Undocumented students face extra college affordability challenges

Camelback High School seniors fill out the Free Application for Federal Aid, or FAFSA, during a FAFSA completion drive on Oct. 19, 2017. (Stephanie Morse/DD)

Undocumented students still face extra challenges when applying to college and financial aid despite the protected status some of these students were receiving as DACA recipients.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program was enacted by former President Barack Obama in 2012. The program, which President Donald Trump ended in September with a six month delay, grants protection from deportation and the opportunity to apply for work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

“Growing up I thought I was just like anybody else,” said Edder Diaz Martinez, DACA recipient and Cronkite School Senator for Undergraduate Student Government Downtown. “I didn’t really know the impact of my immigration status and didn’t see any difference between myself and other peers around me. I didn’t realize the impact my immigration status had on my life until it came time to begin applying for FAFSA and begin applying for scholarships and things like that.”

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is an annual form students and their families can fill out to determine their eligibility for federal financial aid and work-study programs.

The form is also often required to receive financial aid from individual colleges, making it an essential aspect of college affordability. To fill out the form and some other scholarship applications students need a social security number and tax documents, which is information undocumented students often don’t have because of their status.

“A lot of the scholarships I wanted to apply to that others were applying to, I couldn’t because I couldn’t get a social security number or I couldn’t provide any verification of my parent’s income just because they didn’t have a lot of the documents required,” Martinez said.

Martinez graduated from high school in 2007 but was not able to go to college until the spring of 2014. Without the required documents, Martinez said he couldn’t receive the scholarship money he needed to afford college.

Adding to the challenge, in November 2006 Arizona voters approved Proposition 300 making undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition.

“That made it much more burdensome for me to even afford college,” Martinez said. “In-state [tuition] was already pretty difficult but now having to pay three times the amount was completely out of my reach. So, I just couldn’t move forward with my education.”

Martinez said he worked side jobs during his time away from school, often getting paid below minimum wage in cash under the table. He said he also started getting involved in the activism community during this time.

When Obama started the DACA program Martinez applied and met the requirements to become a DACA recipient. Maricopa Community Colleges also started offering in-state tuition to DACA students, making it affordable for Martinez to return to school at Phoenix College.

The Arizona Board of Regents followed in 2015 and all three state universities also started offering in-state tuition to DACA students. After earning his associated degree at Phoenix College, Martinez transferred to Arizona State University.

“With DACA I’ve been able to work, go to school,” Martinez said. “It’s dramatically changed my lifestyle and my family’s life.”

While DACA has removed some of the barriers undocumented students face when trying to attain college, many remain.

DACA students are eligible to receive social security numbers, but still may not have the tax documents required to fill out FAFSA if their parent’s do not fill tax returns out of fear of deportation or get paid in cash under the table.

In addition, undocumented students, even DACA students, cannot receive federal financial aid even if their family financially qualifies.

Phoenix Union High School District has a Hispanic student population of just over 81 percent, some of who are DACA recipients or undocumented immigrants that face these college affordability issues when trying to go to college.

“Many of these students don’t feel like there’s anything after high school,” said Rosa Dominguez, a representative of Camelback High School. “We want to show them there is something for them that they do.”

The district has partnered with the Be A Leader Foundation and other organizations to build programs to increase the district’s college attainment and FAFSA completion efforts. This includes working with undocumented students to educate them about college application and financial aid processes as well as connecting students to the opportunities that are available to them.

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“Many students also live in households with mixed status situations so we inform them that even though their parents may be undocumented that if they’re not they still go ahead and fill out the FAFSA,” said Karla Robles, chief strategy officer for the Be A Leader foundation. “So, it’s a lot of misconceptions and removing those and informing families.”

Dominguez said many undocumented students do not want to fill out the FAFSA out of fear of deportation or do not realize the form can still help them receive other scholarship money even though their FAFSA application will most likely be rejected.

“It’s a federal document that’s a guideline to their situation,” Dominguez said. “So even if they don’t have a social security number, FAFSA proves they meet the poverty guidelines to qualify for other funds.”

During the FAFSA completion drive at Camelback High School, DACA students could talk to community activists about their situation and ask any questions they may have about DACA. They were also given a list of private scholarships they could apply for.

The private scholarships that are specifically for DACA students or don’t require citizenship verification are one of the only ways DACA students can receive financial aid for college.

Martinez said this sometimes forces undocumented students to get creative and fundraise money for their education using websites like GoFundMe.

“A lot of students they get really creative,” Martinez said. “They set up GoFundMe [campaigns] or they work. It’s what you learn as an undocumented student that you have to be really resourceful.”

Many of these benefits undocumented students receive from DACA, however, hang in the balance leaving these students with uncertainty about their future and their education.

Former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne sued Maricopa Community Colleges in 2013 arguing the college district’s decision to offer in-state tuition to DACA students violated Proposition 300. Maricopa Community Colleges and the Arizona Board of Regents are still offering in-state tuition for the time being while the lawsuit moves through court, but DACA students could lose this tuition benefit in the future.

President Trump ordered an end to the DACA program on Sept. 5 giving Congress only until early March to pass legislation to keep the program in place.

“It’s a real battle every day for undocumented folks in general,” Martinez said. “That’s the fight that we’re working toward to try to gain some sort of status, not just for ourselves but for all of us. We’re not just the good immigrants because we want to get an education. Our parents are good people too.”

Contact the reporter at Stephanie.M.Morse@asu.edu.