Undocumented students and the controversial path to affording college

Valedictorian: I am an undocumented immigrant
Valedictorian: I am an undocumented immigrant

A social media firestorm erupted last week after two Texas high school valedictorians revealed that they were undocumented immigrants heading to well-respected U.S. colleges with financial aid.

The first was Larissa Martinez, who divulged her undocumented status during her valedictory speech and told the crowd at her McKinney, Texas, high school graduation she would be attending Yale University with a financial aid package in the fall. A video of Martinez's speech sparked a fierce debate on Facebook and Twitter.

A day later, Mayte Lara Ibarra, who lives in Austin, boldly outed herself with a tweet, "Valedictorian, 4.5 GPA, full tuition paid for at UT, 13 cords/medals, nice legs, oh and I'm undocumented."

The fact that Ibarra was enrolling in a state school -- the University of Texas -- with all tuition paid, sparked another slew of social media posts expressing outrage over undocumented students gaining admission at state colleges and universities and receiving financial aid.

undocumented mayte lara tweet
Ibarra's tweet fueled a debate over whether undocumented students's attendance at state schools.

Since President Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) four years ago, many undocumented immigrants, like Martinez and Ibarra, have been able to come out from the shadows and take advantage of new opportunities, like going to college, paying tuition as an in-state resident and even securing financial aid.

Related: I want to bring health care to undocumented immigrants

Undocumented immigrants who qualify for DACA status are able to legally work, get a driver's license and secure a temporary Social Security number. The status is renewable every two years.

While DACA is not a legal designation like "asylum seeker" or "refugee," which provide paths to citizenship, it does give beneficiaries a "legal presence" and allows them to establish residency in the U.S. That opens the doorway for a handful of benefits, including attendance at public colleges as in-state residents.

Still, not all states allow students with DACA status to take advantage of cheaper in-state tuition or gain access to financial aid packages.

undocumented mayte ibarra larissa martinez
Undocumented students making waves. Mayte Lara Ibarra (left) and Larissa Martinez (right.)

Michael A. Olivas, a DACA law scholar at the University of Houston-Downtown who has been tracking the states' policies, says just 19 states allow both undocumented students with and without DACA status, to establish residency and attend state colleges as in-state students. Of those, six -- including Texas, Washington and New Mexico -- allow them to get state-sponsored financial aid.

Olivas has also been working with the Mexican Legal Defense Fund to secure educational access for undocumented students in states that block them from attending state colleges as residents and from getting financial aid. Currently, at least seven -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Montana and South Carolina -- do so, he said.

A photo posted by UndocuMedia (@undocumedia) on

Other states, like Michigan and Ohio, don't have set policies, said Olivas. Instead, they leave it up to the individual colleges and universities to decide.

In some cases, they've been successful at getting state policies changed. In 2015, an Arizona state judge ruled that Maricopa County Community College must allow DACA students to claim resident tuition there. Arizona has since extended the resident tuition policy to other public colleges in the state.

Related: Fighting for immigrant rights in the Deep South

Private universities tend to handle undocumented students in a different manner and enroll them as international students. Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Harvard and Princeton have all said that applicants are considered regardless of their citizenship and immigration status. And New York University recently announced a pilot program offering institutional scholarships for undocumented students.

Since 2012, 728,000 undocumented immigrants have gained protection under DACA, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

As a result, the number of undocumented students attending college in the U.S. -- that is, people who are not officially recognized by the federal government -- has dropped sharply. In fact, there are now more DACA students in U.S. colleges than undocumented students, according to Harvard sociologist Roberto Gonzales.

The National Undocumented Research Project recently completed a five-year study where it interviewed 2,700 DACA eligible adults to understand DACA's impact.

Respondents reported a range of feelings about their inclusion in American society:

From acceptance: "It's not citizenship, but at least it's something."

To it's not enough: "[Americans say] we're gonna give you permission to live here, but at any point we can just kick you out. We don't have any obligation to you."

Related: I'm no 'anchor baby,' I'm Michele Cantos -- and I'm giving back

But one thing was consistent among almost all of them.

"For hundreds of thousands of people, it's lifted their lives," said Gonzales.

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