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High school students’ future, college dreams tougher to divine with DACA ending

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Many current high school students with temporary immigration status won’t be protected by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program until they graduate.

That could make it difficult for 16-year-old Karla Vasquez of St. Louis and others to plan for their future, including whether to go to college in the United States. Karla already is thinking of going to another country or returning to Honduras, where she lived until she was 3, because she doesn’t want to live in fear of being deported.

“I don’t want to break the law in any certain type of way or form, and I don’t want to stay here illegally because I know how it is, and it’s not the best way to be living,” she said, adding, “I wish I could stay here because I find this place like my home, and in my heart it is my home.”

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was implemented during former President Barack Obama's administration, allowing young immigrants living in the country who were brought illegally here as children to remain in the U.S. It does not convey legal status but allows temporary protection from deportation and permission to legally work. 

President Donald Trump's administration announced last week that the U.S. government will stop renewing the permits Oct. 5, meaning an estimated 800,000 people have less than two years until their permits expire if Congress doesn’t step in and pass a new law protecting such immigrants. About 350,000 middle school and high school students are eligible for DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Karla’s DACA permit expires in June 2019, less than a month after she expects to graduate from Cleveland Jr. Naval Academy in St. Louis.

“I feel a bit frustrated because we haven’t done anything. We only came here when we were little, not by our choice,” Karla said, adding she’s felt unwelcome ever since, before she applied for DACA, she found out that she was brought to the U.S. without legal permission.

“It wasn’t our choice to come here, and if our parents brought us here it was because of fear. Fear of crimes probably happening in our country, poverty, corruption, things that were out of the control of our parents, and they wanted us to have a better future,” she said.


Immigration attorney Kristine Walentik is encouraging all of her clients protected under the program, Karla included, to apply for college despite the possibility of losing their protected immigration status.

“They are able to study regardless of their status. It will, unfortunately, make it harder to find a job out of college,” Walentik said.

The University of MissouriSaint Louis UniversityWashington University, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and St. Louis Community College, among others, issued statements last week n support of the students with this special immigration status.

High school counselors also play a crucial role in helping younger DACA students look forward, said Shari Sevier, the director of advocacy for the Missouri School Counselor Association.

“We’re looking at things like working with students, helping them to review their documentation,” Sevier said. “I’m always the eternal optimist. Let’s wait to see what happens. Let’s plan. Let’s work closely with the college. Let’s talk to the college about those what-ifs.”

It’s also possible high school students could get “special immigrant juvenile status” or “not have the same penalties that adults have,” said Walentik, who works at the St. Francis Community Services Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry.

But DACA students are ineligible for federal aid, and, in Missouri, are ineligible for state scholarships. Missouri’s public universities charge students who are in the country illegally the higher, international student tuition rate.

Karla still plans to go to college, but she’s considering a school in another country.

“Maybe I’ll still apply (to universities in the U.S.),” Karla said. “Maybe, in hopes that something might happen in that time.”

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille