Undocumented students in the United States

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Undocumented students are immigrants who entered the United States without inspection or overstayed their visas and are present in the United States with or without their parents.[1] They face unique legal uncertainties and limitations within the U.S. educational system.

Most children of undocumented immigrants—73% in 2008—are U.S. citizens by birth.[2] This number has increased rapidly in recent years, from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008.[3] By contrast, the number of unauthorized immigrant children has stayed constant at 1.5 million since 2008 and may have declined slightly since 2005.[3]


It is difficult to determine national statistics for the demographic make up 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. Approximately 17% of undocumented immigrants are under the age of 18.[4]

While a majority of undocumented students come from Mexico and other Latin American countries, nearly 25 percent do not.[5] After Latin America, the second-largest sending region is Asia. There are slightly more than 1.4 million undocumented Asians, 12 percent of the total undocumented population.[6]

In some states, particularly California, undocumented Asians make up a disproportionate number of undocumented students in colleges and universities. In the University of California system, since the implementation of Assembly Bill (AB) 540 — a bill that allows students who have attended and graduated from California high schools to pay tuition at in-state rates — Asians have made up 40 to 44 percent of all undocumented students paying in-state tuition.[7] In the 2005-06 academic year, Asian students represented 55 to 60 percent of students paying in-state tuition under AB 540.[7]

Region of birth for unauthorized immigrant population in the United States (2009).jpg

K-12 legislation regarding undocumented students[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[edit]

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.

Higher education[edit]

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 1.5 million undocumented students currently reside in the United States.[12] Of these students, approximately 765,000 arrived in the United States before turning sixteen.[13] 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.[13] 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.[14] In 2005, only about 50,000 undocumented students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.[15] Of these college students, 18,000 were enrolled in California community colleges in the 2005-2006 school year as a result of financial accessibility.[15] 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.[16] 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.[16] This policy is not, however, a state law.

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. Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (Title 8, Chapter 14, Sec. 1623(a)) states: “an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State (or a political subdivision) for any postsecondary educational benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount duration, and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident.” Several states have passed state laws providing 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.[17] Other state universities will take undocumented students as international students, charging out-of-state tuition.[17]


Because undocumented students are not eligible for Federal financial aid,[17] 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.[17]

Private colleges and universities set their own financial aid policies. Some offer financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships to undocumented students.[17]

As of 2011, 11 out of the 50 states in the U.S are allowing undocumented students that graduated from high school to pay in-state tuition. Some of these states include: California, New Mexico, and Texas. These states have created their own laws and requirements to be able to accept undocumented students. Conversely, other states have specific laws that prohibit undocumented students to attend college. South Carolina and Alabama do not allow undocumented students to apply to public universities.[18] Most of the other states make undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition, which is at least three times more than in-state.

There are many websites that give information to students facing this dilemma.[citation needed] As mention before, private scholarships help these students pay for some of their college expenses. Some websites provide information about scholarships, schools, programs, and many other helpful information for any students planning to go to college.

This gap still exists between higher education and financial aid for undocumented students. Since undocumented students are not eligible for most forms of financial aid, merit scholarships are often not feasible as they are most often restrict their eligibility to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid, thus, benefits that come from FAFSA or Pell Grants do not apply to these students. Most state-based aid is also out of reach for undocumented students so grants, work study and loans are not options [19] . 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 [20] . Statistics show $11.8 billion in taxes each year comes from undocumented immigrants. Findings also show that there would be an $845 million in tax revenue with the Obama Administration’s executive action that includes the implementation of DACA and its expansion. These findings also show that a full immigration reform would increase tax revenue by $2.2 billion.[21] Giving these groups the availability for higher education aid would only increase these benefits through their consumption and investment in the economy.[22]

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.[23] 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.[23] 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.

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.[24]

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. ^ Jeffrey S. Passel, D'Vera Cohn (2009). A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. p. ii. 
  3. ^ a b Passel, Cohn 2009, p. 7.
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Gonzales, Roberto (April 2009). "Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: College Board Advocacy: 10. 
  6. ^ Gonzales 2009, p. 10.
  7. ^ a b Gonzales 2010, p. 10.
  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. ^ Passel, Cohn 2009, p. ii.
  13. ^ 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). 
  14. ^ Passel, Jeffrey S. (Oct 2003). "Further demographics information relating to DREAM Act" (PDF). Urban Institute. 
  15. ^ a b Gonzales, Roberto (Oct 2007). "Wasted Talent and Broken Dreams: The Lost Potential of Undocumented Students". 5 IN FOCUS (Immigration Policy Center) (13). 
  16. ^ a b "Advising Undocumented Students". The College Board. 
  17. ^ a b c d e Rincon, Alejandra (2008). Undocumented Immigrants and Higher Education: Si Se Puede!. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing. pp. 109–143. 
  18. ^ "States make their own tuition rules for undocumented students". 
  19. ^ "Fact Sheet: An Overview of College-Bound Undocumented Students" (PDF). Educators for Fair Consideration. Educators for Fair Consideration. Retrieved 2015-04-21. 
  20. ^ Perez, Zenen. "Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Undocumented Students". Scribd. Center for American Progress. Retrieved 2015-04-21. 
  21. ^ "Undocumented Immigrants' State and Local Tax Contributions". The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP. Retrieved 2015-04-21. 
  22. ^ Athanasiou, Joy. "Basic Facts About Undocumented Students" (PDF). Together Colorado. Higher Education Access Alliance. Retrieved 2015-04-21. 
  23. ^ a b "Bill Summary and Status 111th Congress (2009-2010) S. 3992". 
  24. ^ Covington, Brett (2009). "Is Postsecondary Access for Undocumented Immigrants an Important Right? How the United States and Europe Differ". Georgetown Immigration Law Journal. 





  1. ^ Athanasiou, Joy. "Basic Facts About Undocumented Students" (PDF). Together Colorado. Higher Education Access Alliance. Retrieved 2015. 
  2. ^ "Fact Sheet: An Overview of College-Bound Undocumented Students" (PDF). Educators for Fair Consideration. Educators for Fair Consideration. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  3. ^ Perez, Zenen. "Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Undocumented Students". Scribd. Center for American Progress. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Undocumented Immigrants' State and Local Tax Contributions". The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP. Retrieved April 21, 2015.