACA and support the Trump administration's efforts to do so.

  • Hans Von Spakovsky:

    I think President Trump acted correctly in ending the program.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hans Von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in D.C., a conservative think tank. He has concerns, among other things, about universities giving in-state tuition to undocumented students.

  • Hans Von Spakovsky:

    Federal immigration law doesn't ban colleges and universities, state ones, from providing in-state tuition to aliens who are here illegally. But it does say that, if they do that, they have to provide in-state tuition to citizens who are from other states.

    That provision has never been enforced by the U.S. Justice Department.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While the political battles are being fought, life goes on at universities for now.

    Civil engineering major Liz is keeping focused on her studies.

  • Liz:

    For me, my number one goal is to do as much as I can and try as hard as I can to graduate. And I will do that until I — until the last second that I can.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Liz, Jimmy, Han Gil and many other dreamers across the U.S. will be waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court's decision on DACA, expected by next summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Part of our series on Rethinking College.

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