Transforming ‘deferred action’ for young immigrants into true opportunities

Ed Kissam photo

Ed Kissam

President Obama’s announcement of a new immigration program, “deferred action for childhood arrivals” (DACA), last June makes 2013 a year of hope for undocumented immigrant youth and young adults in California. However, a key factor in determining whether their dreams become reality will be their ability to enroll in adult schools and community college programs.

Modeled on the DREAM Act, DACA provides undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children (before age 16), and who were less than 31 years old when the program was announced in 2012, relief from the threat of deportation. The program provides them work authorization, an opportunity to move out of the shadows of twilight employment into mainstream jobs. Nationally, deferred action can immediately benefit about 1.3 million immigrant youth and young adults who are 15 years of age or older. About 305,000 of them live in California, the nation’s largest immigrant state. As of Dec. 13, 2012, some 368,000 young people had applied for deferred action, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) continues to process applications quite rapidly and approve most.

Applicants are required to have at least a high school degree or GED or be “in school” to qualify. But many undocumented immigrant youth do poorly in school, and an estimated 43 percent of the potential age-qualified DACA applicants haven’t graduated or secured a GED. To qualify, they will need to enroll in an adult education program for English as a Second Language courses or basic skills, vocational or workforce preparation training. In rural areas, their need for adult education is even higher. For example, estimates from the National Agricultural Worker Survey suggest that 80 percent of California’s 21,000 DACA-eligible farmworkers did not graduate from high school or get a GED.

Yet the state system’s adult education service capacity—at both community colleges and adult schools—has been cut almost in half in recent years. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office reported a 38 percent decrease in non-credit course sections between 2008-2009 and 2011-2012, and the California Department of Education estimates a 50 percent drop in enrollment during the same period. This means there is an adult education emergency in California. More than 140,000 immigrant youth and young adults must enroll in an adult education program in order to qualify to work legally at the very point when capacity is already well below demand and when employers’ needs for a skilled, diverse workforce is once again growing due to the economic recovery. An analysis by the Legislative Analyst’s Office argues that it would now actually be feasible to start with the long overdue process of  bringing adult education systems up to date.

It would be ironic if California, the nation’s leader in developing immigrant-friendly education policy, allowing undocumented students in-state tuition (AB 540 in 2001) and making undocumented students eligible for state-funded college assistance beginning in January of this year (AB 131), were to slam the door of opportunity at a point when we can expect a surge of demand for adult education courses from those who never managed to complete high school. Failure to make space for those who desperately need access would not only hurt young immigrant adults, but also California employers who would employ tens of thousands of newly legal workers who might, via adult learning programs, build the workplace skills they need to take on increasing levels of responsibility.

Budget constraints are a reality. But DACA applicants who resume their interrupted education by enrolling in an adult education course and continue onward to complete a course of study leading to certification or an AA degree will probably see immediate increases of about $12,000 in their annual earnings. This translates into increased income tax revenue for California, which will in turn offset the modest costs of making available more adult basic education, ESL, and non-credit community college courses to prepare students for careers.

This year is one of opportunity for California state government and educators to take practical steps to make the vision of “lifelong learning” a reality. The strength of California’s economy, the vitality of its social and cultural life and the future of civic life in the state rests on fully integrating immigrants into society. Where better to start than by expanding the adult education system capacity so undocumented youth and young adults can qualify for deferred action?


Edward Kissam is a researcher who has worked on issues related to farmworkers and social programs serving immigrants for more than 30 years. His research on the early impacts of the Immigration Reform and Control Act was published as Working Poor: Farmworkers in the United States. He has worked as research analyst for the Adult Education Institute of Research and Planning, developed curriculum for the state’s Latino Adult Education Services project, and authored the chapter on adult education in the textbook Latinos and Public Policy in California. Ed is a contributing editor for the Journal of Latino and Latin American Studies, a volunteer adviser to the Centro Binacional de Desarollo Indigena Oaxaqueno, and currently serves as a trustee of the Werner-Kohnstamm Family Fund.

Filed under: Adult Education, Commentary, Community Colleges, High-Needs Students



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

4 Responses to “Transforming ‘deferred action’ for young immigrants into true opportunities”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. Paul Johnston on Feb 6, 2013 at 11:50 am02/6/2013 11:50 am

    • 000

    Ed’s comments are on the mark. This IS an “adult education emergency”. It’s also a strategic opportunity. I’d add that pending action on federal immigration reform is likely to demand still further expansion of capacity for ESL, adult education and vocational training. Capacity development in response to DACA can lay down the tracks for such further expansion.

    What models for extending ESL, basic ed & vocational training are most effective and efficient, and what pitfills are best avoided? What legislators are likely to champion this agenda? And pending state action, what resources might help trail-blazers lay good track?



    • Ed Kissam on Feb 10, 2013 at 12:18 pm02/10/2013 12:18 pm

      • 000

      Paul Johnston’s right to emphasize that this is not simply an adult eduction emergency but, also, a strategic opportunity. Educators can and should join in the public debate about investing in adult education for immigrants who didn’t manage to continue their education–by advocating for curriculum which focuses on the broad spectrum of “21st century skills” all workers need to succeed in the contemporary workplace and move onto upward career pathways.

      Public policy dialogue tends to rely too much on broad, generic categorization of the kinds of courses–ESL, ABE, vocational training– that will help working immigrants upgrade their skills. Ideally, courses could be designed for very limited-literate learners (e.g. those with less than a 6th grade education, limited literacy) as well as those with sound “foundation skills” who didn’t finish a secondary education. This is also an opportunity to advocate for sound curriculum/course design, tailoring adult learning programs so as to include a mixture of self-directed distance learning, face to face discussion with instructors and fellow students, online discussion, and to rely, for example, on peer coaching to help those with little or unsatisfactory classroom experience with “learning to learn”.

      The November, 2011, California Department of Education Adult Education Office report, “Linking Adults to Opportunity” offers some detailed recommendations which are promising as a starting point for broader discussion about responding to the challenges not only of helping out-of-school youth and young adults move forward with their work lives but, also, responding to the adult education demand which will result from the likely inclusion of English-language and civics education as part of newly-legalized immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

  2. Jesus Martinez on Feb 6, 2013 at 11:26 am02/6/2013 11:26 am

    • 000

    An excellent analysis! This insightful work shares much needed light on an issue that is relevant to hundreds of thousands of Californians who are eligible for DACA.

    It reflects the reality that exists in the Central Valley, where many of the smaller school districts have discontinued their adult education programs.


    • Ed Kissam on Feb 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm02/10/2013 12:28 pm

      • 000

      Educators interested in this issues may be interested in learning more about the collaborative work that Jesus Martinez is engaged in as part of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center’s San Joaquin ValleyProject. The project is working closely with other community-based organizations such as the Fresno Educational Leadership Foundation, the Centro Binacional de Desarollo Indigena Oaxaqueno, the Valley DREAMers and with local adult schools to help guide undocumented youth and young adults who are, otherwise, qualified for DACA, find the course openings that meet their learning needs. The intervention design also envisions relying heavily on peer counseling to help young farmworkers and others succeed in the courses they enroll in and go the next step toward considering how adult education fits into their personal lives and career aspirations.

Template last modified: