PORTLAND, Maine — Fernando Martinez’s heart raced as he and his parents climbed the steps to an administrative office at the University of Southern Maine last summer.
With only weeks to go before classes started, the family was still unsure of whether they’d be able to afford to send him to school — a question complicated by the fact that he lacks legal status in the United States.
Over the summer, university administrators had been trying to work out whether Martinez’s protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program meant he could pay in-state tuition, and he recalled feeling time stretch on as his family sat outside the office, nervously waiting for a final decision.
“I think it was only five minutes, but it was the longest five minutes for us,” he said.
Other so-called Dreamers won’t have to wait.
This week, a spokesman said that every school in the University of Maine System offers in-state tuition to qualified Maine residents who have received temporary protections under the federal program.
The school system’s policies on in-state tuition eligibility do not specifically address DACA because the federal program was very new when the policies were last revised, according to to spokesman Dan Demeritt. But the schools evaluate whether immigrants, including people with DACA status, qualify for in-state tuition based on the same residency criteria and circumstances used for citizens, he said.
The practice may give a reason for people who were brought to the country illegally as children to register for DACA, even as President Donald Trump’s deportation push and waffling on whether to do away with the program has made undocumented immigrants wary of signing up.
Martinez, whose family fled El Salvador when he was four years old, has lived in Portland nearly all his life and was among the first DACA recipients to pay the in-state rate at USM. The more than $12,000-a-year difference between the in- and out-of-state tuition has been especially important because he can’t get state or federal college loans due to his immigration status, Martinez said. And he was elated that other people like him will have the same opportunity.
“This is such a great thing,” he said. “It only makes sense … there are so many kids who would love to get this.”
Since the program’s creation in 2013, U.S. citizenship and immigration has approved 429 applications and replications for temporary social security numbers, work permits and protection from deportation under DACA in Maine. Last school year, of the roughly 29,000 students in the University of Maine System’s seven schools, there were 13 students throughout the who had chosen to disclose their DACA status, according Demeritt.
The schools do not consider immigration status in making admissions decisions but do ask for the information, which is relevant to determining a student’s eligibility for different types of financial aid, according to university policies. Non-U.S. citizens are generally not eligible for federal financial aid.
Federal law protects the privacy of student information and there is no requirement for the schools to share immigration information with federal or state agencies, said Nancy Griffin, USM’s vice president for enrollment management and student affairs.
With Maine’s aging population and workforce, it is extremely important for the state to keep and educate young immigrants, including DACA recipients, Griffin said.
“We want to them to remain in the state Maine,” she said. “We need them.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the 429 application for DACA status in Maine include new applications and renewals.