Why DACA matters to USF and the nation

Photo of Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Screen grab from nytimes.com

Earlier this week, under the direction of President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.  Under his order the approximately 800,000 registered DACA individuals will see their legalized status in this country end in six months, subjecting them to deportation and other administrative actions.  The president encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would provide a permanent legalization of the status of DACA registrants, but only if it did so as part of a comprehensive immigration reform plan – something Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, has been unable to do for decades.

Trump’s decision was not unexpected; during the campaign last year the Republican nominee had promised to rescind DACA as one of his first acts if he was elected.  This was just one part of his campaign promises around immigration, others of which – such as the ban on travel from majority Muslim countries – have already been put into place.  But this action is different in that affects almost one million individuals who have been in the country for at least a decade (eligibility criteria for DACA include continuous residence in the United States since June 15, 2007).

The DACA decision was met with much displeasure, not just from Democrats in Washington but from some Republicans as well.  Before the announcement, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told CNN, “I actually don’t think he should do that [end DACA].  I believe that this is something that Congress has to fix.”  While agreeing with the president that Congress should incorporate the program into law, the Speaker believed the president should not have ended the program before such legislation could be passed.  John Cornyn (R-Texas) told The Week that DACA registrants “continue to make positive contributions to Texas and the nation.”

Reaction from college and universities around the country has been uniformly negative as well.  Fr. Paul Fitzgerald, president of USF, issued a statement that started,

The University of San Francisco vigorously opposes the decision President Trump has made to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy.  He has ignored bipartisan advice from members of Congress, dismissed recommendations from leaders in the educational, business, and legal communities, and turned his back on 800,000 young people who are now at risk of losing their freedom and future in the only country they have known.

Other higher education institutions and associations used similar language as well. The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities compiled excerpts from the statements from a number of its 28 member institutions.  Ted Mitchell, newly-named president of the American Council on Education, said before Sessions’ announcement,

We are extremely disappointed that, according to multiple media reports, the Trump administration tomorrow will announce that it is rescinding a policy that has allowed a group of exceptional young people brought to this country as infants or children, to make contributions to American society and the economy by working, serving in the military or attending college.

University of California President Janet Napolitano – who ironically helped to craft the DACA program when she was Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration – announced today that her institution has filed suit to stop the president’s action, stating,

I’m really outraged on behalf of our students, who have done everything that has been asked of them.  Most of them know only the United States as home. To say that they have to be thinking about possible deportation is wrong on the law, inconsistent with our value and bad immigration policy.

Why are so many universities so concerned about this issue?  One reason is that many of us have DACA students on our campuses.  At USF, we have approximately 60-70 DACA students (we don’t know the exact number, as we don’t require that students identify them as a participant in DACA), and we don’t want to see any of them forced to leave the country that they have known for most of their lives.

Many DACA individuals could face deportation to their countries of birth, countries where many of them do not even speak the language.  We know from the stories we have heard from some of our DACA students that they have been in this country since they were very young, and have no memories of their lives before coming to the United States.  In order to be accepted into DACA, all had to meet the criterion  that they, “Have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.”  These individuals pose no threat to the safety of our country.

Many DACA registrants are already working full-time, paying taxes, and making important contributions to our economy and society.  Shortly before President Trump’s inauguration, the Center for American Progress released a study that found that eliminating the DACA program could reduce the U.S. gross domestic product by $433 billion over the next ten years.  California alone was estimated to lose over $11 billion annually if DACA is shut down.

These students have made commitments such as enrolling in a four-year university, taking out student loans, and moving across the country, based on an assumption that they would be able to work legally to help pay for their education while enrolled in college.  They were told they would be able to stay in the country after graduation in order to work to pay back their student loans.  Many of these students come from low- and moderate-income families, but are ineligible for federal financial aid, so many of them face college costs greater than other students.

At USF we try to help these students by backfilling for the loss of a federal Pell Grant by allocating more of our own scholarship resources to them.  Many already face significant barriers to completing college, including coming from under-resourced secondary schools, families who have had little experience with higher education and don’t speak English in the home, and the need to work in order to pay for college.  So we want to do all we can to help eliminate their financial barriers.

President Trump has asked Congress to incorporate DACA into law, but I am pessimistic that this will happen.  As I noted earlier, Congress hasn’t been able to tackle comprehensive immigration reform in decades.  It’s hard not to conclude that President Trump truly does want to drive these 800,000 young people out of the country, and that he’s simply trying to provide himself with political cover by shifting the responsibility to Congress for continuing the program.