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Life after college can be difficult to navigate for any graduate, but for undocumented students, the challenges can be greater.

How do you decide which health insurance package to enroll in at your first professional job? What is a 401k, and how much should you contribute each paycheck? 

Graduates without citizenship are up against a lot of the same confusing “firsts” as everyone else, but are less likely to have parents or family members who have experience with these specific issues.

At the same time, undocumented graduates are losing the supports they’ve grown accustomed to in college, which can include on-campus immigration legal services, student groups that focus on them and staff advocates working to help them succeed.

To help pad the landing after graduation, Yadira Hernandez founded the Undocumented Student Association of UCLA so that graduates could support each other, share tips for survival and develop clear pathways for those students who come next. Hernandez believes the group at UCLA was among the first of its kind, but since its formation a few other colleges have formed similar groups.

“Even though I have a job at a university, no one ever in my family has had a job like that, so I don’t know how to navigate it,” Hernandez said, referring to previous jobs at UCLA and UC-Irvine. “It’s like things that I never had access to and now I had access to, for example, retirement planning. I have no idea what it is, the jargon, nothing.” 

With others from the alumni group, Hernandez has been able to build workplace skills, tap into professional networks of people in similar situations and navigate the process of applying and being accepted to law school. A student at the CUNY School of Law in New York City since August, they aspire to practice immigration and criminal defense law upon graduation.

The group also helps with another aspect of this post-graduation conundrum: the loss of student status.

For an undocumented student, Hernandez said, the identity label that carries the most weight is that of “student.” Often, the focus is on succeeding in class and finding internships.

Related: A federal ‘college completion fund’ could help more students finish their degrees

Once you are no longer a student, the way you are perceived changes, said UCLA senior Alondra Avalos Padilla, who worries about this as she moves toward her graduation in the spring.

“Having a student status does give you both protection and security, both because of the way people look at you and give you this respect, especially going to such a renowned institution like UCLA, as well as the opportunities given to you while you’re a student,” Avalos Padilla said.

Once she graduates, she will be faced with figuring out where she fits in in a society outside higher education. Eventually she wants to go to law school, but in the meantime, she’s not sure what her life will look like.

“Even though I have a job at a university, no one ever in my family has had a job like that, so I don’t know how to navigate it.”

Yadira Hernandez , who founded the Undocumented Student Association of UCLA

The alumni group allows undocumented graduates to connect as they enter the workforce, though their experiences can be hugely different depending on immigration status. 

Students with protection from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, can work at virtually any job in the country. They are not required to disclose their immigration status during the hiring process. When filling out the I-9 form for employment eligibility verification, they would show a work authorization card rather than a social security card. 

But without DACA or another form of legal authorization to work, undocumented graduates have far fewer options. 

Candy Marshall, president of the scholarship and advocacy group TheDream.US., said she’s had students ask her, “Why bother to get a college degree if I’m not going to be able to legally work?”

“One answer, of course, is by the time you get the college degree, we all very much hope the law will have changed,” Marshall said. “Even if the law hasn’t changed, there are many career pathways open to those without DACA. It’s not as easy as getting employment, but it is there and it really can be just as lucrative.”

Because undocumented residents can pay income taxes, they can get an individual tax ID number and work as independent contractors or freelancers. They are also legally allowed to start and run their own businesses, and start or join workers cooperatives. Still, they’re limited by state laws that might prevent them from getting necessary professional licenses in their field.

Related: Student Voice: DACA recipients like this DREAMer ask for full participation in American life

Since the Obama Administration created DACA in 2012, more than 825,000 undocumented immigrants have successfully applied for the protection. But unless the eligibility date is updated, the number of high school graduates eligible for the protection will shrink every year before vanishing entirely.

The DACA program is due for an update. In September, President Joe Biden kicked off a months-long process to consider proposals through a formal rulemaking process (necessary because DACA was an executive order, not a piece of legislation).

Biden’s proposed version makes few substantial changes to the program, which provides protection from detainment and deportation for two years at a time by allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country and legally work. The proposed version differs from the original by splitting the application fee into two parts, giving people the option to pay a smaller $85 fee for lawful presence without the $410 for legal work authorization. It would also allow the government to begin accepting applications again – something that was halted in July when a federal judge in Texas ruled the program unlawful.

“Why bother to get a college degree if I’m not going to be able to legally work?  One answer, of course, is by the time you get the college degree, we all very much hope the law will have changed.”  

Candy Marshall, president of the scholarship and advocacy group TheDream.US.

The proposal notably does not change the eligibility dates, meaning that the only people still eligible for protection must have been under the age of 16 and in the United States by June 15, 2007. 

DACA students also have a lot at stake as Congress debates what will make it into the final $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. They’ll be eligible for free community college if that program remains in the package, and could receive need-based federal financial aid if the expansion to the Pell Grant program gets through.

Ernesto Arciniega, a doctoral candidate at UCLA, said that regardless of the political party in office, there is work to be done to advocate for the undocumented community. 

Arciniega, a fellow at the University of California Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, specifically studies how immigration status motivates some students to turn to activism. He said that, while the draw toward activism in the undocumented community is common, it is certainly not universal.

“We have the other side as well – students who are less involved because of fear of retaliation, fear of deportation,” Arciniega said. “It’s very subjective, because it’s also not always one or the other, it could be the middle.” 

This story about undocumented college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

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