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Even with Utah’s help, DACA students can still face a hard road to graduation

University of Utah student and DACA recipient Sam Aguilar stands outside the J. William Marriott Library. He’s the first in his family to graduate from college.
Leah Treidler
University of Utah student and DACA recipient Sam Aguilar stands outside the J. William Marriott Library. He’s the first in his family to graduate from college.

Utah has made strides to support education for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a program that helps so-called “Dreamers” who entered the United States unlawfully as children. DACA protects them from deportation and allows them to get driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers and work permits.

Still, the path to college graduation remains a challenge for many DACA recipients.

“I remember telling my mom I would be the first. Sería el primero,” said 31-year-old Sam Aguilar from the stage of the University of Utah’s 2022 graduation ceremony. “The first to go to college, to graduate. Those words were the ‘Dreamer’ in me, el soñador. I was not yet affected by the realities of the world.”

Aguilar is one of roughly 8,500 active DACA recipients in Utah, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Aguilar and his family moved to Salt Lake City in 1997, when he was 6 years old.

His first attempt at college was cut short. He was ineligible for federal student aid and when his own money and scholarships ran out, he left school to work a full-time job.

DACA’s creation in 2012 reignited his dream to finish college, and he returned to the U. But he said financial support from the state wasn’t enough, and he struggled under the weight of family responsibilities, a full-time job and a full class load.

“It can really be defeating and put you in a place where you ask yourself, ‘Is this even worth it?’” he said.

In 2002, the state legislature passed HB 144, which provides eligible undocumented students, including DACA recipients, with access to in-state tuition. In 2021, the Utah Board of Higher Education unanimously passed a resolution in support of undocumented and DACA-eligible students in the state. It also directed the board to expand resources for those students in collaboration with colleges, universities and K-12 schools.

More should be done though, said Liliana Bolaños, a paralegal at an immigration law firm in Lehi and a “Dreamer” herself. She’d like to see financial resources and scholarships, along with access to work permits for undocumented people.

“So that we don't have to carry all the load on our backs while we're trying to navigate the U.S. educational institution,” she said.

Like many other DACA recipients, Bolaños was taught to stay quiet about her immigration status in order to protect her family. Yet, sparking change in the legislature starts by bringing awareness to the issue, she said.

“It would be great for DACA recipients in Utah to be able to have a spotlight on them,” she said. “To talk about their lives, to introduce themselves so people can put names and faces to these policies and see how unfair they can really be sometimes.”

Bolaños hopes more people will step up and advocate for change.

Leah is the Morning Edition associate producer at KUER.
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