Every morning, Miguel Tapia Colin stands up at school to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. He wasn't born here, but he considers the star-spangled banner his. For Colin, 18, the U.S. is home -- a land of opportunities he'd never see in his birthplace of Huehuetlán El Chico, Mexico -- and he wants it to stay that way. Under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Colin plans to enroll at New York's Columbia University as a scholarship student in the fall to study political science.
"I consider myself part of this country," he said, praising Obama's policy. "It has been life-changing, but more than anything, it has been empowering."
Colin is one of the more than 700,000 immigrants who have applied for the deferred deportation program since its 2012 launch, and when he graduates, he'll join an estimated 225,000 undocumented students in U.S. colleges. Enrollment numbers have climbed in the past three years as immigrants received temporary deportation relief, sparking debate about whether states should give in-state tuition to immigrant residents who don't qualify for federal financial aid. Obama's latest actions are expected to increase undocumented students' access to higher education and renew the focus on state tuition laws aimed at helping immigrants pay for college.
"It's really the deciding factor for a student to be able to attend a four-year university or not," said Andrea Gaytan, the director of the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center at the University of California, Davis. "We're losing as a nation on a lot of talent and potential if we don't incorporate undocumented students into our educational system for higher ed."
In November, Obama announced his intent to broaden his 2012 initiative to include anyone who came to the U.S. as a child and has lived in the country since Jan. 1, 2010. DACA requires applicants to be currently in school, have a diploma or be a veteran, among other requirements. It can authorize them for driver's licenses and work permits, and for the majority of young applicants, the policy opens another door: college.
A federal judge temporarily blocked Obama's expanded immigration policy late Monday, but some schools are still preparing for an influx of undocumented students if the programs is implemented. At the University of California-Berkeley, enrollment more than doubled from 60 students during the first semester DACA was available, according to Meng L. So, the director of its Undocumented Student Program. Now, they have 380.
California is one of 20 states that offers residential immigrants in-state tuition rates, which often cut the cost of college in half. Since 2001, legislatures in Florida, New York, Texas and other states have passed laws affording undocumented students cheaper tuition if they attended state high schools and are working toward legal status. The efforts have ramped up in recent years, prompting controversy and increased enrollment.
Cost is a major barrier for undocumented students considering college, So said. Many of them have immigrant parents forced to work odd jobs under the table. In 2007, the annual household income for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. was $36,000, compared to the median income of $51,900 in 2013 for all Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. For a student paying out-of-state tuition, one year of college costs $22,203 on average.
Undocumented students often can't rely on their families for monetary support and have to put themselves through school. Even people covered under the 2012 policy are not eligible to apply for federal, and in many cases, state, financial aid.
California laws allow immigrants to apply for private scholarships and state aid. Gaytan credits those, as well as Obama's initiative, with the tripling of undocumented students at her university. Enrollment skyrocketed from 78 a few years ago to 290 now.
Other schools experienced an influx of immigrants, as well. In the fall 2012 semester, Miami Dade College had 146 students benefiting from DACA. By that spring, the school had 294. Two years later, they're now at 551, according to the school's registrar office. In 2014, Florida passed a law waiving out-of-state tuition fees for residents who attended and graduated from a state high school.
Undocumented student enrollment at Rutgers University in Newark increased likewise after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed the 2013 Dream Act giving immigrants in-state tuition rights. Senior vice chancellor for public affairs Peter Englot said the number of people using that benefit jumped from 26 to 43 between the spring and fall semesters in 2014.
But it's not smooth sailing everywhere. The Maricopa County community college district in Arizona is in the middle of a lawsuit for using DACA as a loophole to give undocumented students in-state tuition despite a 2006 law that forbids them from getting the reduced tuition, state scholarships or other financial help at public universities and community colleges. The Associated Press reported a hearing is set for March 6.
Activist Moises Serrano, 25, depends on a private scholarship to fund his studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. Before that -- and Obama's memorandum -- higher education wasn't an option. "I sat down with myself and said, 'I have $1,000 saved up in my bank account. Either I continue to save up for an emergency or lose all of that money and take one class,'" said Serrano, an immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico.
Serrano is majoring in public policy and politics, but as an undocumented student his career path isn't necessarily his top priority. "I hope to one day become a citizen of the United States," he said. "That's my primary goal."