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.