Moises Serrano is twenty-three years old. He came to the United States from Mexico with his migrant laborer parents when he was eighteen months old. He speaks English without an accent and graduated at the top of his high school class in 2007. He has big plans for his life: he wants to attend the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to study journalism. To get there, he’s more than happy to start out at a less-expensive community college.

But he’s also undocumented. That means, according to North Carolina law, that to attend public college he must pay out-of-state tuition rates that would cost him eight times more than if he were considered a resident. Even at a community college, that works out to $700 to $800 a class, which he says is “just unaffordable.” And so Serrano, who graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade point average, works at a clothing store in a mall in Winston-Salem.

Serrano is exactly the kind of young person—hardworking, full of promise—that immigration reform advocates had in mind when, a decade ago, they began lobbying for the passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented young people who went to college or served in the military (also known as “DREAMers”). But in 2010, in a dramatic vote, the DREAM Act failed, largely due to the changing views of many former supporters in the Republican Party, like Arizona Senator John McCain, who were facing reelection.


Two years later, President Barack Obama, frustrated with the GOP and eager to win the Latino vote for his reelection, took matters into his own hands. Using his executive power, he instructed the federal government to allow law-abiding young people who arrived illegally in the United States before their sixteenth birthday to apply for permits that protect them from being deported for two years, with a renewal option at the end of that period. This new program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was a stopgap, a way of helping an especially sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants until Congress could pass comprehensive immigration reform. Under DACA, undocumented immigrants who are in high school or college, have finished high school, or have served in the military are granted an official status as “lawfully present.” It’s not the same as being fully legal, but it’s enough, the Obama administration hoped, to allow them to work, get a driver’s license, and go to college.

In practice, however, the results of DACA have been mixed. About a third of the 1.76 million young people across the United States who the Migration Policy Institute estimates are eligible for DACA have applied. The roughly 500,000 who have been granted DACA status at least have the peace of mind of knowing they won’t be deported because they were brought here illegally as children. But it is state governments, not Washington, that largely determine who is eligible for things like driver’s licenses, admission to public colleges, and how much students must pay for secondary education. And state governments have reacted to Obama’s DACA initiative in pretty much the way you’d expect: blue states, which have long been more generous to undocumented immigrants, have, for the most part, tried to accommodate young people with DACA status, while many red states, or swing states with Republican-controlled governments, have not (see map, above).

Prior to Obama’s signing of DACA, only a handful of states—including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington—offered in-state tuition to undocumented students. Since then, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado have joined the list, and legislators have submitted bills to allow in-state tuition for DACA students in six others (Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia). In the twenty-seven states that don’t offer in-state tuition to the undocumented, there’s been virtually no movement at all.

Part of that reluctance is fiscal: states are still coping with tight budgets and have been cutting, not expanding, higher education spending. Part of it has to do with the political power and peculiar human resource needs of the farming sector. “Agricultural organizations asked for relief,” explains John Burkhardt of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. “Because of the DACA rule many illegals left the fields to go to school, not just college, they left to go back to high school, because suddenly the option looked attractive. And so farmers couldn’t harvest the crops. Crops started rotting in the fields.”

But probably the biggest reason states haven’t been eager to accommodate DACA students is electoral politics. Undocumented immigrants simply aren’t very popular with voters—especially Republicans, and especially in the Deep South. Indeed, two southern states, Alabama and South Carolina, bar undocumented students from even attending public colleges and universities, and a third, Georgia, denies them admission to its flagships, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. That goes for students with DACA status, too.

Such overt discrimination might seem ripe for a constitutional challenge. But immigration advocacy groups aren’t bringing suits, notes David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, because they think the legal hurdles would be steep; the “lawfully present” status that DACA confers may not be enough to require that states provide DACA students with the same rights and privileges—such as access to public colleges—that other legal immigrants enjoy.

So to help young people like Moises Serrano, advocates are focused on changing the law, at the federal level and state by state. Serrano himself leads the volunteer efforts of statewide immigration reform groups and regularly lobbies at the North Carolina statehouse. In that capacity he points to his own DACA status as an argument to undermine the knee-jerk reaction of those who say that undocumented immigrants are here illegally and that lawbreaking shouldn’t be rewarded. “Technically I’m not illegal,” Serrano tells them. “I have DACA. I’m allowed to be here.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer