Credit: Fredy Ceja
Led by then-Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (center), demonstrators in Los Angeles sought and eventually won the passage of the California Dream Act. The 2011 law provides state financial aid for undocumented college students.
This article was updated on Dec. 4, 2020.

What is DACA and does it have any effect on a student being allowed to enroll in a California high school or college?

President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowed certain undocumented young people who were brought to this country under the age of 16 to apply for two-year work permits and be protected from deportation during that time. The permits were designed to be renewed indefinitely but did not provide a path to citizenship. In September, the Trump administration said it would phase out DACA and no longer accept new DACA applications. Current DACA holders had until Oct. 5, 2017 to apply for a one-time-only renewal and that was possible only if their current permits expired before March 5, 2018. However, former DACA holders would not be a high priority for deportation unless they were convicted of crimes, according to the White House.

Since then, several federal judges have ordered a rolling back of the Trump administration’s attempt to end the program. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in June labeled the attempt “arbitrary and capricious,” and the following month a federal judge in Maryland ordered the program fully restored to its 2012 standing. The Trump administration, however, continued denying new applicants.

On Dec. 4, 2020, a federal judge in New York ordered the program fully restored and required the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to post a public notice specifying new applications would be accepted.

All that has no formal connection to whether undocumented students can enroll in California high schools or colleges. State law allows undocumented students to attend public elementary and high schools and colleges, with or without DACA. But a welcome mat for California education does not count for much if those students are ultimately deported from the United States because they lose their DACA protection. And, DACA supporters say, some young people may decide it makes no sense to continue their education if there is little hope of getting a legitimate job.

How many DACA recipients are in California and how many are students?

In California, 242,339 young people have received DACA status between 2012 and March, 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Officials estimate that 72,300 undocumented students are enrolled at the state’s public colleges and universities (70,000 at community colleges, 9,500 at Cal State and 4,000 at UC) and that half probably have DACA protection now. Nationwide, about 800,000 young people have received DACA status.

How much impact does DACA have on financial aid?

Very little in California.

Undocumented students, with or without DACA status, already are banned from receiving such federal aid as the Pell grants, federally subsidized loans and work-study jobs. Nothing about the Trump administration’s announcement Tuesday changes that.

However, California is fairly generous to undocumented college students regardless of their DACA status. Starting in 2001, California has allowed undocumented students to pay the discounted in-state levels of tuition at public colleges and universities. Then in 2011, the California Dream Act was approved to provide aid to undocumented status whether or not they have DACA permits. The resulting Dream Act grants cover up to the entire cost of tuition at UC, Cal State, community colleges and more than $9,000 for private colleges to low- and moderate-income students. DACA is not a factor in those awards but the students usually need to have attended a California high school for at least three years. UC, CSU and private schools may add additional grants to help pay for room, board and other costs. The ability for Dreamers to receive student loans at UC and CSU were added to the mix more recently.

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, which administers the Dreamer aid, said in a statement Tuesday that California Dream Act applications and grants are “unrelated to the federal DACA program, and we cannot emphasize enough that DACA status is not required to be eligible for financial aid or admission to college in California.”

The one area that could be affected is work-study. If a college wholly funds its own work-study jobs for the undocumented, complications might arise under the new Trump policy if students lose their work permits and cannot obtain Social Security numbers.  Some colleges may decide instead to link work-study to credits for housing and food, instead of wages.

DACA students now are worried that the information they submitted to obtain their status might be used against them if deportation round ups occur. What about any information on California Dream applications for financial aid?

Clearly some students and their families are concerned about that. Education officials statewide faced a worrisome decline in the number of applications for Dream Act grants earlier this year and were able to bring those numbers back up to the previous year’s level only after much publicity and outreach. It remains to be seen, however, whether a significant number of those students decide not to use their Dream Act grants at all and don’t attend school, perhaps thinking that it will be a waste of time if they ultimately might be banned from working legally in the country.

California officials emphasize that California scholarship information is kept confidentially and separately from federal immigration paperwork and that they would resist any federal attempt to get access to the material. Still, officials concede that it is not beyond the realm of possibility for the federal government to gain access.

Should DACA students travel overseas?

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, many colleges and universities have warned their undocumented students with or without DACA not to travel overseas for academic programs in case immigration policies suddenly changed.  Colleges are repeating those warnings and telling DACA recipients already overseas to return to the U.S. as soon as possible to avoid possible troubles at the border.

 And what about life after graduation?

That is the bigger fear for many DACA recipients. They may wind up earning prestigious academic degrees but then will no longer be eligible for even temporary Social Security numbers. So they fear that they could be pushed into an underground economy even if they manage to remain in the United States.

Betty Márquez Rosales contributed to this guide.

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  1. Janice 4 years ago4 years ago

    Why should Californians bare any cost whatsoever for failed countries and their failed social constructs? We are paying for students who, most definitely, should not be here.


    • Amy 4 years ago4 years ago

      It is ignorant to say that they should not be here when this country was built from the ground up by immigrants and the natives who were already here before anyone else

    • Mary 2 years ago2 years ago

      Have a most wonderful inauguration day Janice!

  2. Barbara Bramson 5 years ago5 years ago

    This will assist many of the DACA students I work with, regarding travel and funding for higher education.