Out of the shadows but into the labyrinth: undocumented students in higher education

Infographic by Aurora de Peralta. Source: The Institute for Immigration, Globalization & Education. Available at http://http://undocuscholars.org/assets/undocuscholarsreport2015.pdf

Infographic by Aurora de Peralta. Source: The Institute for Immigration, Globalization & Education. Available at http://http://undocuscholars.org/assets/undocuscholarsreport2015.pdf

by Aurora de Peralta 

Each year, millions of students graduate from high schools across the United States. And among that throng of recent graduates are about 65,000 undocumented students, according to the College Board. But unlike their classmates, these students’ lack of official citizenship documentation taints their graduation celebration.  Their undocumented status will make their path to higher education difficult at best, presenting institutional, financial and social barriers to obtaining a university degree.

Now with immigration reform at the forefront of national debates, undocumented students are caught more than ever in the crosscurrents of immigration and higher education policies. In 2012, President Obama announced a new program to bring relief to undocumented immigrants: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Immigrants who apply for DACA and are approved receive two years of protection from deportation.

“Since the program was launched in August 2012, about 650,000 individuals have come forward and received DACA,” said Felicia Escobar, the special advisor to President Obama on immigration policy.  She had been announcing the successes and limitations of the Obama administration program at a panel event on undocumented students in higher education, held at the Center for American Progress on March 31, 2015.

“We estimated that about 1 million people would qualify for the program. So, the fact that we have been able to bring 650,000 of those out of the shadows, out of that 1 million, to us, is a success.”

DACA may have allowed undocumented students to come out of the shadows, but among its many stipulations is that the applicant have obtained a higher education degree. And unfortunately, undocumented students must navigate a labyrinth of complex barriers to obtain their diplomas.

Laura Bohórquez, the coordinator of the Dream Education Empowerment Program at the immigrant youth-led advocacy organization United We Dream, asserted that education and immigration policy often clash upon intersection.

“Immigration and education is kind of like a double-edged sword,” Bohórquez said in an interview. “We’re seeing that the policies that have been introduced in the past all have an education requirement. But we’re also making it really hard for students to enroll in school.”

Unwelcome admission policies for students

Difficulty in enrollment begins with the higher education institutions themselves, where admissions and financial aid policies for undocumented students varies depending on the specific state, college or university.

Since 2001, certain states have taken steps to try to make postsecondary education more accessible to undocumented students. State-based Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Acts—which have changed state residency requirements to allow undocumented students to pay the same tuition rates as their peers—have become law in several states.

Some states, however, continue to place higher education out of reach for undocumented students. According to a 2014 infographic by the immigrant youth advocacy organization, United We Dream, Georgia currently bans undocumented students from enrolling in some public colleges and universities. Arizona has passed legislation prohibiting undocumented students from paying in-state resident tuition rates at some of its public colleges and universities. And the top four states with the fastest-growing undocumented populations—North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, and Arkansas—are also states that lack beneficial tuition-equity laws.

There is clear discrepancy along states lines of public university admissions policies. But private universities can have even more varied and complicated protocols when it comes to prospective students and their citizenship status.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, a DACA beneficiary and a White House Champion of Change, remembered the confusion and uncertainty her undocumented status posed when she was a student. She had moved to the United States from Taiwan when she was 2 years old, but had never received  documentation of her U.S.  residency. This presented complications for her in applying for colleges. She wasn’t a legal citizen, yet she also wasn’t an international student eligible for an F1 or J1 student visa.

“At  many universities that I applied to, they still weren’t that knowledgeable about what being undocumented meant,” Lee said in an interview. “A lot of times I would have to be pulled into a backroom, and I would have to tell them that I’m undocumented. And they wouldn’t really know how to place me.”

In the end, the only school Lee was accepted into was New York University. But there was one caveat: she would not be eligible for any financial aid or scholarships, and would have to pay the full tuition of the private university. To pay for school, Lee spent her years at NYU working long hours as a nanny, a Mandarin tutor and a cleaner. Through this hard work, Lee was able to receive both a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a master’s degree in Psychology.

Lack of financial resources for students

Although Lee’s story may seem exceptional, her experience as an undocumented student is by no means unique.  For many students lacking U.S. citizenship, the next barrier after stringent university admissions policies is finding a way to finance a higher education.

A 2015 study by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education study found that 90.3 percent of undocumented students surveyed had a household annual income below $50,000. Yet higher education costs can escalate beyond that. The College Board reported in a 2014 survey that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college averaged $23,410, while a budget at a private college averaged $46,272.

The typical college applicant would file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to apply for scholarships and loans that help cover these costs. But the FAFSA application requires students to have documented citizenship in order to apply, placing these sources of federal financial aid out of reach for undocumented immigrants.

Pamela Cervera, the development coordinator at the national nonprofit, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said that the FAFSA presents and immediate financial obstacle for undocumented students. As a former undocumented student herself, she now mentors other students lacking citizenship but seeking the resources to attend college.

“The problem is that it starts with that federal aid. That’s the biggest chunk of money you’re going to get, through the FAFSA,” Cervera said in an interview. “So what may deter students from applying to college is that lack federal money they’re automatically not getting.”

For former undocumented student Daniel Leon,  the combination of a lack of citizenship and unwelcoming university policies formed his barrier to higher education.

“A number of schools had given me merit scholarships. But there had been these policy changes, and a lot of the schools required that I had a FAFSA on file to be eligible for any financial aid,” Leon said in a phone interview. “That had created a system where I essentially could not receive any of the scholarships that I had been awarded.”

Discrimination within the university culture 

Leon eventually found his way into American University, an institution that does not consider a prospective student’s citizenship status during the application process. Although he did not have a FAFSA on file, he was able to fund his education through private merit scholarships. He had called ninety-five private scholarship organizations, only finding three for which undocumented students would be eligible. He applied to and was accepted for all three, including the Jack Kent Cooke college scholarship.

But for Leon–and many other undocumented students–the barriers to success higher education did not end after their acceptance into universities. Undocumented immigrants often face discrimination within the university setting that can prevent them from integrating into university culture.

In the same 2015 study by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education, undocumented immigrants in college reported high levels of being treated unfairly or negatively due to their legal status by faculty, counselors, other students and campus police. They also spoke of isolation on campus as they felt uncertain about who they could trust.

“I will say this though, it’s scary to come out as undocumented to your friends,” said Leon.  “It’s scary to come out to the administration. And it’s scary to come out and see all of the opportunities that you have to be documented for.”

Leon recounted the time he spoke on a panel of immigrant students at American University–the first time he publicly announced his undocumented status. The university paper ended up publishing a story of the panel online. The comments that followed were less than sympathetic to his story.

“People started commenting and were like, ‘You all need to call [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], this is unacceptable, here’s the number, start calling, this is his full name,'” Leon said. “So dealing with that, you’re like, ‘Holy CRAP. I could get deported right now.”

Bohórquez, who works closely with undocumented immigrant activists, has seen the students she supervises undergo similar discrimination on campuses.

“There was a comment made to one of our students saying that, ‘You are just bringing more drugs and drug cartels,'” Bohórquez recounted. “There still are a lot of comments being put out, and our students are still being put through these things about not being able to be a student, but always having to defend and protect themselves instead of actually being able to be a student and take advantage of that.”

DACA and DREAM – helpful but still limited

Within universities, administrators are beginning to understand the importance of addressing the needs of undocumented students.

“There are an increasing number of colleges and universities and presidents and directors of admissions and financial aid who understand that we do need to work together and share experiences and learn together, so that together we can create more opportunities for undocumented students,” said Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin and Marshall College. “It’s a terrible constraint that the federal financial aid programs are not available to students with an undocumented status.”

Porterfield had spoken on the same Center for American Progress panel as immigration policy advisor Escobar. He emphasized the need for higher education administrators to influence national policy reforms supporting “a mosaic of students.”

“I tend to lean toward the issues that promote the well-being for my students, which is why I think a policy like the DREAM Act is a natural policy for colleges and universities to support,” he said in a post-event interview. “I think if you did a poll of college and university presidents you’d find enormous support for the DREAM Act, and additionally, expanding public grants to undocumented students.”

But, as Cervera noted, policies like the DREAM Act and DACA will not be enough, as neither of these policies offer a direct pathway to citizenship.

“At the end of the day, it’s just temporary. Immigration is not going to stop. It doesn’t solve everything. It’s just helping those who fit within the policy’s guidelines,” she said. “It’s not forever, and it doesn’t really solve immigration issues.”

With that, Cervera revealed that both government and educational institutions could be doing a lot more to improve well-being for undocumented students in higher education.

“I sincerely believe that we can’t just blame immigrants who decide to stay here. If we didn’t want immigrants here, then we would be harsher with employers. We would have more policies in place to prevent immigration,” she said. “We can’t just say, okay we’re going to pretend that we don’t want you here, but we’re going to employ you, and you’re allowed to go to our schools, we’re just going to make it a little more difficult for you. You’re going to be second-class citizens.”

Leon’s opinions echoed Cervera’s sentiments as well.

“The numbers really show it all. Eleven million people leaving this country is actually going to be harmful. Imagine taking 11 million people out of the workforce,” he said. “Your country is functioning right now because there are 11 million undocumented people living here.  These are people who are not benefiting from Medicare, these are people who are not benefitting from welfare, these are people who are literally not benefitting from anything other than from being able to live in the U.S.”

“There’s been a cultural, national shift about immigration and I think that if you want to be a leading institution, you can’t ignore what’s going on in the news,” Leon added. “It’s not possible and it’s not good for you as an institution.”

But for Cervera, perhaps the most worthwhile thing to note about undocumented immigration is their resiliency. Despite this labyrinth of barriers to higher education, she said that these students will keep finding ways to succeed.

“In Spanish we say ganas–that desire to achieve. It’s not necessarily a resource, but most students I’ve worked with who are undocumented have that desire to succeed,” Cervera said. “They might not have that financial aid, but whether it’s going through their local community, getting a private scholarship, or sometimes, getting that loan–it’s not taking no for an answer. And although there may be limited resources, I’m going to find a way to get my education.”


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