I was 15 years into my career as a professional school counselor when I met a young man who opened my eyes to the life of navigating the education system as a student with undocumented citizenship status. I was working in an upper-middle-class suburban high school in South Texas. This college student, who had recently graduated from our high school, spoke to our counseling staff about his experiences as a high school student with undocumented status and how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) changed his life.
Ranked in the top 15 percent of his graduating class, with strong SAT scores and extracurricular involvement, he was a strong admissions candidate who also had scholarship potential. Yet, he thought his immigration status made pursuing a college degree impossible.
He kept his immigration status a secret from educators, including his counselor, until his senior year of high school, when he “came out” (his words) to a teacher he trusted. He feared exposure for himself and his family, social stigma with peers and even possible deportation. He sought DACA soon after it became available in 2012. He got a Social Security number, a work permit and a driver’s license. Most importantly, he experienced some relief from the burden of carrying a secret that had eaten at him since his mother brought him and his sister to the United States when fleeing an abusive marriage.
His former counselor asked him to come speak to our counseling staff because she felt she had failed him due to her lack of information and our counseling staff’s lack of communicating the safety zone of the counseling office. After he spoke, I came to realize that a hidden, underserved student population existed in many schools. His story inspired my pursuit of this topic both for my dissertation and for professional growth as a counselor.
As I explored this topic, it became apparent that many educators did not know how best to serve students with undocumented or DACA immigration status. Additionally, I learned that broaching the topic produced reactions ranging from knowledgeable support to embarrassed ignorance to xenophobic revelations. I chose to put this research interest into practice to gain better insight.
I have interviewed students with DACA/undocumented immigration status for my dissertation, volunteered with advocacy organizations, led counseling groups for high school students and presented about this topic in conferences throughout the United States (including at the 2017 American Counseling Association Conference in San Francisco). It is from this perspective that I offer these suggestions to my fellow counselors in high school and college settings.
- Reflect on your legal and ethical obligations as a counselor. Be aware that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe (1982) ruled that students in K-12 public education settings cannot be denied access to free schooling based on immigration status. This does not extend into postsecondary education access. Those working at any level of education or in nonprofit organizations should know that Title IX (1964) prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin for organizations that receive federal funds. To not assist students with DACA/undocumented status could be defined as discrimination based on national origin, but this is not clearly defined.
Counselors have ethical obligations not to condone discrimination due to immigration status (see the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, Standard C.5.). As judicial, legislative and executive actions continue to change, counselors might need to prepare for how their ethical obligations could collide with new laws. Consider how handling records, explaining/maintaining confidentiality and protecting clients may need to change.
- Learn the unique steps and pitfalls involved in these students’ paths to college and career access. Counselors need to know that getting In-State Residential Tuition (ISRT) is a state-by-state decision. At this time, many students with DACA/undocumented status can get the same tuition rates as their citizen peers based on residency, not citizenship. Students with DACA/undocumented status do not get access to federal student financial aid via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Sometimes, however, students with DACA status mistakenly file for FAFSA because they have been issued a Social Security number.
Also keep in mind that most DACA recipients are college age or in the workforce. At every presentation I have conducted, I have been approached by counselors or teachers with DACA status. That means that you might have co-workers affected by the DACA decision. Most high school students did not qualify for DACA due to their entry date to the United States. With DACA ending, the number of students with undocumented status appears to be increasing.
- Understand the emotional struggles associated with DACA/undocumented status. These students are part of the first generation of their families to go to college, which can be overwhelming in itself. But in addition, they can also harbor reasonable fears associated with their immigration status. Most come from mixed-status families and fear deportation for themselves or their family members. Parents may have instilled in their children the need to keep the family secret.
Those with DACA status may regret having exposed their identity to the government, and they now live with certain deadlines regarding their protection from deportation. Those who did not seek DACA status may regret not joining a group that may get some answers to this predicament. Facilitate empowerment by connecting these students with postsecondary mentors and support organizations that foster their agency.
- Be aware of how current public policies affect these students personally. According to Harvard professor Roberto Gonzales, these policies create a state of liminality (betweenness) for these students. Not having citizenship status and not having a path to citizenship in their home country puts them between countries in a manner unique to their situation. The lack of certainty is a constant; long-term plans can seem useless. Supreme Court decisions can be overturned as part of a multitiered process, executive actions can be issued swiftly, and bills going through Congress can stall. Counselors can help students understand these processes.
If you work on a college campus, you have probably seen petitions, rallies and information sessions. Many of these students are seeking support, but they may get discouraged as they see the spotlight move to other current issues. They are practicing acts that citizens employ regularly, but they do not have the protection of citizenship. Going public is risky and can create emotional responses. In addition, citizenship can be taken for granted by those who have it. For those who do not have it, perceived apathy on the part of citizens can be offensive and further trigger emotional responses.
When I began my learning journey about students with DACA/undocumented status, I had no idea it would become a highly charged political issue. In light of recent events, I felt an obligation to share with the counseling community what I have learned. I also want to thank the students, educators and community service members who enlightened me about this hidden student population.
Elizabeth Holbrook has more than 20 years of experience counseling in K-12 public schools. She is currently a professional school counselor in Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. She is also an adjunct professor at Our Lady of the Lake University, where she teaches graduate-level students in the school counseling program. Her dissertation, “Exploring the experiences of students of Mexican descent with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status,” can be found at athenaeum.uiw.edu/uiw_etds/22/. Contact her at Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Mental health implications of undocumented immigrant status”
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