An Especially Stressful Time for Dreamers

Survey of undocumented college students finds high level of anxiety around finances and the students' legal status.

September 30, 2020
Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of DACA rally in San Diego in June.

Undocumented immigrant college students, or Dreamers, are experiencing higher levels of anxiety about their legal status and increased financial and personal stresses due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey conducted by the scholarship-granting organization TheDream.US.

A total of 2,681 of the approximately 3,850 undergraduate students supported with scholarships from the organization completed the survey, which was administered in May and early June at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were growing across the country and the Supreme Court was deciding the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The survey closed on June 10, slightly more than a week before the Supreme Court issued a ruling striking down the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA, which provides work permits and protection against deportation to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Eighty-six percent of the survey respondents participate in DACA.

Although the Supreme Court blocked President Donald Trump from immediately ending the DACA program -- justices found the administration’s decision making “arbitrary and capricious” -- the court left the door open for Trump to take another stab at ending the program, which was established by former president Obama in 2012. The Trump administration said in July it will not process new applications for the program and limited the term for renewal of DACA status to one year instead of the customary two, despite a federal court order directing full restoration of the program.

The survey from TheDream.US found that 70 percent of respondents are “more” (32 percent) or “much more” (38 percent) anxious about their legal status since the start of the pandemic. More than half -- 55 percent -- see their legal status as a “very” or “extremely” significant barrier to achieving their long-term goals, compared to 44 percent in the previous year’s version of the survey.

The survey also found that COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on many Dreamers’ financial well-being. Many have lost jobs or had their work hours reduced. The percentage of students who work fell from 70 percent before the start of the pandemic to 43 percent after; 83 percent have an immediate family member who was laid off or whose hours were cut due to COVID-19.

"The continued volatility of the DACA program and absence of permanent protections or pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants constricts social mobility and opportunities to contribute more to the country that is their home. It also creates high levels of anxiety for their own safety and livelihood as well as for their family members -- who are often also undocumented," a report on the survey results states.

"Three-quarters of them are more anxious about their ability to financially support their families,” said Candy Marshall, the president of TheDream.US. “These are college students in their early 20s, and their worry is not just about how to pay for college -- it’s about their families and what they’re going to do to support them.

"Now in this time of heightened anxiety about their economic security, these students are also extraordinarily worried about their legal status, because if they lose their ability to work, in their minds all is lost," Marshall added. "It’s devastating what is happening to them right now."

Still, Marshall hailed the students' resilience and noted their 94 percent persistence rate from their first to second year, and their 88 percent persistence rate over all. Seventy-one percent of students surveyed said they plan to attend graduate school.

“My realization is this these students have lived with uncertainty from the moment they came into this country, and for them it is a way of life,” Marshall said.

Among other findings, 43 percent of students said their sense of community and belonging in the U.S. “decreased a lot” or “moderately” since the start of the pandemic, and 30 percent said their access to health care, including mental health care, has worsened.

The vast majority of the students, 94 percent, who lived in campus housing moved out after the pandemic forced their institutions to revert to virtual instruction last spring.

Students in general reported satisfaction with their college educations: 51 percent rated their college experience so far “good” and 28 percent called it “excellent.” More than three-quarters of students -- 77 percent -- said they were “moderately” or “very” satisfied with the support they’d received from professors since the start of the pandemic, and 82 percent said the same about staff.

The report on the survey results makes a number of recommendations for how colleges can support Dreamers in preparing for careers and graduate school by, for example, providing internships and apprenticeships to seniors and recent graduates, providing professional development and job placement services for students "with and without work authorization," and providing targeted resources for undocumented students applying to graduate school.

The report also recommends that colleges provide legal assistance for DACA renewal and other issues related to immigration status, and that they raise private funds for DACA renewal fees and for emergency grants for undocumented students. Undocumented immigrant students were excluded from federal stimulus funding authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Although the vast majority of students surveyed (86 percent) had DACA status, 3 percent held temporary protected status (TPS), 9 percent were undocumented and never had DACA or TPS, 1 percent had expired DACA or TPS status, and another 1 percent fell into an "other" category.

The students surveyed described concerns common to many other students, particularly other low-income students, and unique concerns related to their immigration status. In open-ended survey responses, they said they were worried about "the future of DACA," "graduating on time," "being able to find a job in my career field during this pandemic," "how to afford graduate school," "my children's health," "figuring out what I'm going to do after graduating" and "rent payment."

"I know I should be doing some internships by now to gain experience but I don't have a SSN [social security number] or ITIN [individual taxpayer identification number] to be able to even apply," one student said.

"Finishing the quarter strong," one student said in response to an open-ended response about their biggest concerns. "There is a lot going on in the world and in the country currently and I find everything very emotionally overwhelming which is impacting my studies."


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