The Promise of a Path to Citizenship: What It Means for Education
The contributions of Dreamers and the fragility of DACA proved just how important it is to grant young undocumented people the opportunity to earn citizenship.
First-generation immigrant students have always faced unique obstacles to fully realizing their educational potential, ranging from language barriers to economic challenges. But those hurdles have been surmounted by every generation. One crucial obstacle for many, however, is out of their control: a broken immigration system that prohibits them from earning legal status or citizenship. Imposing a ceiling on the ambition of young, talented people is senseless—for undocumented students, their families, and the economy. But a path to citizenship for these young people would help ensure they—and future students like them—can pursue their career and educational ambitions without the limitations of immigration status.
On paper, the right to an education in America is not contingent upon citizenship: the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyer v. Doe guarantees it regardless of immigration status. Further, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits schools from sharing student information with immigration officials. Together, these policies designate schools as sanctuary spaces for young undocumented students. But high school graduation marks the expiration of those protections and where the paths of the documented and undocumented diverge.
Those who do go to college find themselves having to accept that years of schooling may lead to a dead end; without work authorization, they are barred from entering the professions for which they have trained. The United States is educating a workforce whose potential we smother.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides indisputable evidence of the profound benefits of legal status.
This is not speculative. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides indisputable evidence of the profound benefits of legal status. In the face of congressional paralysis on an issue with supermajority public support, the Obama Administration used its discretionary authority to provide temporary protection from deportation and work authorization for undocumented youth to continue their education and pursue careers.
Ninety-seven percent of DACA recipients are currently employed or enrolled in school, and the group is set to contribute $460 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade. The average hourly wage of DACA recipients jumped 69 percent since receiving legal status; Dreamers over age 25 saw an 84 percent increase. Receiving DACA has directly and significantly raised the wages of Dreamers, which in turn generates higher tax revenue and more spending power.
All the data lends urgency to a path to citizenship: a program that yields such sweeping success—for Dreamers and their communities—should not be vulnerable to changes in executive power. President Trump’s four-year attempt to terminate DACA did not succeed, but new applications were not accepted for almost the entirety of his term. Thousands of undocumented immigrants who were not yet 15 when the Trump Administration initially ended the program were barred from applying for legal status until December 2020, and the program remains vulnerable to ongoing litigation. Meanwhile, their time in the protected space of K-12 education is running out: 98,000 undocumented students graduate high school each year.
Growing up undocumented means growing up quickly—many kids act as translators and advocates for their immigrant parents from a young age—but it also means watching rites of passage into adulthood, like getting a license, a first job, or applying to college, tick by.
Growing up undocumented means growing up quickly—many kids act as translators and advocates for their immigrant parents from a young age—but it also means watching rites of passage into adulthood, like getting a license, a first job, or applying to college, tick by. One student described the process as a warped sense of time: “I feel as though I’ve experienced this weird psychological and legal stunted growth. I’m stuck at 16, like a clock that has stopped ticking. My life has not changed at all since then. Although I’m 22, I feel like a kid. I can’t do anything adults do.”
The stress and frustration caused by winnowing opportunity and the ever-present fear of deportation—for oneself or a family member—bleeds over from students’ home lives into classrooms. In a 2018 study conducted by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 90 percent of school administrators reported noticing behavioral and emotional problems among immigrant students amidst the immigration crackdown. Seventy percent noted an academic decline and 68 percent observed an uptick in absenteeism.
If the only accessible opportunities are jobs that do not require education, finishing high school and going to college can feel aimless—and the futility of preparing for a workforce that marginalizes even the most successful undocumented immigrants stifles aspirations. That grim reality helps explain why forty percent of undocumented youth age 18-24 have less than a high school education when the same is true of only eight percent of their U.S. citizen counterparts.
We know how much of a difference legal status can make in the lives of young people. Even the adoption of DACA—a temporary, fragile solution born out of Congress’ inability to pass the DREAM Act—unlocked opportunities for undocumented students en masse, and entire communities benefitted. Everyone deserves a fair shot at success—and for 2.1 million Dreamers and 11 million undocumented immigrants, that requires a path to citizenship.