Life in college as a DACA beneficiary

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Vivianna Loza
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College can be a tough experience for first generation students and even harder for those that don’t have the safety of citizenship. As of 2019, there are more than 825,000 DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers, in the United States. 

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy that allows Dreamers  – young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children – to apply for 2-year renewable protection from deportation to a country where they did not grow up and many do not remember. 

I recently interviewed a DACA beneficiary – who will remain anonymous for her own privacy – on her college experience. She was brought to this country at the age of three and has called it home since. She has limited memory of her time in Mexico and identifies herself as an American. She received a Bachelor of Social Work in December 2019 from the University of North Texas (UNT) and is currently studying to take her state social worker licensing exam.

What was college life like as a DACA beneficiary?

“I had just started college when the Trump administration tried to get rid of DACA in 2017. We were all in a panic when that happened. The rest of college was spent concerned about what I was going to do if it was gone indefinitely. My mom rushed to call the organization that helped us apply to see if anything could get done, and we renewed it ahead of time while multiple courts sued to bring it back. I spent a lot of time rushing to graduate, going to UNT and NCTC – a local community college – so that I could graduate early while also being involved in various organizations. From the moment I got a job in 2017 (I couldn’t work sooner without a work permit), I didn’t stop going to school full-time. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t exhausted. Even now, I fear what may happen next.”

What were some challenges that you faced?

“There’s always that constant paranoia of ‘how am I going to get treated if this or that classmate finds out? What am I going to do if I have to drop out and can’t work at my job anymore? How am I going to pay for school supplies, parking, and my DACA application?’ Sometimes I had to miss my classes when required DACA appointments, like getting fingerprinted, fell on days I had class. I couldn’t just reschedule because then what if it took too long and my DACA expires and I can’t renew on time for my job?” 

“DACA takes a mental toll on a lot of people. We can’t just do whatever we want. I’m essentially eight and a half years away from losing everything I worked hard for. There’s nothing set in place for those that age out.”

How was college different for you than for citizens?

“Like all DACA students, I don’t qualify for any federal financial aid, so I mostly pay out of pocket, rely on college scholarships, or any state grants. UNT does their best to make sure DACA students don’t feel alone. The school sends out emails talking about the legal counseling services they have available and information about guest speaker events concerning DACA and immigration. They’ve always kept us updated on any resources we may need.”

What would you like others to know about DACA?

“DACA isn’t free. You have to pay to apply for the program and pass a background check. To qualify you had to have been here before 2007, be under 30 years old, and it must be renewed every two years. DACA is just a way for us to be able to go to college and have a job. We pay our taxes, for the application, and our driver licenses every two years. It’s not cheap. Most of us came into this country with a legal visa. Many people have been waiting decades for their citizenship. Us Dreamers just want to be given the same opportunity to show we’re not criminals. We work hard for everything we have.”

DACA is a reform that benefits thousands of people living within the U.S. as it helps them feel safe in their own homes. It can also be beneficial for the country as a whole. For more information on DACA, please check the links below.  

US Citizen and Immigration Services DACA information

DACA Litigation Timeline – National Immigration Law Center

Dream Act of 2017 Bill Summary