Education requirements deter many would-be ‘Dreamers,’ activists say

Activists with the United We Dream organization hold an immigration rally in front of the White House in July.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Naira Zapata might seem a typical candidate for the Obama administration’s deferred deportation program. Her family smuggled her across the U.S.-Mexican border when she was 12.

But Zapata, now 20, dropped out of high school three years ago after giving birth to her first child. She never received her diploma, hindered by poor finances and having to care for her two young children. She still lives with her parents in Phoenix.

Zapata is a sharp departure from what immigrant rights organizers once presented as a poster child for those who would benefit from Obama’s immigration relief program: a high school graduate clad in a cap and gown, bound for the Ivy League.

Instead, Zapata is representative of those left behind. An estimated 426,000 young people nationwide meet all but one of the requirements of the immigration program launched two years ago: a high school diploma or GED.


Stifled by financial strain and discouraged by misinformation and a perception that they don’t fit the image of the ideal recipient, many fail to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, as the program is known, gives a work permit and deportation reprieve to people who were brought to the U.S. as children and stayed illegally.

In response, immigrant rights activists are making a big push to get more people like Zapata to return to school.

Yadira Garcia, lead field organizer for an outreach campaign in Phoenix, said one of the biggest challenges is getting potential applicants to see themselves as “Dreamers,” as youth brought into the country as children are often called.

“They don’t identify with the Dreamer narrative that was pushed for so long,” Garcia said. “We’re trying to demystify who can and cannot qualify.”


Garcia is part of a trio of activists who hit the streets to find DACA applicants, targeting immigrant youth at the local Mexican consulate office, public events and forums around the Phoenix metropolitan area.

People are surprised to hear that a dropout can still qualify — if they return to school.

Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, said it’s a familiar scenario at sessions held to explain DACA to young people and their families.

“I have heard so many stories at local community events where you have a high-achieving girl at the event with her mother and then an hour into the presentation they turn to each other in complete shock and say, ‘Oh my God. Your older brother is eligible,’” she said.


As of June, an estimated 41% of the 1.6 million people who are potentially eligible have applied for DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

To be eligible for DACA, applicants must have been brought to the U.S. before age 16 and have been no older than 31 at the time the program was launched. Applicants must have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, and meet other requirements, such as not having any felony convictions.

Zapata, who feels most comfortable speaking Spanish, also had financial and personal hurdles that kept her from going back to school. She was too busy being a mom to her 1-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy.

“My parents help me a lot,” she said. “They help me pay my bills.”


She’s not alone. Those who were ineligible because they lacked a high school diploma were likely to be older, living in poverty and have very low English proficiency.

In Zapata’s home state of Arizona, 14,000 people would otherwise be eligible for Obama’s program but aren’t because they have insufficient education.

Carmen Cornejo, an advisor with the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said anti-illegal-immigration policies and sentiment in Arizona, which started years before the program, discouraged high-school-age youth from finishing their education.

“They saw that maybe things were not going anywhere, so why bother to keep achieving some education if you couldn’t do anything with it after you graduated?” Cornejo said.


Now, those people are older and find it increasingly difficult to give up their jobs and carve out time from family and work to earn a GED, Cornejo and other immigration experts said.

Others question whether a high school diploma should be a requirement to keep youths from being deported. Some who qualify for DACA have declined to apply as an act of protest against its educational requirements. This includes some students in law school and prestigious four-year universities.

“It’s a political statement,” said Eileen Truax, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has studied the youth immigrant movement and written a book on the subject. “What they say is that your academic skills shouldn’t be something that’s taken into consideration in order to receive basic civil rights and human rights. What gives you those rights? A document? Your GED?”

Although Truax said she’s an advocate of higher education, she said high school and college-age youth often make mistakes — regardless of legal status.


“We need to allow them to make mistakes,” she said. “We need to allow them to be young people.”

Zapata finally got the chance to enroll in a GED program in January.

Although she returned to school in part to set a good example for her children, she also did it for a far greater reason, she said.

Her fiance is in an immigration detention facility in Arizona, fighting his deportation to Guatemala. She doesn’t want to be next and leave her children alone in the U.S.


She’s still in school and hopes to finish soon.