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The pandemic disrupted ‘dreamers.’ Can Biden’s spending bill get them back on track?

Angel Mendoza of Baltimore had to drop out of school when the pandemic cost him his job. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When colleges went virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, they threw a wrench into Yohali and Angel Mendoza’s plans to continue their education at Baltimore City Community College. Yohali wasn’t getting the in-person training required to become a nurse, and Angel would log into virtual classes to discover his teachers simply weren’t there.

Being a college student in the middle of a public health crisis was hard enough. But they faced an additional obstacle: Both were undocumented, and the pandemic was making an already complicated process even more difficult to navigate, 23-year-old Yohali Mendoza said.

They both lost their jobs, and when federal coronavirus stimulus checks started to roll out, they didn’t qualify as recipients because of their status. As the weeks went by, they needed money that once covered books and bus passes for their basic needs. Tuition was out of the question.

In the spring of 2020, both dropped out of community college. They haven’t been able to return since.

Undocumented immigrants like Angel and Yohali have limited resources to finance their education. While they can apply for state scholarships in some parts of the country, they are shut out from federal student loans and grants that keep many of their peers enrolled. That could change if Democrats can shepherd President Biden’s Build Back Better — or certain elements of it — plan through Congress.

A provision in the $2 trillion legislative package would open financial aid eligibility to undocumented students shielded from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Obama-era program for immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children has allowed young people, known as “dreamers,” to live and work in the country but without a path to citizenship.

Federal financial aid could be a critical lifeline for undocumented students, who like other vulnerable populations are still enduring the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, but it might not be enough. And even that is hardly a sure thing: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said Sunday that he would not vote for the measure in the Senate, dimming its prospects for passage.

Perspective: Losing DACA would, on top of everything else, double my college tuition

Angel was 5 and Yohali was 8 when their mom brought them to the United States from Mexico. When they finished high school, their immigration status became an obstacle to applying to college, they said.

“So many things that I didn't think were going to be important became more important,” 20-year-old Angel Mendoza said.

Neither of them could apply for assistance through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or even consider taking out a loan. They joined the Mayor’s Scholars Program, a scholarship that covers tuition for former Baltimore City high-schoolers if they complete an associate’s degree in three years, but money was still short to cover transportation, food and other daily expenses.

When their community college shut down last year, Angel lost his job as a restaurant busser. The lockdown meant Yohali wasn’t able to help her mom clean houses. The uncertainty of whether they were going to be able to pay for their next semester spurred their decision to drop out, they said.

There was supposed to be money to help students like Angel and Yohali, but politics got in the way.

Since the spring of 2020, Congress has earmarked $35 billion in emergency aid for college students facing housing, employment and food insecurities during the pandemic. But the Trump administration said only students who can participate in the federal financial aid program can receive money — effectively shutting out the undocumented.

The policy was challenged in a series of lawsuits, including one brought by California Community Colleges that resulted in the courts imposing a preliminary injunction. Although the Biden administration abandoned the Trump-era rule in May, higher education leaders say that by then the damage was done.

“That omission was extremely hurtful,” said Félix Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York. “There is no way, even with the best fundraising efforts, that we could meet the amount of financial support [our undocumented students] could have received if they were included.”

Many colleges and universities have used their own money to assist undocumented students during the pandemic, but they said the demand outpaced the supply.

A number of colleges routinely offer institutional grants to undocumented students, and around 30 selective schools cover their demonstrated financial need — the difference between the cost of attendance and expected family contribution. But those schools are more the exception than the rule. And 14 states, including California, Maryland and New York, and the District offer undocumented students state financial aid, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

“There’s a level of concession that you sort of have to make because of your status,” said Ronnie James, 24, a DACA participant and the community engagement coordinator at UndocuBlack Network, a national organization led by Black immigrants. “Federal financial aid is sort of the bare minimum but a starting ground that would take off a lot of the stress.”

For him, that concession was not being able to go to aviation school and instead pursuing a different degree, in communications. It’s not that he lacked the skill to become a pilot, but only citizens or lawful permanent residents can get a license. “You’re sort of walking around with a permanent handicap that the law finds just.”

James, who migrated from Barbados to reunite with his mother when he was 9 years old, paid his tuition with funding through TheDream.US, an organization that provides financial support to dreamers who want to attend college. As a former New York City high school graduate, he also qualified for in-state tuition. But tuition security wasn’t his main concern, he said. It was finding ways to make ends meet.

Even if an undocumented student completes their degree, they may not be able to get a license to practice after graduation. Only six states — California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico — allow undocumented immigrants to obtain occupational licenses in all professions, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Twelve others grant access in a few fields.

Here’s how part of Biden’s coalition in Nevada feel about the centerpiece legislation of his domestic agenda. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There is a disparity between state policy and the messaging from institutions of higher education, said Kai Martin, 37, a fellow at Immigrants Rising, an organization that provides support to undocumented young people.

Cardona opens emergency grants to undocumented college students

“We’re encouraged to go to college, but we’re not reminded that we have to consider whether the state would allow us to take the professional licensing,” said Martin, who migrated from Trinidad and Tobago and applied for DACA when she was 29.

Martin wanted to be a lawyer, but because of her immigration status, she would be able to practice law only in a few states, she said. “That was a barrier for me in particular,” she said. She completed her graduate studies in public policy at George Washington University this year, and part of the reason she chose that career is that she doesn’t need a license.

Martin also said her graduate program suggested taking internships that she didn’t qualify for because they were federally funded.

On part of the Build Back Better Act holds out hope for undocumented students, but the financial aid provision has its limitations. It would cover fewer than half of the 427,000 undocumented students in higher education, according to an analysis of census data by New American Economy, an immigration research and advocacy organization. Eligibility would extend only to DACA recipients and students granted legal residence through the temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure immigration programs.

“It’s a crucial first step … but it’s clearly not enough,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of college leaders that advocates on immigration issues. “The goal needs to be the expansion of financial aid to all undocumented students. They should be treated as other domestic students, students who have grown up here, who have been educated here, who want to contribute to the future workforce.”

Katia Elisea Escobar, 18, a first-generation college student at the University of Houston and United We Dream activist, was blocked from receiving protection through DACA, following a July decision by a federal judge in Houston.

“In an instant it all crumbled away, and I was back to my starting point,” said Escobar, who grew up in Dallas since she was 1.

Escobar still applied to college this year, and through a private scholarship managed to pay for her first semester. Unable to get authorization to work, she has relied on campus resources and pantries the university provides for food-insecure students, she said.

Her journey has taken a toll on her, but she doesn’t want that to define who she is, she said. DACA could help Escobar secure a job to help pay for education. But with a pathway toward citizenship, she said, she would be able to secure her future.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of a photo caption in this story said that Ronnie James is from Barbados. He is from St. Lucia.]