Small Changes Add Up: Supporting Undocumented Students on Campus

Nearly all college students worry about how they’ll pay for school and what their classmates will think of them. But for undocumented students, these concerns are felt even more intensely.

[Above: From the May Day Immigration Rights Rally in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2007 (Photo courtesy takomabibelot via Flickr)]

Unlike their peers, undocumented students are prohibited from receiving federal financial aid, and in some places, they have zero access to state funding. Furthermore, undocumented students in Alabama and South Carolina are banned outright from enrolling in state colleges or universities, and the same is true of some public colleges and universities in Georgia.

These students are left with limited resources, and many choose not to pursue postsecondary education or drop out after enrolling. Another option is to enroll part time, like Enrique Anguiano, a junior at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) majoring in communications.

“Before I was able to benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program [this year], I was solely responsible for paying for my education in cash,” Anguiano said in an email. “When I was granted deferred action, I was told I still did not qualify for such assistance, and therefore, the struggle continued.”

Faculty and staff at Northeastern Illinois University exhibit their undocumented student ally badges, which communicate that their offices are safe spaces for these students. Only those who complete training may display the ally badge.
Faculty and staff at Northeastern Illinois University exhibit their undocumented student ally badges, which communicate that their offices are safe spaces for these students. Only those who complete training may display the ally badge.

Through an executive order passed in 2012, President Barack Obama created the DACA program, which offers temporary protection from deportation for undocumented youth who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday and have lived here continuously since 2007. To be eligible, an applicant must have graduated from high school in the U.S., have earned a GED certificate, or be currently enrolled in school.

Because DACA does not provide legal status, students like Anguiano are unable to access federal financial aid. To avoid taking on student loans that could land him in debt, Anguiano has paid for his education entirely out of pocket. He says the feeling of hopelessness — though not unique to undocumented students — is especially common among them.

“The struggles pile up one after another, and sometimes it just seems like we don’t deserve to be in college and get the same education that others do,” he says. “It is overwhelmingly disheartening. So many of us call it quits and resort to working at jobs instead of building our careers.”

Another undocumented student at NEIU, a senior English major who chose to remain anonymous, said in an email that he believes undocumented students are stigmatized because of their immigration status.

“I’m afraid of being labeled by something I have no control over. I don’t want to have to explain my situation or status to every person I meet,” he said. “Most of all, I’m afraid of being put into a box by my peers. When people learn of your status, many of them [don’t] understand what it means to be undocumented. It takes more than courage to be able to explain one’s situation.”

As lawmakers debate immigration reform, an undocumented student’s ability to attain a degree is crucial to his or her chances of gaining citizenship and full, legal participation in the U.S. For example, a bill proposed by Congress in 2013 — S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act — included plans to expedite the path to legalization for some undocumented people who had completed two years of higher education. The bill passed in the Senate, but the House never picked it up.

Although there are many legal and social barriers for undocumented students, some states do offer financial aid and in-state tuition rates to help make college more affordable. But many college faculty and staff members lack knowledge about these options or believe that undocumented students are ineligible for any aid.

NEIU is trying to change that. To ensure that the campus has a dedicated network of support for these students, Daniel López Jr., associate vice president for student affairs at NEIU, established the Undocumented Students Project. López, who came to the U.S. as a 10-year-old, understands the struggle — and the importance — of earning a higher education.

Tuition Legislation Looks Different State to State
The topic of immigration reform has come under renewed debate in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections. Many experts predict that Hispanic voters will be largely responsible for electing the next president, as this demographic continues to expand and reach voting age.

Some presidential hopefuls are using immigration reform as a way to reach Hispanic voters who may have unauthorized family members, while other candidates have proposed tougher regulations for these immigrants.

An estimated 11.5 million unauthorized people live in the U.S. Of these, 71 percent are from Mexico and other Central American countries; Asian immigrants comprise the next largest group, at 13 percent, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Since Obama’s 2012 executive order, roughly 665,000 young people have been granted deferred action through the DACA program. Although people with DACA do not have full legal status, the designation allows them to earn a work permit and apply for a social security number without fear of deportation.

While the benefits of DACA have allowed many to access higher education, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that around 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, but less than 10 percent go on to pursue postsecondary education.

In 2001, realizing the need for an educated workforce, Texas passed a bipartisan bill that updated residency requirements dictating eligibility for in-state tuition rates, which benefited the state’s undocumented students. Since then, 17 states have followed suit, passing similar bills, and seven states have passed legislation granting state aid or access to private funding, making postsecondary education a more affordable reality.

Suzanne Hultin, a policy specialist in postsecondary education at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), says state legislation on tuition rates fluctuates from year to year, and she expects this trend will continue.

“Over the last couple of years, one or two states have introduced legislation annually, whether that’s in-state tuition rates or state financial aid, so this is something that is consistently on the minds of legislators,” she says. “But sometimes there’s a trend of states going in the opposite direction, like in Missouri.”

This fall, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri sued three higher education institutions in the state on behalf of undocumented students who said they were being charged international student tuition rates, despite meeting Missouri residency requirements. Language in the preamble of a newly passed budget bill implied that colleges were required to charge international rates for these students, but the ACLU says a bill’s preamble has no legal bearing. The suit is ongoing.

Understandably, colleges and universities may not be aware of how to help undocumented students navigate the convoluted territory of admission and financial aid applications. For example, most of the 18 states that provide in-state tuition require that undocumented students file an affidavit saying they have or will apply for legal status when they enroll. Still, many colleges and universities are unaware that undocumented students are eligible for some forms of financial aid.

Creating Safe Spaces for Undocumented Students
López was lucky — throughout his academic career, paying for school was not an insurmountable obstacle.

“When I finished high school, I didn’t know if I could apply to college and didn’t know how I would pay for it,” he says. “When I found out I could apply, I was really happy. I started [that] spring, and my brother paid for my classes.”

The first in his family to attend college, López was granted amnesty soon after he began classes, which meant he was eligible for financial aid; however, he never needed to apply. “The irony is that I was eligible [to secure funding] but didn’t need it. I never applied for financial aid,” he says.

Instead, he worked for the institutions where he studied or attended on scholarship. “When students ask how I paid for my education, I tell them, ‘Sorry, I never did.’”

This hasn’t prevented López from taking steps to assist NEIU’s nearly 250 undocumented students or to make them feel more integrated on campus. In 2012, he was awarded a Northeastern Innovation Grant to develop his Undocumented Students Project. The program was meant to last only one year, but he says the needs of these students and their parents were so great that NEIU President Sharon Hahs decided to institutionalize it.

Since then, over 100 NEIU staff and faculty members have gone through training to become undocumented student allies. The six-hour training goes over laws, policies and procedures, admissions policies, and community service opportunities, and includes a panel discussion with undocumented students.

“We are not equipped to be immigration experts, but we can give advice on housing, social services, resources, and support,” López says. “The goal is not to become experts but to have the skills to answer questions and refer students to the right people.”

The project is modeled after the Safe Zone training for LGBTQ advocates, which teaches students, faculty, and staff how to create safe spaces and act as allies for LGBTQ people. Those who complete the training are given stickers and buttons declaring their ally status, which they can display in their offices.

A junior at NEIU, who also chose to remain anonymous, says the Undocumented Students Project has been very beneficial. “It makes me feel like I am important and that I have rights and opportunities just like everyone else in this school who is legal. It helps me find options and ways to get the help and information that I need.”

In the state of Illinois, undocumented students pay in-state tuition, but they are not eligible for state funding. The Undocumented Students Project has helped ensure that none of the merit scholarships offered by NEIU require citizenship status; these awards total $1.35 million.

Additionally, the state’s privately funded DREAM Fund Commission offers a scholarship to children of immigrants who attended at least three years of high school in Illinois and have either graduated or earned a GED. Even so, López says there never seems to be enough money to help all undocumented students because there is so much competition.

López says supporting these students doesn’t take a lot of heavy lifting. Sending campus-wide emails or handing out flyers that advertise your campus as welcoming to undocumented students can make a huge difference, he says.

NEIU recently updated its admissions form to allow undocumented students to self-identify as such, following policy recommendations by the project’s committee, which advocates on students’ behalf. López says this is much more inclusive than the previous self-identification option, which was “HB60,” a reference to the state bill that allows students who are Illinois residents to pay in-state tuition regardless of citizenship.

Political rhetoric and assumptions can obscure the reality of undocumented immigrants, who come from all over the world. But these NEIU students want people to know they’re no different from anyone else.

“We are here to get a degree so we can have better futures,” the NEIU junior says. “Some of us didn’t choose to come here but were brought here by our parents because they knew we would actually have opportunities. I want people to know that we do work hard, and we all have dreams we want to make come true.”

Anguiano adds, “I want [people] to know that we have just as much intellect, just as much passion and ambition as any American citizen — just as much potential. Most undocumented students were brought here at a very young age and were raised within the American culture. … We too are American.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.