As young immigrants whose parents came illegally to the U.S. flocked to learn more about the Obama administration’s “deferred action” program, which would allow them to stay in the country and work without threat of deportation, many colleges prepared to inform their students about the program and help them to apply.
The deferred action program, established by President Obama, allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16 to get a two-year work permit if they are enrolled in or have graduated from high school, served in the military or earned a G.E.D; have no felony convictions; and have lived in the United States for at least five years. (This paragraph has been updated to reflect that students enrolled in high school are also eligible.)
While many students in the U.S. illegally, as well as their advocates, view the policy as potentially life-changing, its direct impact on higher education is limited. Students who are eligible to remain in the country under deferred action don’t gain legal status and won’t be able to receive federal financial aid. Nor will they qualify for in-state tuition, unless they live in one of the 13 states that grant students in-state tuition regardless of immigration status, or unless states begin accepting deferred action status -- rather than legal residency -- as a qualification for in-state rates.
Even the latest version of the DREAM Act, which would provide a permanent path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children -- and which many young activists see as an ultimate goal -- would not permit them to get federal financial aid or in-state tuition.
When the deferred action program was first announced  in June, many students who are in the country illegally greeted it with a mix of hope and trepidation. They feared that applying for deferred action could mean singling their families out for deportation, or that the situation could change if Mitt Romney wins the presidency in November.
The Obama administration has worked to ease concern about enforcement, in part by handling requests for deferred action through a different agency than the one that handles deportations. And despite some lingering concerns, colleges are working to more fully explain the program to students and to help them apply if they choose.
Some of those informational programs are in the states where illegal immigrants are most common: Texas, New York, Illinois and California. At the University of Texas Pan-American, about 600 students are believed to be eligible for deferred action, said Robert S. Nelsen, the university’s president. More than 300 came to an emotional four-hour information session Wednesday night, the first day students could apply.
The university’s Minority Affairs Council, which has advocated for DREAM Act-eligible students, brought in three lawyers to talk about the application process, Nelsen said. Many students remain concerned about the potential impact on their families and about the outcome of the presidential election. The application fee of $465, meant to defray the cost of administering the program, is also prohibitive for many.
At the University of Houston, where about 1,000 students are eligible for deferred action, students who work in the law school’s clinic will help process applications. Right now, the university’s focus is on reaching out to students who are interested and making sure they know that the law clinic is available to help, said Janet Heppard, director of the law center’s clinical programs. In most cases, the lawyers and law students will advise the students about deferred action, but the students will file the papers themselves -- a process that can be perilous, since lying on the detailed application can trigger deportation.
“The bigger thing that we’re trying to do is get the information out to the students,” Heppard said. “We don’t want them come up with the notarios,” unlicensed immigration consultants who charge high fees in exchange for the promise of a green card or other legal documents, “who often pretend to be attorneys and are not. It’s my understanding if they don’t do it correctly the first time they’re not going to get a second chance.”
The City University of New York, which operates a full-time citizenship and immigration office, has heard from about 1,000 students interested in the program after only minimal outreach, said Sofia Carreño, communications coordinator for Citizenship Now!, the college’s immigration law center.
As at Pan-American, many students are concerned about what might happen to them should Romney win the presidency. Romney hasn’t said whether he will continue the policy if elected. Carreño said students should apply regardless. “We’re basically encouraging them to apply,” she said. “We don’t think that’s something they should be concerned about.”
The first week of applications will see information sessions at campuses around the country -- not just in immigration-heavy states such as Texas, Florida and Nevada, but also at Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana; Linn-Benton Community College, in Oregon; Union County College, in Elizabeth, N.J.; and many others.
But the issue hits particularly close to home at Pan-American, less than 25 miles from the Rio Grande. Students at the forum worried not just about themselves and their family members, but about high school classmates who dropped out and wouldn’t be eligible for deferred action, Nelsen said. The university intends to do all it can to help those students get G.E.D.s.
As well as connecting students and would-be applicants with resources, Nelsen says he plans to raise money -- although not through the university’s development office -- to help pay for students’ applications. The university is urging students to apply as quickly as they can.
“Somebody who was there yesterday wrote a check for $500 for one of the students,” Nelsen said. But “with 600 students, that’s a lot of money.”