While unauthorized immigration to the United States is illegal by all counts, the Department of Homeland Security understands that some instances of illegal immigration are more dangerous than others. Its current immigration policies, therefore, attempt to sort high-priority cases out from low-priority ones. If you are a student without valid immigration documents, you should be aware of these policies. They might be relevant to your case.


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What is DACA?

On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security issued an official memorandum that announced a process for requesting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). While neither a law nor a regulation, DACA does acknowledge that many undocumented students did not knowingly violate the law when they crossed the U.S. border during childhood. It thereby instructs U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials to treat DACA-eligible immigrants who are accepted into the program as low-priority cases for immigration prosecution.

If your initial request for DACA is approved, you can successfully postpone your immigration hearing or deportation proceedings for two years, subject to renewal. You may request DACA even if you have already received a final removal (deportation) order. With your deferred action application, you will also submit a request for a social security number and a two-year employment authorization document. The EAD is temporary, but it is valid, meaning that you can legally work until the EAD’s expiration. You can potentially renew your DACA indefinitely as long as you continue to maintain eligibility requirements.

What are the benefits of DACA?

DACA is helpful to many undocumented immigrants, but college students may find it especially appealing. If you are a DACA beneficiary, you may enjoy any of the following benefits:

  • Have an incentive to graduate high school as a way to meet eligibility requirements
  • Postpone your immigration hearing or halt current deportation proceedings
  • Apply to private scholarships that require a social security number
  • Work a paid internship or job during college
  • Potentially receive a special document called an advance parole that grants you permission to leave the United States for a study abroad term
  • Pursue a career in your field after graduation
  • Become eligible for state-based financial aid in some areas

Does DACA provide any paths to citizenship?

DACA itself does not provide any paths to citizenship, but it is sometimes confused with the proposed DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act is a proposal for immigration reform that would allow some undocumented immigrants, specifically those who arrived in the United States as children, to apply for citizenship. The DREAM Act was most recently presented to Congress in 2010, but it failed to receive enough Senate votes to pass. It is possible that the DREAM Act will be revisited and reintroduced to Congress in the near future, but it is not currently in effect.

At this time, DACA is an option that allows some undocumented young people to indefinitely postpone their immigration hearings. Unlike the DREAM Act proposal, it is not a route to citizenship or permanent legal residency.

Are there any federal programs under which a DACA beneficiary could possibly become a U.S. citizen?

There is only one program under which an undocumented student could possibly obtain U.S. citizenship. That program is called MAVNI. It stands for Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. This program is a military program that aims to recruit certain foreign nationals, including some health care professionals, with in-demand language skills. MAVNI incentivizes itself by advertising expedited citizenship to some applicants. Not every applicant is eligible for citizenship, however, so it is recommended that you consult a recruiter and a lawyer before you sign up. Basic eligibility requirements state that an applicant must hold DACA or a current nonimmigrant visa and be fluent in his or her native language. Extensive background checks are also performed. For more information about MAVNI and its eligibility requirements, visit the U.S. Army website.

While you could receive expedited U.S. citizenship under MAVNI (and access to a host of military benefits), joining the military is not something to be considered lightly. Be sure to thoroughly weigh the benefits and downsides before you join.

Are there any negative consequences of applying for DACA?

As DACA is a relatively new program, it is still unknown whether there will be any negative future consequences for those who come forward as undocumented to apply for DACA. Under the Obama administration, there was no issue, but with a new president in office, it is more difficult to anticipate what is to come for DACA. During his presidential campaign, Trump pledged that he would terminate DACA immediately upon taking office, and some immigration activists worried that the DACA program would be used as a way to identify undocumented immigrants and their family members for removal (deportation) proceedings; however, in June 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced that DACA would remain in effect for now. If you are worried about potential negative consequences or if you have questions about the future of the program, please seek legal counsel from an experienced immigration attorney before you apply.

Page last updated: 06/2017