Undocumented College Students: The DREAM Act and Other Legal Issues

Note: As of September 5, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will no longer be accepting new applications under the DACA program (however, renewals for existing DACA beneficiaries will be accepted through the end of the month). Extension of the program, which was rescinded by the Trump administration, will require congressional action.

These days, college seems to be more of a necessity than a choice for a growing number of professions. Many employers not only require their employees to have an undergraduate degree, but also prefer them to have an advanced degree as well. Considering the importance of college and the large number of undocumented immigrant children living in the United States, many of these individuals view earning a college degree as a necessary step toward becoming more financially secure.

Although undocumented individuals may believe that they lack access to higher education because of their legal status, there have been efforts to provide options. Things like the DREAM Act and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) -- neither of which is current federal law -- would provide such protections if enacted. Meanwhile, some state laws allow certain noncitizens to receive in-state tuition at colleges and universities, giving individuals who lack legal status the chance to attend college.

The DREAM Act

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a federal legislative proposal that would give certain undocumented immigrants in the United States a path to citizenship. The DREAM Act would only apply to undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. while under the age of 16 and have various other requirements for qualification. The path to citizenship would be a two phase process -- first conditional residency, then permanent residency -- and each phase would have its own requirements for qualification. The bill was initially introduced in 2001, and has been reintroduced several times over the years, but has so far failed to pass.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

In response to Congress' inability to pass the DREAM Act, the Obama administration enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in 2012. However, this program was rescinded by the Trump administration in 2017. The DREAM Act and DACA are not the same, but they are related. Unlike the DREAM Act, DACA didn't create a path to citizenship. Instead, DACA allowed certain undocumented immigrants to be exempt from deportation and receive a two year renewable work permit.

In order to be considered for DACA, an applicant had to meet various eligibility requirements. Among other things, DACA required that the applicant arrived in the U.S. before turning 16 years old and had been in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2012. In addition, applicants with felony convictions, significant misdemeanor convictions, or three or more misdemeanor convictions were barred from the program. Also, applicants posing a threat to national security or public safety were barred as well.

In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students

While the federal DREAM Act hasn't yet been passed, several states have passed their own versions of the Act. These state-based DREAM Acts have changed state residency requirements to allow undocumented college students to pay the same tuition rates as other state residents. Many states offer undocumented college students in-state tuition rates at public universities and colleges, as long as they meet certain requirements. While conditions of these laws vary from state to state, generally the laws require that the student lived in the state for a minimum number of years and also graduated from high school or received a GED in the state.

In Texas, for example, foreign and noncitizen students may be eligible to classify as a Texas resident for tuition purposes, and may be able to also receive state financial aid. In order to apply, undocumented college students must fill out the Texas Application for State Financial Aid.

California's Dream Act not only permits qualified students to pay in-state tuition fees for public colleges and universities, but also allows undocumented college students to apply for and receive private scholarships, university grants, state financial aid, and community college fee waivers. In order to be eligible for the California Dream Act, a student must meet several requirements, including attending a California high school for at least three years and filling out an affidavit stating that the student will file for legal immigration status as soon as he or she is eligible to do so.

Scholarships for Undocumented Immigrants

Many students take out federal student loans to help pay for college because federal loans have a number of benefits including fixed interest rates, payment plan options, and postponing payment. However, a basic eligibility requirement for federal student loans is being a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen, which unfortunately doesn't include undocumented immigrants. While federal student aid is not an option for undocumented college students, there are scholarships available.

Scholarships can come from various private organizations, as well as from state scholarship programs. There is currently a national scholarship fund called TheDream.US, which is specifically for undocumented immigrants who have received protection under DACA (currently in limbo). The website for Scholarships A-Z, a nonprofit organization based in Arizona, provides information about various scholarships available to undocumented college students. Many states also offer scholarships for those students without legal immigration status, just one example being the Illinois Dream Fund.

Getting Legal Help

If you or someone you know is an undocumented immigrant and has questions about attending college, you may want to contact an education law attorney or immigration attorney in your area.

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Next Steps

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