DACA and Undocumented Student Guide
Attending postsecondary school—whether college or trade school—is an important step in many people’s journeys to achieving the American dream. However, for undocumented students, this step can seem out of reach because of a lack of resources, fear for their families, and more.
If you are an undocumented student, we’ve got great news: You can absolutely go to college, graduate, and find a fulfilling job in a field you love. And, you can do so without putting your family at risk.
This guide serves two purposes: To help people understand the plight of undocumented students and to help these students navigate the process of applying to and getting into school, and exploring college life. We’ll also highlight why DREAMers should consider careers in social work and similar fields.
Who Are Undocumented Immigrants?
According to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, undocumented immigrants “are foreign-born people who do not possess a valid visa or other immigration documentation, because they entered the U.S. without inspection, stayed longer than their temporary visa permitted, or otherwise violated the terms under which they were admitted.” Up to 62% of newly undocumented immigrants entered the country legally, but then overstayed their visas.
In some cases, undocumented immigrants are called “illegal aliens, “illegal immigrants,” or just “illegals.” These are divisive, politicized, and hurtful terms. Using “undocumented” recognizes many were brought here as children, are unaware of their immigration statuses, or may not realize their visas have expired.
What Is DACA?
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a U.S. immigration policy that permits some undocumented immigrants who came to the country before the age of 16 to receive a two-year deportation deferment and obtain work permits, which can be renewed.
The policy was first announced by former President Barack Obama in June 2012, and applications were accepted a few weeks later. In 2014, President Obama sought to expand eligibility for DACA. Since DACA began, several states, including Texas, Nebraska, and Arizona, have challenged the law in attempts to end the program.
DACA Legal Updates
DACA has undergone many legal challenges between 2017 and 2021, leaving many with questions about its current status.
In 2017, the Trump administration tried to end DACA, and the Supreme Court determined the termination attempt was unlawful. This should have caused DACA to return to its original format from 2012, with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) beginning to process new applications again. Yet this didn’t happen.
President Donald Trump continued to work to limit DACA but was blocked by the Supreme Court in June 2020. A federal judge later ruled that the administration must begin processing DACA applications again.
A July 2020 memorandum, issued by Chad Wolf of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), did the following:
Throwing a curveball into this, a New York federal judge later found Chad Wolf wasn’t legally appointed acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary when he issued the memorandum. The finding brings forth even more questions than answers about the future of DACA.
President Joe Biden has pledged to fully reinstate DACA, but the legal battles continue. In July 2021, responding to a suit brought forth by Texas and eight additional states, a federal judge ruled that DACA is unlawful. Under the new ruling, the 616,000 current DACA recipients can stay in the program. However, while the Department of Homeland Security can continue to accept new applications (receiving 62,000+ since December 2020), it can’t approve them. Just 3% (1,900) of first-time applicants have been approved since January 2021. President Biden is expected to appeal the ruling, so only time will tell how this series of legal battles will end.
Are DACA and the DREAM Act the Same?
DACA and the DREAM Act aren’t the same. DREAM stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which was first proposed in 2001 but is not law. People often believe the DREAM Act has been passed because young undocumented immigrants are often called DREAMers, and several states have instituted laws that are in line with DREAM’s goals. In fact, as of 2018, 15 states had their own DREAM acts.
The most recent variation on DREAM at the federal level is the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021. It passed the House in March 2021 and is awaiting a Senate vote as of August 2021. The goal is to give DREAMers protection from deportation and permanent legal status.
Who Are the DREAMers?
Even though the DREAM Act hasn’t passed, those brought into the U.S. as children are often called DREAMers. However, as previously stated, DACA only applies if they were brought here before age 16.
Many of these young people identify as American—in fact, some may have little to no memories of their previous home countries. They occasionally don’t even know they’re undocumented until a situation in which they need to prove citizenship arises.
As with undocumented people who entered the country as adults, DREAMers face discrimination, not just for their race or ethnicity but also for their undocumented status. They also fear for their families’ safety, worrying that a misstep could result in their revealing statuses. All of this can result in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues—and these challenges may be compounded by living in low-income households that can’t afford mental health treatment or that don’t pursue assistance because of that fear of exposure.
Even with those challenges and contrary to popular belief, DREAMers are less likely to be imprisoned than native-born Americans. In fact, this is true of all immigrants, regardless of immigration status.
Why Social Work Careers Can Be a Fit for Undocumented Immigrants
While no career is perfect for every member of a population, undocumented immigrants may be uniquely suited to life as a social worker, counselor, or similar.
Before jumping in, though, you should know some states require citizenship (downloadable PDF file) or the legal ability to work in the states to practice as a licensed social worker. DACA doesn’t provide a path to citizenship. If you’re currently undocumented, you’ll likely need to find a way to gain permanent resident status to earn your social work license.
A social work career could be a good fit for undocumented immigrants because social workers help people get their needs met and improve their situations. The goal of social work is for clients to gain independence and power over their lives.
Undocumented immigrants often face challenges many others don’t. This may make them better able to relate to clients—undocumented or otherwise—because they could have a strong understanding of how life can throw too many things at you at once.
Additionally, social workers frequently work with refugee services. While not all undocumented immigrants are refugees, living in this country as an immigrant could allow them to empathize with their clients’ plights. If they’ve gained citizenship or permanent residency, they may also help streamline that process for their clients.
Finally, social workers are advocates. They strive to create resources and policies that help their client populations get out of the situations they’re in. Having social workers who can speak both personally and professionally about the struggles people face could be a great asset to their cause—stories are often more effective than statistics when it comes to changing hearts and minds.
The Path to College for Undocumented Immigrants
Finding the right college may be intimidating to any student, but undocumented students face unique challenges as they navigate the road to college. In fact, you may wonder if you can even go to college, given your current immigration status.
The good news is most undocumented students can attend college, graduate, and go on to live successful, fulfilling lives. In some cases, attending and graduating college will help you obtain permanent residency.
The next few sections are here to help you navigate the opportunities available to you, including how to find financial aid and scholarships, information about state laws that might impact your ability to attend and pay for college, and some additional resources.
Is My Undocumented Family at Risk if I Apply to College?
If you’re an undocumented student, you might be afraid that the college application process may ask for information that could expose your family’s status.
While they’ll ask very personal questions about you and your family, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) generally protects you and your family from being exposed. It states your school must typically ask your permission before sharing any information in your records, including your immigration status. Exceptions are when they have been issued a court order or subpoena. If asked where you were born by immigration authorities, they can share your place of birth, but that’s it—and they don’t have to unless the authorities have one of the orders above. You should explicitly tell them they don’t have your permission to do this. Additionally, some states, like California, have said they will refuse to share information like this.
In short, your immigration status is almost always safe from exposure by school authorities. To further ensure this, don’t get involved with criminal activity—or be friends with those who are—so you can help avoid the need for subpoenas or court orders.
Steps to Finding the Right College for Undocumented Immigrants
Step 1: Find support from school counselors and teachers
Navigating the college application process is challenging for everyone—and that’s why schools have college counselors and teachers ready to help students navigate the process. Find a counselor you work well with or a teacher you trust and ask them for help as you research and apply for schools. If you’re in—or have recently exited—an English language learning program, that teacher may be an especially good resource, as they’ve probably helped other students in your situation before.
Step 2: Find a school that offers the programs you are most interested in
Not all schools offer the same programs, so you’ll first want to make sure the school you select will prepare you for your future career. For example, if you want to pursue a social work degree, make sure the school you select offers the specialty you are interested in.
Step 3: Research the school and the state where it is located
Education and immigration policies vary by state. Some states have “sanctuary cities,” which limit their cooperation with federal immigration law enforcement officials. Other locations limit or restrict undocumented students’ access to higher education and financial aid.
As of June 2021, 19 states allow undocumented students to have in-state tuition at their college. Seven states let them obtain financial aid from the state. However, Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana ban undocumented students from having in-state tuition, and Alabama and South Carolina don’t allow undocumented learners who don’t have DACA status to attend any public postsecondary schools in those states.
Even if you’re a student in one of the states that allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition or financial aid, it’s important to investigate whether you need to be a DACA recipient to be granted these benefits.
Step 4: Ensure you meet the requirements as outlined in DACA
Depending on your situation, you may need to work with an immigration lawyer to make sure you have met the current requirements, which may include living in the U.S. for at least five years and graduating from an American high school or earning your GED.
Applying to College as an Undocumented Immigrant
To apply to college, you need to follow the same steps as documented students—though, as mentioned earlier, if you feel you’ll need additional help, don’t hesitate to ask teachers and counselors. Additionally, colleges have counselors who are available to help prospective students navigate the process.
The steps to apply are usually as follows:
- Gather documents you’ll need. The applications will specify exactly what these are, but they usually include standardized testing scores and high school transcripts.
- Fill out the application, usually online. It will ask about your academic and extracurricular background, personal information, and will typically include an essay.
- Write your essay (more on that below).
- Pay the application fee, which averages $44. If you need help with these funds, talk to your school counselor or a college representative. These fees are often lowest at state schools and community colleges—some don’t require them at all—and applying early can sometimes be free.
- Colleges usually have strict schedules for sending out acceptance or rejection letters. As long as you have a confirmation email saying they’ve received it, you don’t need to reach out to ask. They’ll contact you with any questions, and you’ll be notified about whether or not you got in.
Writing College Application Essays
Many college applications ask for essays. Your essay will generally be scored based on whether you answered the question they asked, how honest and engaging your work is, and grammar and spelling.
If you feel you’re not a strong writer or don’t speak English as a first language, you may be especially anxious about this step. So, it may be wise to write some practice essays on common topics with a teacher or school counselor’s assistance. Once you’re done with this process, save these essays and use them to guide the work you turn in, too—just be sure they’re truly answering the questions.
A few common prompts are:
The key to a successful essay, above all else, is for the people reviewing it to see you. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. Be open and honest.
Do I Need to Be Fluent in English to Go to College?
While English fluency may make things easier as you go through college, you don’t need to be fluent to attend most schools.
That said, the SAT and ACT are only available in English, and many schools require minimum scores on these exams for admittance. If you plan on going straight to this kind of college—usually a four-year institution—after high school, arrange for study help. Your school counselor and TESOL teacher should be able to help with this.
If you don’t feel confident in your English abilities and are about to graduate from high school, don’t fear! There are noncredit English as a second language courses offered at many community colleges, which you can take independently or while also taking credit courses at the school. These classes often focus on academic English skills, so they could help you in your college classes.
Financial Aid and Scholarship Opportunities
Paying for college may feel like an impossible challenge. However, there are many resources available to all students, and some for undocumented students in particular, that can help you reach your goal of attending a college or university.
As of the 2020-2021 school year, the average annual costs of school are:
|2020-2021 Average Annual College Costs|
|Public four-year college, in-state||$10,560|
|Public four-year college, out-of-state||$27,020|
|Private four-year college||$37,650|
Luckily, there are various scholarships, resources, and funds to help you graduate from college with as little debt as possible. Below, we’ll explore a range of financial aid and scholarships available.
Undocumented Students and FASFA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) is a form completed by current or prospective college students that determines their federal financial aid eligibility, including federal student loans and the Pell Grant.
As an undocumented or DACA student, you can’t apply for federal financial aid, so filling out the FASFA form won’t help you obtain aid from the national government.
However, some states allow undocumented students to get aid at that level—and they often require the FAFSA to do this. This form is also necessary for some scholarships and grants. So, it’s worth filling out if you’re a DACA recipient—undocumented students can’t complete it, but those who use DACA can.
When choosing to fill out the FAFSA, there is some risk to families—but it’s not large. The Department of Education can share this information with immigration and other law enforcement agencies, but as of 2020, immigration has never asked for this information.
State Financial Aid for Undocumented Students
Many states provide their own financial aid for college students in addition to federal aid. Several states extend state financial aid eligibility to DACA and undocumented students.
The California Dream Act, for example, allows undocumented students to apply for state financial aid with an application that is unrelated to the DACA program.
The Illinois DREAM Act makes scholarships, college savings accounts, and prepaid tuition programs available to undocumented students who graduate from high school in the state.
Research the state where you plan to attend school to understand what financial aid and scholarships may be available to you.
Scholarships for Undocumented Students
In addition to state and school-specific financial aid and scholarships, there are several scholarships, funds, and fellowships to help undocumented students achieve their full potential. Here is a short list of programs to consider.
Q&A: Tips, Resources, and Information for Undocumented Students
Do I have to disclose my undocumented status during the college application process?
Students should always be honest on their college applications. In general, college admission officers will keep your information confidential due to FERPA regulations, which protect students’ privacy. However, policies on undocumented student attendance and tuition rates may vary by state and school. We recommend researching local policies before disclosing your status.
How does my immigration status impact my ability to attend college?
You can pursue higher education in the U.S. despite your immigration status. However, the policies vary by state and, often, by school. Research the school where you intend to apply to learn more about their policies for undocumented students.
Can I get federal financial aid as an undocumented student?
Currently, DACA and other undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid for college and universities. However, the state and school you attend may offer financial aid and scholarships for undocumented students.
Will I qualify for the Pell Grant?
No, the Pell Grant is a federal student financial aid program. Undocumented students are currently not eligible for federal financial aid.
Will I be considered an out-of-state student for tuition purposes at my college of choice?
It varies by state. Several states offer undocumented students in-state tuition rates, and the Higher Ed Immigration Portal provides up-to-date information about states’ policies.
How else can I save money on college?
There are several ways to make college more affordable as an undocumented student. If you’re still in high school, taking AP or dual enrollment courses (when available) can help you complete core college courses at low or no cost. Taking CLEP tests may allow you to receive credit for some courses without paying tuition.
Resources for Undocumented Students
The following list of resources could help you pursue higher education as an undocumented student.
A website designed to help DREAMers realize their college dreams, navigate the college application process, and find scholarships and the support they need to thrive
An app for iPhone and Android designed to help undocumented students find and track scholarship opportunities across the U.S.
Undocumented Student Tuition Overview
A resource guide from the National Conference of State Legislatures that reviews which states currently offer in-state tuition, offers background on the undocumented student tuition debate, and provides additional resources
Immigration Advocates Network
Online tool that screens DACA and non-DACA students for immigration benefits, and provides referrals to nonprofit organizations for legal assistance
Immigrants Rising Legal Intake Service
Anonymous, confidential service to learn about your immigration options at no cost