For DACA Youth, Top Grades and Hard Work Not Enough

Emmanuel Diaz graduated third in his class at Appling County high school, in Baxley, Georgia, in 2013 – his grades and accomplishments so impressive that he won more than $20,000 in scholarships. This would have made Diaz a prime candidate for admission to the state’s top three schools: The University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia College & State University. But Diaz, whose mother brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 2 years old, is an undocumented immigrant. And though he is currently protected from deportation and authorized to work under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a 2010 university Board of Regents policy bars his admission from six top state universities if they have rejected a qualified citizen in the two years prior.

Not to be deterred, Diaz applied, and was accepted, to Armstrong State University, which had not rejected a qualified citizen. Nonetheless, because his status prevented him from receiving federal financial aid or in-state tuition rates, he struggled to pay his bills. ”My scholarship money ended up not even being enough to cover the first semester,” he says. Diaz works two jobs — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a church office in downtown Savannah, and 6 p.m. to midnight folding laundry at a local hotel — and his parents, who work on a cattle ranch and at a cotton gin, help.

With little time left to study, Diaz takes only a few classes at a time, all online. “I’m only doing online classes because it’s the cheapest form of classes I can take,” he explains. “If I take an on-campus course, it’s like $600 per credit hour; online it’s $232 a credit hour.” Diaz hopes he’ll be able to graduate in 2019, and would like to go to graduate school.

Diaz originally wanted to major is physics, a requirement for many jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The U.S. economy is projected to face a shortage of one million STEM workers by 2022, making students like Diaz critical. But the program at Armstrong is small, and Diaz had trouble fitting the classes into his busy working schedule. Now he’s majoring in business economics, and hopes to contribute to the U.S. workforce with a job in finance or business. He is one the 1.3 million young people currently eligible for DACA, although that number is expected to grow to 1.8 million as more youth age into the program. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older is employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year.  Of those employed, 4.5 percent are entrepreneurs with a combined annual business income of $659 million, a significant boost to local economies across the country.

They think if they can’t associate our faces with DACA it will be easier to cast out the 800,000 youth that are recipients of that. I’m going to show them who we are.

Diaz has already had to plan his life in two-year increments to meet DACA’s renewal requirements. But now that President Donald Trump has announced he will end the program unless Congress takes action, Diaz is uncertain whether he will even be able to remain in the only country he’s ever called home. In high school, before DACA, he was not authorized to work or to drive. Now that he has had a brief opportunity to come out of the shadows and fully contribute, he can’t imagine another life. “Before DACA, I always felt like I was walking a tightrope at 50 feet in the air with no safety net,” he says. “DACA finally provided me with that safety net, and that allowed me to be able to move forward more confidently.”

In an ideal world, Diaz would like to see all Dreamers, as DACA recipients are known, receive amnesty. “We are people who are trying to make progress in our lives, get an education, assimilate,” he says. But he’d be happy with a pathway to residency. “Something that would give undocumented immigrants a Social Security number, allow them to get a driver’s license, just provide an ease of mind,” he says. “You can’t even get a bank loan without those two things. Those little things are hindering a lot of people economically.”

Requiring applicants to pass citizenship and literacy tests to receive documented status is reasonable, he says. But the current process, which requires undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipients, to leave the country for 10 years before applying for residency is not, especially since the subsequent waiting line can add as much as 25 years. “They are basically saying to leave and not come back,” he says.

That’s why Diaz is risking his own safety by speaking out in favor of immigration reform. “They think if they can’t associate our faces with DACA it will be easier to cast out the 800,000 youth that are recipients of that,” he says. “I’m going to show them who we are.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…