Student’s Fight for In-State Tuition Illustrates Limits of the DACA Program

Contrary to popular belief Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival doesn't guarantee in-state tuition for undocumented students.

By Aura Bogado Jan 28, 2014

David Escalante remembers the day President Obama announced what would become the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program nearly two years ago. "I was so excited that I started screaming to my mom and my brother," explains Escalante, who is now 20. That’s because, along with an estimated one million undocumented youth, Escalante would soon be eligible for temporary relief from deportation. DACA would also mean the opportunity to obtain a work permit, a driver’s license, and in-state tuition to attend college in Florida, which he’s called home since he first arrived as child 13 years ago.

President Obama introduced DACA during the 2012 election cycle, responding not only to a looming election day, but also to undocumented youth who camped out in his campaign offices urging the president to take executive action to defend them from detention and deportation.

The program is a quick substitute in place of Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act legislation. Like the DREAM Act, DACA is a federal program, which means that while recipients are authorized to work, each state gets to decide whether these undocumented youth can also acquire driver’s licenses and in-state tuition. 

In Florida, the state’s Board of Governors issues guidelines for establishing Florida residency, and includes a vast number of immigrant classes, including asylees and refugees, permanent residents, and a broad list of visa categories. The Board of Governors does not recognize DACA students for in-state tuition; it’s up to each of the state’s colleges and universities to provide it to these students.

Escalante was among the first wave of students to apply for DACA. With the help of a legal clinic, he finalized his application and it was submitted to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), in September 2012. That November, the agency asked him to submit his photo and fingerprints and  in January 2013, Escalante was approved. When he got his work permit in the mail, he checked his case status on the USCIS website which indicated that he was approved for DACA.

Escalante, who graduated from high school with a 3.5 grade point average, found full-time work. Because most schools in Florida don’t offer in-state tuition to DACA students, he decided to keep working and save money before returning to school.In fall 2013, Miami Dade College, which boasts 160,000 students, announced that it would begin waiving out-of-state tuition for DACA recipients, although funds for the program are limited. This was the school for Escalante. 

"[These students] are truly Florida residents, they’ve lived here all their lives" says Miami Dade College Registrar Dulce Beltran. "As Floridians, we’ve already invested thousands of dollars into these students because we’ve already put them through high school."

The policy, which allows DACA students to pay the in-state tuition of $1,500 per semester rather than the international student rate of $5,000 per semester, doesn’t always run as smoothly as it looks on paper.

Escalante decided to apply for spring 2013 semester. Although he had his driver’s license and work permit, he knew he’d never received what’s called an "alien receipt"–a document he’d need to apply for school. He called USCIS and held for about 90 minutes to talk to an agent who told him that his alien receipt had been sent to the legal clinic that helped him file. Fortunately the clinic had the receipt in its files. 

"I filled everything out, provided all the documentation and applied for the waiver," Escalante recalls. The school asked for more proof of residency, and he provided it. Still, his initial application was denied. "They gave me a piece of paper that said that my DACA case was under review for an address change."

Although Escalante had physical paperwork that proved that he’s a DACA recipient, the USCIS’s website indicated that his case was under initial review. He was confused because he had never changed addresses. (USCIS would not talk on the record about this case.)

Miami Dade College was put in a hard position. Although the college created a program for students just like Escalante it relies on what the USCIS website says about a student’s status at any given time rather than paper documents. Essentially, a glitch in the system can determine whether students like Escalante pay $1,500 or $5,000 a semester. 

Fearful that he would both be charged out-of-state tuition that he couldn’t afford, and that he would receive withdrawal or incomplete grades on his transcript, Escalante decided to drop his classes before they even started earlier this month. "Five thousand dollars is a lot of money," explains Escalante. "But I was calm about my decision, because I have to look out for myself and do what’s right for me."

Escalante had been in touch with an administrator, however, who was in his corner. That person, who he would rather not name on the record, sent him an e-mail, he went for a visit. Just like that, says Escalante, the school was able to work something out. Escalante had the support of his family, and his brothers in particular, who had already been through the in-state tuition process. But students who aren’t already in touch with administrators, or don’t have the support or information needed to navigate a tricky system could just decide that the system isn’t working for them and drop out of school altogether.

Although registrar Beltran cannot comment on this particular case because of privacy concerns, she says about three students have been in a similar position, but that the burden to prove their status is on them, not on the school. Either way, Escalante is now registered and attending classes. Rather than dealing with immigration status issues, he can now concentrate on keeping his grades up. Still working full time, Escalante will now need to maintain a 2.0 grade point average in order to take advantage of his school’s out-of-state waiver. He already missed his first week of college, but is nevertheless confident he will excel this term.

Escalante’s story has a seemingly good ending. But it doesn’t really satisfy him. Throughout the time we talked, he repeated his frustration that Florida’s legislature has failed its students by not passing a statewide DREAM Act.

Florida might be moved to do just that if a bill recently introduced in Congress gains traction. Tanya Broder, who works with the National Immigration Law Center, says that a so-called American Dream Grant program would take a unique approach to encourage states to welcome undocumented students. "[This bill] would provide incentives to states that choose to support access, and improve access to higher education for immigrant students by either offering in-state tuition or by offering grants or loans or scholarships to them," says Broder. She adds that Florida could also pass a tuition equity law.

Activists have been pushing lawmakers to pass some kind of DREAM Act for quite some time; seven such bills have died in committee, and four more are currently stuck there. In a surprising move, the state’s GOP House Speaker, Will Weatherford, published an op-ed on Monday in support of in-state tuition for undocumented students, and writes that he will champion a bill to make it happen. Such legislation which could mark a major turn for Florida.

But Escalante’s story illustrates how limited DACA is at the individual level. A statewide DREAM Act would fix the problem in Florida–but not in other sates with similar policies. A federal DREAM Act won’t fix in-state tuition across the board–neither will the American Dream Grant. Even if it passes, some states will surely deny help to undocumented and DACA students. As for Escalante, his problem could also have been solved by a slight tweak in the Board of Governor’s guidelines. His status could also be properly reflected on the USCIS website. And even still, Miami Dade College could choose to ignore the federal website, and go by physical documents. Even when students are approved for DACA, their options still vary from state to state, and from institution to institution.

Before Escalante found a solution for this predicament, he says he felt like he was somehow at fault for a problem he didn’t create. "I felt like I was being punished for something that was out of my hands," says Escalante–who did everything as right as possible.