With the onset of another school year, students, families and administrators are bracing for another round of SAT scores, graduation preparation and, often, exorbitant levels of student debt. But lost among these overwhelming figures lies an oft-forgotten statistic: Each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools, but few of these students can even dream of higher education.
Federal law bars undocumented students from accessing federal student financial aid. On the state level, aid also remains unattainable and in-state public colleges require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, grounding the educational ambitions of a vast and crucial segment of the population.
The 2016 election brought discussion of immigration and the rights of undocumented people to the forefront of national dialogue. And beneath the inflammatory rhetoric, there lies a serious debate about what the U.S. government owes to global citizens in the form of foreign aid, and, closer to home, to the millions of undocumented immigrants who have woven themselves into the fabric of this nation.
The conventional, primary function of the government — to promote the welfare of its citizens — seemingly overlooks the needs of undocumented immigrants, rendering it a foregone conclusion that, at the very least, American students ought to receive priority for limited financial resources over immigrant students.
But many of these undocumented students arrived in this country at a young age, with hope and fear in their hearts as they embarked on a new and dangerous journey paved with hatred, dangers and inequity. And of the United States’ undocumented immigrants, eight of the roughly 11 million are employed, but nearly half of those employed pay Social Security taxes and all of them pay taxes in other forms, such as excise, sin and sales taxes. These immigrants contribute to the nation monetarily in myriad fashions – it’s time the United States not only recognized their efforts but also facilitated opportunities for further economic growth through higher education.
DACA, short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a law passed under President Barrack Obama, allows those who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation as well as work permit eligibility, and it remains the law of the land. A general bipartisan consensus is that pathways to citizenship represent the way forward on the immigration front. Eighty-four percent of Americans favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, according to a Gallup poll from 2016). When it comes to immigrants already in the country, it makes little sense to stifle the educational pursuits of future citizens and a workforce that will help stabilize the economy and social security system. And with only a small percentage of the electorate willing to stomach mass deportations, immigrants, who are statistically more law-abiding than native-born Americans, deserve every opportunity to contribute fully to America’s economic vitality.
Yet few Americans wish to see undocumented students compete with American citizens for coveted financial aid and loans. Even fewer wish to extrapolate the case study of Los Angeles, where different marginalized populations struggle for precious resources. Though monetary resources may be finite, and as idealistic as this proposition may be, the United States must resolve to prioritize education opportunities and outcomes for all students.
Regardless of whether the federal and state governments ought to help finance undocumented students’ education, the public sector consistently fails to fulfill its responsibilities from fighting hunger and homelessness to boosting education. This can sometimes necessitate the intervention of the private sector to fill in the gaps. But the private assumption of public obligations raises the question of how large a role the private sector ought to play, especially in the case of education.
In light of these restrictive federal and state policies, nonprofits have stepped up to the challenge. TheDream.US has committed close to $43 million to 1,700 undocumented students this year. And smaller organizations, such as the Noble Network of Charter Schools has dedicated $2 million to a small class of students.
Philanthropy for the financing of undocumented students’ college plans represents another facet of the privatization of education. But instead of public dollars funding access to private education, as seen with the voucher system supported by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, private dollars fund access to public education.
Despite the laudable nature of this goal, private philanthropy can only go so far and cover so many students. The United States must not allow charitable donations to mask its own failures, because without reform at the state and federal level, tens of thousands of students will be denied higher education and better livelihoods. If America as a country truly believes in this ideal of education for all, then it must commit to equal access to college for all students, undocumented or not.