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Immigration Reform 2014: How Obama's Executive Action Benefits Undocumented Students

Last month, President Obama announced an historic executive action related to current U.S. immigration policy. The order focuses on three major issues: 1) cracking down on illegal immigration at the border; 2) the deportation of undocumented felons; and 3) criminal background checks and tax requirements for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years. While immigration issues are still very divisive (some members of Congress are even threatening another government shutdown over the issue), this action has the potential to help ease the stigma of undocumented immigration and the fear of deportation for students young and old.

According to recent research, the stress associated with immigration and deportation has a profound effect on younger students. One study by the University of Arizona illustrates how the passage of passage of the state’s immigration law (S.B.1070) affected public-school students in the state, with reported declining rates of student attendance and an increase in stress-related health issues at area schools.

But for young immigrant students, parental separation as a result of deportation is not only psychologically harmful; it can also be harmful to their learning. One study proves that children who read to their parents at home regularly improved their skills even more than children who had extra tutoring at school. That means that present parents can support their children’s literacy development in powerful ways. And the benefits go both directions. A study from the Harvard Educational Review describes how parents from four different Mexican immigrant families, despite limited parental education, used texts like letters and newspapers to read to their kids while developing their own English language skills.

Parental separation as a result of deportation is not only psychologically harmful; it can also be harmful to young immigrants' learning.

President Obama’s executive order will provide allow a greater number of undocumented immigrant parents to be present in their young children’s formative years and early education. That will allow for those families to have an academic experience in the home, where both parents and students are learning.

The executive action also allows for new benefits for undocumented college students in the United States. Without fear of being deported, undocumented students could have a greater opportunity to finish their high school education and take advantage of in-state tuition and state financial aid programs. For example, undocumented students who graduate from high school, reside in state, and meet other specific requirements can pay discounted tuition rates in Connecticut. For the 2014-15 academic year at the University of Connecticut (Storrs Campus), in-state tuition cost undergrads $9,858 – a third the price of out-of-state tuition, set at $30,038. That sort of discount, along with access to state financial aid, could make an especially big difference for undocumented students, who can’t access federal financial aid and student loans.

Take the story of Daniel Leon-Davis, now 25 and working as chief of staff for a high-level political adviser to Russell Simmons. In 2008, he was an undocumented high-school student applying to college. He was accepted to all of the schools he applied for and received scholarship money. But later in the process, David lost all of his scholarship money from the universities that had accepted him after they discovered his immigration status. And because he and his mother were undocumented, they could not qualify for federal aid to help cover the costs, or even food stamps to help put dinner on the table.

Many undocumented students, like Leon-Davis, also try to work full-time while in school, both to support themselves and their families, and to afford the steep tuition costs. Although working can create obstacles to graduating, the extra resources could make all the difference for many undocumented students. This executive action will grant some undocumented immigrants legal residency and make them eligible for driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and work authorization. This means students can work legally while they’re in school — and it may help them find more employment opportunities after graduating.

Of course, while Obama’s executive action gives hope to millions of undocumented families, it leaves important obstacles in place. The order only halts deportations for some immigrants for a span of three years. While that’s still a significant amount of time, it does not rule out deportation after that window closes. That could mean the families affected by this action and the lives of their children could still be seriously disrupted by deportation — just not for the next few years. And the political concerns over the policy change are significant, too; massive gains by House and Senate Republicans who oppose the action may make it difficult to discuss and negotiate immigration policy writ large.

Here at EdCentral, we’ll be watching to see what happens next — and hoping that the next changes to federal immigration policy will do even more to help ease stress in the lives of students.