Sixteen years ago, my parents decided to leave their beloved homeland of Mexico to give their three daughters a life without poverty. They reminded me every day that my education would set me free, but I did not understand what it meant to be undocumented until high school. I realized then that I was never going to be free. In 2012, with the creation of DACA, I felt relief, peace and security for the first time. I never wanted my immigration status to determine my accomplishments. With DACA, I was able to intern at the Virginia General Assembly; work with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the largest statewide advocacy voice for the faith community in Virginia; and, most importantly, enroll in college.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, where I study, I co-founded UndocuRams, a student organization advocating for undocumented students and educating others about the obstacles we face in higher education. Supreme Court precedent guarantees K-12 education for all regardless of immigration status, but the law does not guarantee access to higher education. In 2014, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring allowed for DACA recipients to establish domicile, granting me in-state tuition. My total college cost at VCU is $14,596 per year; without it, I would owe $35,904 annually. Besides exposing me to the risk of deportation, losing DACA would also mean I immediately would lose in-state tuition, nearly doubling my costs and putting a college education out of reach.
Education should be accessible to anyone, regardless of their immigration status, but my education is dependent on whether I lose my DACA status. Losing access to a college education would place a huge economic cost on students like me and on the state. Here in Virginia, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree make $65,000 per year on average, compared with $35,000 for those with just a high school diploma, translating to an extra $1.2 million in earnings over a lifetime. And there’s a need for more college-educated workers: One VCU study found that there are more than 27,000 job vacancies in Virginia that require at least an associate degree and 18,000 requiring a bachelor’s, including in health care, technology, transportation and education — all areas in which DACA recipients are already working.
There is a solution. States like Virginia can adopt legislation to guarantee in-state tuition to all state residents regardless of immigration status. This would include those like me, people already in college who are in danger of losing DACA status. Several states have already made such laws, including Florida, Maryland, Texas and Utah, giving undocumented students the freedom of paying in-state tuition. Some states, like New York and California, even offer financial assistance.
Last week’s election presents an opportunity for the Virginia General Assembly to take concrete action to guarantee undocumented students continue our education. The cost would be negligible: There are fewer than 500 DACA students in four-year public colleges in Virginia, and fewer than 1,000 at community colleges. Simply allowing us to pay the same tuition as other students would help build a more inclusive commonwealth, promote economic growth and work development, and strengthen Virginia universities.
The Trump administration’s attacks on DACA (as well as temporary protected status, which confers legal status to immigrants from many countries) have left the lives of millions of us in the balance. An overwhelming majority of Americans disagree with the administration and think that protecting DACA recipients is the right thing to do: Two-thirds of Americans support legal status for “dreamers,” and nearly 9 in 10 support extending DACA.
Losing DACA would not only be a terrible blow for me, but for all sorts of others like me: the working mother who keeps two jobs to feed her children, my friends who are construction workers, my neighbor who owns a small business, the families who have been able to accomplish their lifetime goal of owning their house. When the federal government fails to protect us, states must step up and do the right thing for their residents.