Undocumented Students Benefit in First Year of Deferred Action

Kelsey Sheehy

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - known to many simply as DACA - marked its anniversary on August 15.

Created via executive order by President Barack Obama, the two-year program gives eligible undocumented immigrants temporary protection from deportation.

More than half a million young undocumented immigrants applied for deferred action between August 2012 and July 2013, according to the most recent figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The bulk of applications in the first six months were from high school- and college-aged students, the Brookings Institute reports.

In fact, 54 percent of applicants were under the age of 21, and 36 percent were between the ages of 15 and 18, notes the nonprofit think tank, which did an independent analysis of the program's applications from August 15, 2012 through March 22, 2013.

[Learn more about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.]

Deferred action recipients can apply for work authorization, allowing them to build a life for themselves, legally. They may also enjoy other benefits in certain states, such as the ability to get a driver's license or in-state tuition, but immigration activists say the short-term fix is no substitute for a permanent solution.

Over the past year, 61 percent of immigrants granted deferred status obtained a driver's license, the same proportion landed a new job and 54 percent opened their first bank account, according to a survey by the Immigration Policy Center.

Diana Eusebio, a student at Hustos-Lincoln Academy of Science in New York, plans to use her newly "DACAmented" status to work and save money for college, the then-16-year-old told ABC News-Univision in June.

Her deferred action status can help make college more affordable, too. Nineteen states, including New York, allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition at public colleges. In many cases, those students must qualify for deferred action.

Making college more accessible could mean the difference between graduating and dropping out for undocumented high school students, experts say.

Deferred action - which requires students be enrolled in school, or have a high school or GED diploma - could serve as a "motivation to finish school and to even go back and get a GED," Roberto Gonzalez, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, told U.S. News last year.

Initial excitement over the program may be waning, though, as undocumented students grow impatient for a permanent immigration reform.

"I feel kind of like I'm in limbo," Carla Chavarria, a deferred action recipient, recently told the Arizona Republic. While the program gave undocumented students hope, the 2010 graduate of Arcadia High School in Phoenix, said a temporary fix is insufficient. "We need some sort of bill or legislation that would benefit not only us dreamers but also our parents."

[Read more about immigration reform proposals.]

More than two-thirds of deferred action recipients report that since their approval, someone they know has been deported, according to the Immigration Policy Center survey. Another 31 percent say a family was deported and for 14 percent, that family member was a parent or sibling.

Applying for deferred action can be complicated, too. Students must prove they have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five consecutive years.

Alfredo Galvan Ortiz, a recent graduate of Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, told High School Notes in December about navigating the complex process.

Teachers and counselors are often front-line resources for undocumented students seeking deferred action status. While they lack legal expertise, they have the students' trust and can help guide them to free legal resources.

Tracking down those resources can be tricky, but, as with many things, there's an app for that. Pocket DACA, a joint effort by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council, includes a self-screening tool to help applicants determine their eligibility. The app also features a searchable directory of nonprofit organizations and immigration legal providers available to help applicants in every state.