22 Sep

Geographical Review Preview: DACA and the Differentiated Landscape for College Access: Experiences from a New Destination State

By: Marie Price, Ivana Mowry-Mora

What is the main purpose of your study? 

This study explains the challenges that undocumented youth face to access higher education in the Southern U.S., specifically in Virginia. Most of the students in this study have DACA, a status conferred by executive order that may cease to exist in June 2020 when the Supreme Court decides if President Trump can rescind this status.  Nearly 700,000 young people have DACA in the United States.  About 11% of youth with DACA reside in the US South.  DACA reduces the fear of deportation, provides work authorization, and facilitates access to a driving license.

Dr. Emma Violand Sanchez, the founder of the Dream Project, is shown mentoring college students in a summer workshop. The literature and this research affirm that positive relationships, strong networks, and guidance from caring adults are perhaps some of the most important factors for undocumented youth to access higher education.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study? 

People assume that if a student has DACA, it is the same no matter where they reside in the US.  This research shows that region, state, county, and school district can make a tremendous difference in the opportunities for undocumented youth. For example, Virginia is the only state in the US South that allows youth with DACA access to in-state tuition. We also found that support systems through schools, mentoring organizations, family engagement, and guidance by caring adults made a tremendous difference for undocumented youth to attend college. 

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?

This research expands current research on undocumented youth, which is centered on California, Florida, New York, and Texas, all states with historically large immigrant populations, to the new southern destination state of Virginia, especially northern Virginia. It connects to current  research on undocumented youth in higher education but explores the different dynamics of more recent waves of undocumented youth in Southern states who often face extreme discrimination when they seek higher education 

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study? 

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued an executive order on April 29, 2014 that gave Virginia high school graduates with DACA the ability to receive in-state tuition. He is standing with DACA students who were part of the Dream Project.

The “suffocation” of status uncertainty remains an issue for all undocumented youth in college, and so the local-level support systems that alleviate this uncertainty, such as strong public education infrastructure, diverse immigrant communities,  and family and friend networks play essential roles in mentally managing this precarity. The possible elimination of DACA status intensifies this sense of suffocation.

The interlocking of local, regional, and federal level is unique to this destination, as national-level immigration debates and the seat of federal power are at the doorstep of northern Virginia communities. This proximity to the nation’s capital was reflected in the survey responses and focus group with a strong tendency towards advocacy by the students and graduates, as well as an awareness of national-level contexts such as limitations on employment by status, as much of the economy in the region is reliant on federal government work, whether directly or indirectly. 

We argue that this variegated legal landscape shows signs of both inclusion and exclusion.  Virginia is a southern and new destination state that has only recently trended towards more inclusive policies, partly driven by the state’s changing demography and a realization of the economic value that highly educated immigrants bring to the state.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study? 

Place Effects: Although the master narrative of legal status is determined at the national level for undocumented youth, differentiated opportunities at the local and state levels create varying outcomes with specific place effects. 

Scalar Interaction: We contend that the actors, institutions, and multi-scalar networks that exist in Northern Virginia are critical to understand pathways to immigrant youth success in context.  Our work affirms the view put forward by Roberto Gonzales that the life experience of undocumented youth in the US creates a deeper sense of belonging that is tied to particular localities in which they are embedded.  It is this sense of belonging, and the multi-scalar responses to either include or exclude these youth, that is at the heart of this research and the variegated landscape of immigrant youth rights found across the United States.

How does your research help us think about Geography? 

Map of where DACA students are in Virginia.

This research adds more specificity to the generalizing narratives on undocumented immigrant life in the US. It adds complexity and nuance to the scalar and place effects on undocumented youth seeking higher education, and the immigrant experience in general in new destinations states in the US.

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Click here to read the abstract of this article.