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DACA college students breathe a little easier, for now

Across the country this week, supporters of the DACA program cheered the Supreme Court's ruling upholding it.
Across the country this week, supporters of the DACA program cheered the Supreme Court's ruling upholding it.SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Leo Garcia, 22 and a rising senior at Harvard, has been preparing for the worst in recent weeks. He and other “dreamers” have been in constant touch with immigration lawyers and advocates at the university to learn how they could survive and thrive in the United States if they lost their DACA protections.

Then on Thursday morning, Garcia, who is back home with his family in Texas, woke up to dozens of alerts and text messages informing him that the Supreme Court, in a narrow majority, had ruled that the Trump administration unlawfully ended the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

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“It was a wave of relief,” said Garcia, who came to the United States from Colombia when he was 3 and hopes to become a doctor. His parents were in tears that he and his brother would not have to live in constant fear of deportation.

“But this relief is small and temporary,” Garcia said. “There are so many people that I know that are still at risk. I might have relief now; my parents don’t have relief.”

The 5-4 ruling means that, for now, the 2012 Obama initiative that grants more than 640,000 students and workers the ability to go to college, get their driver’s licenses, and work in the United States, remains intact. The court allowed DACA to temporarily remain in place, finding that Department of Homeland Security officials did not properly explain their rationale for its termination in September 2017.

The relief could be short-lived, however. Trump tweeted on Friday morning that, “We will be submitting enhanced papers shortly” to once again attempt to end legal protections for dreamers.

The fate of DACA has galvanized college campuses in recent years. Students have protested the decision by the Trump administration three years ago to end DACA, university presidents have sent letters to the president pleading on behalf of young people, and more than 180 higher-education institutions filed briefs with the Supreme Court defending the program.

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An estimated 40 percent of DACA recipients are in school.

And this week, colleges and universities across Massachusetts, including Tufts, Harvard, and Smith applauded the court’s decision and promised to keep fighting for more permanent protections for students.

The “ruling strengthens our entire nation,” said Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president, in a message to the college’s students, faculty, and staff. “As we celebrate this moment, let it also be a reminder of how fragile this decision is: The fate of nearly 800,000 students rested on a single vote. We cannot leave it to the courts to do the important work of equity and inclusion.”

Many DACA recipients said their lives and futures have been precarious.

“I just felt like a chess piece in some sort of political game,” said a rising senior at Tufts University and a DACA recipient. “This little win felt really good.”

The student, who requested anonymity, came to the United States when she was 5. She doesn’t remember living anywhere besides the Midwest. She didn’t know she was undocumented until she went to sign up for a driver’s education course in high school. Immediately she began to worry what that would mean for college.

She still remembers the anxious feeling of applying to be part of the DACA program during her senior year of high school. It felt like a leap of faith to turn all her personal information over to the federal government and entrust it to keep her and her family safe.

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When she came to Tufts three years ago, she was able to open her first bank account and get her first job. It was exciting. But soon, Trump began to threaten to end the program.

“I thought, ‘I’m finally beginning to live my life fully,’ and then realizing that it could be taken away; it’s always something that has weighed on my mind. It’s a relief that he can’t rescind it the way that he wants to,” she said Thursday in a phone interview.

DACA has allowed many young people to move up the economic ladder and given them incentives to invest in education and their future, said Roberto G. Gonzales, a sociologist at Harvard University.

Gonzales has surveyed about 2,700 DACA-eligible students and followed 500 of them over the past few years.

Many have gone to community colleges and four-year institutions, earned degrees in nursing and health care, taken workforce development courses, and doubled and tripled their salaries over time, Gonzales said.

“You look at the long view, what eight years has meant, you see dramatic gains, incremental, but dramatic gains,” he said. “They’ve achieved some upward mobility, they’ve been able to move into better living situations, they’ve been able to help their parents, they’ve been able to make car payments.”

Many of those gains were at risk before this decision, Gonzales said.

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“Many have worried about downsizing and having to make difficult decisions,” he said. “It’s not over yet.”

And there remain obstacles for DACA recipients in college, higher-education officials said.

Recently, the US Department of Education barred DACA students from receiving emergency financial relief from the coronavirus stimulus fund. Colleges and universities nationwide received $14 billion in financial aid to offset the costs of the pandemic on students and institutions.

And there remains the fear that Thursday’s court decision is just temporary.

Susan Church, a Boston immigration lawyer, said she expects young people who were in the pipeline for DACA when the Trump administration ended the program to rush and apply for protections. Still, the fate of “dreamers” will ultimately depend on who wins the November election.

“It’s a temporary reprieve,” Church said. “It’s a major, major victory.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.