Florida’s young immigrants who are undocumented face myriad barriers to higher education and economic prosperity. Also known as “Dreamers,” after the federal DREAM Act, these young people were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own, and often do not remember living in any other country. They are American in every way, except on paper—they attend our schools, are valued community members, pay taxes and contribute to the economy. By one estimate, Dreamers who are enrolled in, or eligible for, the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program pay $78 million in state and local taxes in Florida annually.
Many times, Dreamers do not realize they lack proper documentation until they apply for college, jobs or financial aid. That is what happened to Leslye Trujillo, a guest blogger for Florida Policy Institute and currently an undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida. She writes:
“Being undocumented was something I did not fully understand until my eighth-grade year. In middle school, I was one of the few students chosen to receive the Take Stock in Children of Manatee County scholarship for my high academic standing and good conduct. When I asked my parents for my social security number in order to fill out the application requirements, they informed me of my status as an undocumented student. I was unable to complete the application — I was ineligible since I was not a U.S. citizen. My academic performance and good moral conduct were factors that no longer mattered.”
Leslye would have been eligible for a Take Stock in Children full-tuition scholarship, and later, Bright Futures scholarship, had it not been for her immigration status. There are thousands of young people in Florida like Leslye, who excel at school and life, yet face significant hurdles due to lack of documentation.
In 2017, the Trump administration announced the end of the DACA program, despite evidence that it helped to improve economic and health outcomes for the young people enrolled and that ending the program would hurt the U.S. economy. The phase out of the DACA program has been put on hold by several federal courts. Meanwhile, in Florida, there are 27,000 young people enrolled in DACA and an estimated 75,000 young people in the state eligible for the program but who have not enrolled, and are blocked from doing so until the DACA program is reinstated.
While the federal DREAM Act and DACA may have been put on hold, these young people’s lives keep moving forward. State governments, industry and universities are pushing to protect and support Dreamers. Despite recent harmful federal immigration policies and divisive rhetoric, many states continue to implement inclusive policies for immigrants that strengthen economies and communities. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently released a report outlining four policies that states can pursue to help families and economies prosper; key among them is opening eligibility for in-state tuition and state financial aid to state residents without documentation.
In 2014, Florida’s then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill allowing students who are undocumented to pay in-state tuition rates if they graduated from a Florida high school and spent at least three consecutive years in Florida schools immediately prior to graduating. "Students that grew up in our state are going to get the same in-state tuition as their peers, which is what's fair," he said after signing the legislation. The bill initially stalled in the Senate, until Scott enrolled the help of former Florida Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez, who helped to push the bill over the finish line. As a result, Florida joined the ranks of now 20 other states that have adopted “tuition-equity” laws, allowing for in-state tuition for immigrant students without documentation.
Since Scott signed the bill in 2014, Florida’s undocumented students have started to utilize “out-of-state tuition waivers” to access in-state tuition to Florida’s public colleges and universities. FPI obtained data from Florida’s public four-year university system (the State University System, or SUS) that show that the number of these waivers used by SUS students has increased four-fold from 2014-15 (the first year they were available) to the 2017-18 school year (See Figure 1). However, it is important to note that these “tuition equity” students make up a very small fraction of the total public university student body — less than 1 percent. Tuition equity students are still underrepresented in Florida’s public universities compared to the proportion of Florida’s high school graduates who are estimated to be undocumented (3 percent in 2017).
Tuition equity students in Florida still face significant financial barriers to higher education. They are not eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell grants and federal loans, nor are they eligible for Florida’s financial aid programs including the Bright Futures Scholarships and need-based aid. Given the lack of available financing, the cost of college — even at in-state tuition rates — is still out of reach for most Florida families of students without documentation. The average income of an undocumented family in Florida is $37,500, whereas the average yearly cost of in-state attendance to Florida’s public universities is $22,464. It makes sense that lack of financial aid is the leading cause of undocumented students not pursuing higher education.
Texas has been leading the way for Dreamers to pursue college since 2001. In that year, then-Governor Rick Perry signed a law allowing Texas resident students without documentation to have access to both in-state tuition and state merit- and need-based financial aid. By 2016, Texas had 25,151 Dreamers taking advantage of in-state tuition, 1.5 percent of the student body, and 2,819 Dreamers receiving Texas financial aid, or less than 1 percent of the total receiving aid. Texas overall has a higher proportion of students who are undocumented than Florida — an estimated 5.3 percent of 2017’s high school graduates in Texas were undocumented, compared to just 3 percent in Florida.By using the history of these policies in Texas as a guide, FPI estimates that offering financial aid eligibility to Dreamers would cost the state only $8.7 million a year.
Florida’s tuition equity law is necessary, but it’s not enough to build a plausible path to college completion for Florida’s Dreamers. In June 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7071, a workforce education bill that includes the “SAIL to 60” initiative. This initiative establishes a goal for the state to raise the rate of working-age Floridians with a degree or high-value postsecondary certificate to 60 percent by 2030. The rate currently stands at 49 percent.
Florida will more easily achieve the SAIL to 60 goal by investing in Florida’s Dreamers. Research has shown that access to financial aid increases aspirations, college-going rates, retention and completion. Allowing Florida’s students, regardless of immigration status, to have access to state financial aid would improve completion rates for Florida residents overall and boost the skills and wages of the workforce.
 FPI estimated percent of high school graduates that are undocumented in Texas and Florida using research from the Migration Policy Institute along with the total number of graduates in Texas and Florida for 2017.
 This assumes the same eligibility standard as in-state tuition for Florida’s undocumented students. Estimate assumes a similar uptake rate for financial aid to Texas after 15 years of availability (1 percent of financial aid recipients) and multiplies that by the total funding for Florida Bright Futures and need-based financial aid for the 2019-20 budget year ($875.5 million).