Undocumented students in the United States

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Undocumented students are school-aged immigrants who entered the United States illegally and are present in the United States with or without their parents.[1] They face unique legal uncertainties and limitations within the United States. educational system. These students are often called the 1.5 generation, as they have spent a majority of their lives in the United States. Although some 1.5 generation students find their way to legal status, many are undocumented.[2]

Undocumented students may not know how to navigate the higher education system in their state and often leads to students not attending college. They assume that it is out of their financial means or not available to them due to their residency status. This leaves undocumented students in a vulnerable place because they are not gaining the educational experience and are not eligible for legal work.[3]

Undocumented immigrants, particularly students, are a difficult subgroup of the population to research; there is not much current statistical data available. As a result of their precarious legal and social situation, undocumented immigrants are hesitant to identify themselves as being unauthorized and the process of estimating statistics and drawing conclusions can be lengthy and cumbersome. While exact numbers are not known, there has been an increased emphasis on the challenges facing undocumented students nationwide and these will remain a topic of interest in American legislation in the coming years.[4]


It is difficult to determine national statistics for the demographic makeup of undocumented students. However, we can infer that statistics for undocumented students would be very closely related to those for the unauthorized immigrant population as a whole. Since 2014, approximately 11.1 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, which has seen only a small increase since 2007.[5] Approximately 17%, roughly two million, of undocumented immigrants are under the age of 18,[6] about 65 thousand graduate from high school each year, and only 5-10% of them continue to higher education.[3]

While the undocumented student population comes from all over the world, a majority come from Mexico and other Central American countries, with approximately 6.7 million came from Mexico.[5] The second-largest sending region is Asia. In 2012, the Philippine undocumented population in the U.S. consisted of approximately 310,000 people and 260,000 undocumented immigrants from India. Although often left out of the conversation, Asian and Pacific Islanders are a significant population in the undocumented community. The cultural expectations of undocumented immigrants in these communities often influence a more silenced and hidden existence than other cultures. There tends to be a heavier stigma against those who are undocumented, even within the culture.[7]

Legislation affecting undocumented students[edit]

Plyler v. Doe[edit]

In the United States, children are given the right to an elementary and secondary education (K-12) regardless of their immigration status.

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a state statute denying funding for education to undocumented immigrant children and simultaneously struck down a municipal school district's attempt to charge undocumented immigrants an annual $1,000 tuition fee for each undocumented immigrant student to compensate for the lost state funding.[1] The Court found that where states limit the rights afforded to people (specifically children) based on their status as immigrants, this limitation must be examined under an intermediate scrutiny standard to determine whether it furthers a substantial goal of the State.

Prior to 1975, all students in Texas were able to attend public elementary and secondary school. The state government provided funding to schools based on the number of students enrolled. In May 1975, the state legislature amended the Texas Education Code to provide that only U.S. citizens or lawfully admitted noncitizens would be counted for financial aid purposes.[8] Schools were given the option to allow or reject undocumented students and to charge tuition if they chose to accept them. School officials in Tyler, Texas, under the direction of Superintendent James Plyler, began charging $1,000 annual tuition to all undocumented students—about 60 from a student body of 1,600.[9] In September 1977, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed a class action on behalf of sixteen Mexican undocumented students of the Tyler district.

The trial court found that the Texas law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because it amounted to a total deprivation of education without a rational basis.[10] The court rejected the state’s arguments regarding the cost of educating undocumented children, finding that the federal government largely subsidized the additional costs that the education of these children entailed and that “it is not sufficient justification that a law saves money.”[10]

In order to comply with Plyler, education policy analysts have suggested that schools may not:

  • deny admission to a student on the basis of undocumented status;
  • treat a student fundamentally differently from others when determining residency;
  • engage in practices that frighten undocumented students and their families away from school access;
  • require students or parents to disclose or document immigration status;
  • make inquiries of students or parents that may expose their undocumented status;
  • require Social Security numbers from any student.[11]

Plyler does not extend to postsecondary education, but at least guarantees undocumented students the opportunity to receive a high school degree.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)[edit]

In June 2012, President Obama and his administration presented an executive order for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regarding young people who came to the United States as children—the 1.5 generation—and currently reside as unauthorized immigrants. This order provides temporary relief from immigration enforcement and deportation proceedings, as well as the authorization to work.[12] In Janet Napolitano’s memorandum to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secretary of Homeland Security stated that immigration laws should be enforced sensibly and with consideration to the individual situation. In the case for these young people living in the U.S, she stated that they had no intent on breaking any law and should have the opportunity to be productive people in this country.[13]

On June 15, 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced their plan to postpone removal actions against the individuals who meet the criteria set under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) plan.

Individuals may request DACA if they meet the following requirements:[14]

1. Under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012 (at least 15 years or older at the time of application);

2. Came to the United States at the age of 16;

3. Have continuously lived in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time;

4. Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS;

5. Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012;

6. Are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and

7. Have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Deferred action protection lasts for two years and individuals can thereafter request a renewal.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately two million people are eligible for the DACA program, as the programs rules currently stand.[15] In 2014 President Obama announced an expansion of DACA; removing the maximum age limit, changing the entry date to 2010, and extending the deferment period to three years.[15] This extended program could potentially allow an additional 300 thousand people eligibility.[16] As of 2016, the expansion was placed on hold due to a court injunction, in United States v. Texas.[14]

People often misunderstand DACA as legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship or as a way of receiving lawful immigration status. Neither is true, the deferment only provides the qualified recipients to have a lawful presence, meaning the authorities cannot force them to leave the country although they still lack legal immigration status. DACA statuses can be terminated or not renewed based on the discretion of DHS, as it is not a law. DACA is a presidential executive authority, which also means that it can change based on future presidents. DACA, therefore, creates open space for undocumented students to qualify for postsecondary education benefits.[16]

Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA)[edit]

In 1996, Congress approved the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) to improve immigration law in the United States. Section 505 of IIRIRA prohibits public higher education institutions from giving those who are unlawfully present in the United States postsecondary education benefits, on the basis of residency in a State, that are not being given to U.S. citizens or nationals.[17]

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA)[edit]

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) was President Bill Clinton’s major welfare reform. PRWORA is most know for the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) program. Additionally, PRWORA set the standards for how courts and institutions determined the eligibility of federal, state, and local benefits and services.[18] The reform states those who are not “qualified aliens” are ineligible for federal public benefits. The act also gives states the discretionary power to determine the tuition rates publicly funded schools and the authority to provide state financial aid. If states do not pass specific legislation regarding these matters then federal legislation superseded and inherently prohibits state financial aid for unauthorized immigrants.[16]

DREAM Act[edit]

Main article: DREAM Act

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is a federal bill that would permit states to determine state residency for higher education or military purposes.[19] This bill was first introduced in the Senate on August 1, 2001 and was most recently re-introduced in Congress on March 26, 2009. A Senate filibuster blocked it on December 18, 2010.[19] It would provide a mechanism for undocumented students of good moral character to become legal permanent residents. The DREAM Act initially allowed beneficiaries to qualify for federal student aid, but was changed in the 2010 version of the bill. In order to be eligible, individuals must have come to the U.S. as children (under the age of 16), graduated from a U.S. high school and be a long-term resident (at least 5 years). An age cap of 35 was also set. The latest version of the DREAM Act does not grant legal immigrant status to anyone for at least two years. Previous versions of the Act would have immediately granted legal immigrant status to eligible individuals. Many other limitations were also included in this latest version, among them the removal of access to healthcare benefits and limits to chain migration.

Higher education[edit]

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 1.5 million undocumented students currently reside in the United States.[20] Of these students, approximately 765,000 arrived in the United States before turning sixteen.[21] It is also estimated that there were 360,000 undocumented high school graduates between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four in the United States in 2006.[21] However, it is estimated that each year only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates—about 65,000 nationwide—are eligible to attend college.[22] In 2005, only about 50,000 undocumented students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.[23] Of these college students, 18,000 were enrolled in California community colleges in the 2005-2006 school year as a result of financial accessibility.[23] According to Roberto Gonzalez, Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, "Given the opportunity to receive additional education and move into better-paying jobs, undocumented students would pay more in taxes and have more money to spend and invest in the U.S. economy."

Admission & enrollment[edit]

There is no federal law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges and universities, public or private, nor does federal law require students to prove citizenship in order to enter U.S. institutions of higher education.[24] However, every institution has its own policies on admitting undocumented students. For example, following a 2003 recommendation by the state attorney general, many 4-year state colleges in Virginia require applicants to submit proof of citizenship or legal residency, and refuse admission to students without documentation.[24] This policy is not, however, a state law. South Carolina and Alabama, do not allow undocumented students to apply to public universities[25]

Tuition and financial aid[edit]

The cost of attending college is the primary obstacle facing undocumented students. While there is no federal or state law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges and universities, financial limitations are enough to prevent students from applying and/or enrolling.

Programs like DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, creates open space for undocumented students to qualify for postsecondary education benefits discussed in policies like IIRIRA. The language in PRWORA, still bars DACA recipients to receive public benefits since they are not “qualified aliens.” The language in both PRWORA and IIRIRA are vague enough that they allow states to decide how to address tuition rates and state financial aid for their students. Although many states use these statutes as the reason to deny federal and state financial aid many others argue that the definition of public benefits does not include offering in-state tuition to undocumented students.[16]

As of 2014, 20 out of the 50 states in the U.S. are allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington all have state laws. Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island allow this through the school system, their Board of Regents. Virginia only allows in-state tuition for DACA students.[26]

The state regulations provide access to in-state tuition to any student, regardless of immigration status, who meets certain criteria such as attending an in-state high school for a minimum number of years and graduating from an in-state high school. It is important to note that in-state tuition bills benefit U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents because many students lose their state residency once they leave their home state for a certain number of years. Thus, many students who pursue an undergraduate degree out of state and want to return to their home state for another degree greatly benefit from these in-state tuition laws.[27] Other state universities will take undocumented students as international students, charging out-of-state tuition.[27]

Even though states opt to pass their own legislation allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students; while this is an important step for undocumented students, it does not fully bridge the gap for financial aid. Some states, like Georgia, have worked against education for undocumented students by forbidding enrollment in some colleges [28]

Only six states, California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.[26]

Because undocumented students are not eligible for Federal financial aid,[27] they rely primarily on private scholarships as a source of funding for their postsecondary education. There are a few private scholarships that do not require the student to be a U.S. citizen or resident or have a social security number in order to apply. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) maintains the most comprehensive listing of such scholarships.[27]

Private colleges and universities set their own financial aid policies. Some offer financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships to undocumented students.[27]

Additional barriers[edit]

Understanding how to navigate the higher education labyrinth is a learned social practice, a skill acquired through social networks, parent understanding, and access to the information. The opportunities to learn about college access is inequitably taught to undocumented students.[29] Undocumented students face many challenges in their pre-collegiate years that can inhibit their knowledge to access to higher education in the future. Most undocumented students come from working class or working poor families, which often forces them to live in communities where they become vulnerable to crimes, poor housing conditions, high unemployment, and underperforming schools[29] Many of the schools they attend face high teacher turnover, overcrowding, and inadequate teacher preparation. Many of the students are placed into language development courses, which often do not provide the rigorous coursework needed for college preparation.[29] These students also may struggle with their schoolwork due to the discontinuity in their education. Some students arrive in the United States after attending schools in their country of birth. Adjusting to the education system in the United States can be a challenge for students. Some may be behind because their previous schools were not teaching the same curriculum or if their schools were ahead of the curriculum, students might lose interest in their new schools. Undocumented students can also struggle with their need to contribute money to their household. Some students work as migrant farmers alongside their parents, this economic need can set them back in their education and in their path to understanding the steps to higher education.[29] All of these things can inhibit undocumented students from successfully preparing for higher education.

Another barrier undocumented students face in their access to higher education are the lack of resources and adequate support from school professionals. Many school professionals—teachers, counselors, other personnel—are not always aware of their state’s policies regarding admission, tuition and financial aid for undocumented students. Some school professionals are even unaware which students on their campus are undocumented. School professionals, often, do not receive training about policies that affect students and some have acknowledged that they only learned because of interactions with students or what they have learned through the media.[30] Some undocumented students, who have been surveyed regarding their educational experience, claimed to feel as if they “lucked out,” having someone to mentor them in college access.[30] Unfortunately, not all students feel this way. Although some students do acknowledge having an influential teacher or college counselor, many students feel unsupported or feel as they were given incorrect information.[31]

Having college access information available to support undocumented students is not only a tool that undocumented students can use for themselves, it is information that they can then pass down to others. Many parents of undocumented students do not have the knowledge to help their child pursue higher education, but these families have strong family networks, and with accurate information, students will then be able to share it with the younger children in their networks. If community groups and school professionals reach out to undocumented students in ways that work within their culture, these students can have in increased chance of attending higher education.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maria Pabon Lopez, Gerardo R. Lopez (2010). Persistent Inequality: Temporary Realities in the Education of Undocumented Latina/o Students. New York: Routledge. p. 2. 
  2. ^ Abrego, Leisy Janet (2006-10-18). ""I Can't Go to College Because I Don't Have Papers": Incorporation Patterns Of Latino Undocumented Youth". Latino Studies. 4 (3): 212–231. doi:10.1057/palgrave.lst.8600200. ISSN 1476-3435. 
  3. ^ a b Ibarra, Hugo; Sherman, Ross (2012). "Higher Education Opportunities for Undocumented Students in the United States: What are the Policy Implications for Educators and Legislators". JEP: eJournal of Education Policy. 
  4. ^ Covington, Brett (2009). "Is Postsecondary Access for Undocumented Immigrants an Important Right? How the United States and Europe Differ". Georgetown Immigration Law Journal. 
  5. ^ a b Baker, Bryan; Rytina, Nancy (2013). Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012 (PDF). Office of Immigration Statistics, Policy Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 
  6. ^ Chen, Edith Wen-Chu (2010). Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today. ABC-CLIO. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-313-34751-1. Retrieved 2 May 2012. 
  7. ^ Gonzales, Roberto (2009). Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students (PDF). College Board Advocacy. 
  8. ^ Lopez, Lopez 2010, p. 16.
  9. ^ Doe v. Plyler, 458 E.D. Tex. 575 (1978).
  10. ^ a b Doe v. Plyer, 458 E.D. Tex. 585 (1978).
  11. ^ Lopez, Lopez 2010, p. 40.
  12. ^ Obama, B. (2012). Remarks by the President on immigration. Rose Garden, White House, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/06/15/remarks-president-immigration
  13. ^ Napolitano, J. (2012). Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children.
  14. ^ a b Department of Homeland Security. (2016). Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
  15. ^ a b Hooker, Sarah, Margie McHugh, and Angelo Mathay (2015). Lessons from the Local Level: DACA’s Implementation and Impact on Education and Training Success. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
  16. ^ a b c d Adams, Angela; Boyne, Kerry S. (2015-04-25). "Access to Higher Education for Undocumented and "Dacamented" Students: The Current State of Affairs". Indiana International & Comparative Law Review. 25 (1): 47–62. doi:10.18060/7909.0004. ISSN 2169-3226. 
  17. ^ Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-206, 110 Stat. 3009.
  18. ^ Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105.
  19. ^ a b "Bill Summary and Status 111th Congress (2009-2010) S. 3992". 
  20. ^ Passel, Cohn 2009, p. ii.
  21. ^ a b Jeanne Batalova, Michael Fix (Oct 2006). "New Estimates of Unauthorized Youth Eligible for Legal Status under the DREAM Act" (PDF). Migration Policy Institute Immigration Backgrounder (1). 
  22. ^ Passel, Jeffrey S. (Oct 2003). "Further demographics information relating to DREAM Act" (PDF). Urban Institute. 
  23. ^ a b Gonzales, Roberto (Oct 2007). "Wasted Talent and Broken Dreams: The Lost Potential of Undocumented Students". 5 IN FOCUS. Immigration Policy Center (13). 
  24. ^ a b "Advising Undocumented Students". The College Board. 
  25. ^ "States make their own tuition rules for undocumented students". 
  26. ^ a b National Conference of State Legislatures. (2015). Undocumented student tuition: Overview. http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/undocumented-student-tuition-overview.aspx
  27. ^ a b c d e Rincon, Alejandra (2008). Undocumented Immigrants and Higher Education: Si Se Puede!. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing. pp. 109–143. 
  28. ^ Perez, Zenen. "Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Undocumented Students". Scribd. Center for American Progress. Retrieved 2015-04-21. 
  29. ^ a b c d Gildersleeve, Ryan Evely; Ranero, Jessica J. (2010-09-01). "Precollege contexts of undocumented students: Implications for student affairs professionals". New Directions for Student Services. 2010 (131): 19–33. doi:10.1002/ss.365. ISSN 1536-0695. 
  30. ^ a b c Lad, Kaetlyn; Braganza, Desiree. "Increasing Knowledge Related to the Experiences of Undocumented Immigrants in Public Schools". Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development. 24: 1–15. ISSN 1064-4474. 
  31. ^ Pérez, P. A., & Rodríguez, J. L. (2011). Access and Opportunity for Latina/o Undocumented College Students: Familial and Institutional Support Factors. AMAE Journal, 5(1), 14-21.