For Undocumented Aspiring Scientists, Funding Remains in Limbo

Ineligible for federal grants, undocumented science students must rely on private fellowships—which often depend on DACA.
By Francie Diep ,

(Photo: snre/Flickr)

When the Department of Justice announced last week it would end a program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, all eyes—at least within the science world—fell on a couple of private American charities. Groups such as the Ford Foundation and the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans provide some of the few sources of funding for undocumented scientists pursuing advanced degrees. What will happen now to those charities and the science they support?

Most doctoral students of science in the United States are supported by a fellowship, scholarship, or research assistantship. (Even so, the average biology doctorate in 2015 graduated $20,000 in debt.) Since the beginning of the Cold War, when politicians decided it was in the national interest to fund science, much of that money has come from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Undocumented students aren't eligible for NIH and NSF grants, even if they qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals benefits. To support themselves, many have relied on second or third jobs, assistantships from their schools, or prestigious fellowships from organizations that have stated missions to support "new Americans" and diversity in the sciences. These fellowships typically extended eligibility to include DACA students, but not other undocumented students. With DACA's promised end, they've been thrown into uncertainty, along with their undocumented applicants.

"Everyone's on the waiting game," says Mario Pizarro, a DACA recipient and master's student in biochemistry at the California State University–Los Angeles. "I personally was a little worried." Pizarro plans to start applying to doctoral programs and grants this fall. What happens if Ford or Soros closes their doors to students like him? "That's one less grant that we're eligible for."

"It's a tough road. That's how I see being undocumented in the sciences."

The foundations seem equally unsure about their programs' futures, largely because the White House has left DACA recipients' fates up to Congress. In the meantime, they're reassuring students that, for now, they're welcome to apply. Anyone who will have DACA benefits on the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans' application deadline of November 1st, 2017, is eligible to apply, Craig Harwood, the fellowship's director, writes to Pacific Standard in an email. Soros' provision should cover students who currently have DACA benefits. The Department of Justice decreed anyone with DACA set to expire before March 5th, 2018, may apply for a two-year renewal, deadline October 5th. Pizarro himself recently applied.

"We will launch next year's application in April. If we have to revisit our eligibility requirements at that time we will do our best to ensure that they are in keeping with the spirit of our current requirements," Harwood writes. "We are looking for individuals who plan to, and are able to, stay in the United States."

"We stand behind our Fellows with DACA and we are really counting on Congress to find a solution as soon as possible," he adds.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—which Congress created in 1863 to advise the nation on science and technology—administers several Ford Foundation fellowships that are open to DACA science students. When Pacific Standard called the academies' fellowships office at a publicly available number, a woman answered and said: "We're telling applicants there's no changes in the eligibility. That's all we have to say." She declined to give her name because she didn't want to appear in a news story.

On its website, the Soros fellowship describes its goals as "assist[ing] young New Americans at critical points in their educations" and "call[ing] attention to the extensive and diverse contributions of New Americans to the quality of life in the United States." It defines new Americans as "immigrants and children of immigrants." The Ford Foundation, meanwhile, has long fought racial discrimination in higher education in America. In the 1960s, for instance, it created programs for American-Indian and Mexican-American doctoral students and pushed universities to integrate, the New York Times reports.

Besides the money, Pizarro says fellowships like Ford's and Soros' offer mentorship and support that help young scientists to find their footing in a complex job, analogous to the training that's available, say, through the NIH. In other words, they help level the playing field between aspiring scientists of different legal statuses. "It's a tough road," Pizarro says. "That's how I see being undocumented in the sciences." DACA, and the programs built off of it, make that path at least a bit easier to navigate. What their replacements will look like remain to be seen.

Join the Conversation