Celebrating DACA and Plyler: Securing our Nation’s Future through the Success of Immigrant Youth

By Wendy Cervantes, Duy Pham, and Wayne Taliaferro

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the landmark Plyler v. Doe decision as well as the 5th anniversary of the introduction of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, both of which have helped advance civil rights in our public education system and promote economic progress. As a result, our country has benefitted from the numerous contributions of immigrant youth—including teachers, chefs, engineers, entrepreneurs, and community organizers—who have been able to pursue an education and give back to the country they love and call home.

In 1982, the Supreme Court’s Plyler ruling established that all children, regardless of immigration status, have a constitutional right to a free public education and found that denying undocumented children a basic education would create a “permanent underclass” and “foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of the nation.” The ruling, however, did not extend to postsecondary education, leaving thousands of undocumented youth—commonly referred to as “Dreamers”—with few options to continue their education beyond high school, including the challenge of lacking the documentation to work legally or stay in the country without fear of deportation.

Five years ago today, the introduction of DACA completely changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers. The program was a response by the Obama Administration to the failure of Congress to pass legislation that would address the tenuous position of these young people as well as the incredible organizing efforts of Dreamers themselves. DACA provides those eligible with a reprieve from deportation and a work permit for a renewable period of two years. Among other qualifications, applicants must have been under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, entered the country before reaching their 16th birthday, and currently be enrolled in school or another qualifying education program, or have graduated from high school or obtained a general education certificate. Since the program’s inception, more than 780,000 young people have been approved for DACA, and a significant share are current students in our nation’s secondary and postsecondary institutions and are contributing members of our economy. Through DACA, they have stepped forward in good faith to provide information on their status, allowing them to fully live their lives and pursue their goals.

Yet, even as we celebrate the many success stories that were made possible by these inclusive policies, it is important to remember that undocumented youth and their families face dire threats under the Trump Administration, including a series of immigration executive orders that undermine the safety, economic security, and wellbeing of immigrant children, families, and communities. Under new guidelines on immigration enforcement, both citizen and noncitizen children and youth in mixed-status families are now at much greater risk of being separated from a parent or other loved ones due to deportation. Although the Trump Administration has claimed DACA recipients are not affected by the new guidelines and has not made any formal decisions regarding the continuation of the DACA program, at least two DACA recipients, Daniel Ramirez and Daniela Vargas, were detained and placed into removal proceedings, and at least one Dreamer, Juan Manuel Montes-Bojorquez, was deported and is currently suing the federal government. A groundswell of advocacy efforts at the local and national level helped secure Daniela’s release and helped grant Daniel bond; yet, DACA recipients are experiencing high levels of anxiety regarding the future status of their protections and are now living in constant fear that their parents and other family members may be deported.

In response to the attacks on immigrant youth and their families, many postsecondary institutions and associations have pledged support to DACA students. For example, the American Council on Education released an issue brief to help institutions understand how they can support DACA students in this time of transition and uncertainty. A number of campuses have also taken even bolder steps such as increasing financial assistance and limiting cooperation with immigration authorities on campus grounds. Furthermore, our partners at Achieving the Dream have put together tools to help postsecondary institutions respond to shifts in immigration or DACA policy in their local communities. At the K-12 level, several school districts have adopted “safe zone” resolutions that affirm their commitment to their immigrant students by upholding their rights under Plyler, promoting welcoming environments, and keeping their schools safe from immigration enforcement actions.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are also stepping up to defend immigrant youth, with various bills already introduced and others under consideration that would either provide a temporary fix for those at risk of losing DACA or provide a long-term solution for undocumented youth. In fact, there has consistently been bipartisan support for federal legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship to immigrants who entered the U.S. as children since the first introduction of the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001. In January, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Mike Coffman (R-CO) reintroduced the Bar Removal of Immigrants who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, a bill that would grant a three-year provisional protected status to current DACA beneficiaries and allow additional youth to apply. The Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act was also introduced by a group of Republican House Members, which would offer a pathway to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries and other undocumented youth who meet the bill’s education, military, or employment requirements.

DACA beneficiaries are a small share of the total number of immigrants in the United States, but they add immensely to the diversity that fuels our global competitiveness and shapes our economic future. This diversity is already evident among our nation’s young people as the majority of those under 18 will soon be people of color. In fact, a report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education  finds that the number of White public school graduates is expected to decline 14 percent by 2030, while being counterbalanced by growth in the number of non-White public school graduates. Thus, postsecondary institutions and their policies need to be more responsive to communities of color and nontraditional students, who are now the majority of postsecondary students.

Undocumented youth have historically faced unique barriers to pursuing a postsecondary education, including limited access to financial aid and state policies that restrict their access to in-state tuition or bar them from enrolling in public institutions altogether.  While several states have adopted tuition equity policies to provide in-state tuition rates—and sometimes state-based financial assistance—to undocumented students, the DACA program helped eliminate many of the barriers that previously made beneficiaries who lacked formal legal status ineligible for in-state tuition and certain programs.

DACA beneficiaries and other undocumented youth also contribute to our nation’s economy and play a critical role in lifting their families out of poverty. Most live in mixed-status families, and an estimated 34 percent of immediately eligible DACA recipients live in families with annual incomes below the federal poverty line. Undocumented youth often help their parents make ends meet, and research shows that DACA significantly improves economic outcomes for beneficiaries and allows them to better financially support their family members—the benefits of which are felt throughout the entire economy. The remarkable success of the DACA program is an example of how an inclusive educational system and economy that taps the full potential of all people, including immigrant communities, can help meet the demands of our dynamic workforce.

As we remember the critical role that the Plyler decision and the DACA program have had on advancing education equity, CLASP commends the ongoing efforts to safeguard immigrant youth and is committed to working with our partners to fight back against harmful immigration policy proposals that undermine the safety and vitality of immigrant students and their families. We support forward-thinking, inclusive policies that promote the success of all our young people and secure our nation’s future.

Please visit the #IamDACA website to read stories of DACA youth.