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Working with Undocumented Students

August 16, 2010

Many of us are familiar with the national political debate surrounding immigration reform. These debates are spilling over into many of the communities in which our institutions reside. In addition this issue is salient for us in private Christian colleges, because some of our institutions have decided to admit students who are undocumented. This decision, whether you agree with it or not, raises an important question that each institution needs to answer. How does one support and assist these students in being successful at our institutions?

I must preface this article by sharing a little about myself. I am a first generation Mexican American college student whose father initially immigrated to the US illegally, but then returned and secured legal residency before returning to the US. Therefore this issue is something I have become passionate about over the past few years.

In order to consider how to support these students one must gain a historical perspective on the issue of immigration as it relates to education. In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled in Plyer v. Doe that undocumented students must be given the right to public education. Currently this decision affects approximately 1.8 million children under the age of 18; about one-sixth of the total undocumented population (Passel, 2006). An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from our nation’s high schools each year (Fix & Passel, 2003). Our country has made a substantial investment in the education of these students. For many the dream of higher education is an elusive goal, as only about ten percent of undocumented high school graduates enroll in college (Fortuny, Capps, Passel, 2007). These students do not qualify for federal aid, and only have access to state financial aid if they live and attend schools in the following states: New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. These states allow them to apply for state grants in addition to paying in-state tuition at state schools. Other states that provide undocumented students with an in-state tuition benefit are California, Utah, New York, Washington, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

It is important to note the characteristics undocumented students exhibit. Perez’s (2009) research states that these students exhibit academic achievement, leadership participation and civic engagement patterns that exceed their US citizen counterparts. His research is based on case studies of undocumented high school, community college, university, and graduate students who are valedictorians, honors students, and other exceptional student leaders. For many of these students their stories begin at a young age when their parents decided to cross the border illegally to gain access to the American dream. These children did not have a voice in determining whether their families should make this journey. For many of them arriving at a young age has allowed them to grow up as Americans, therefore these undocumented immigrants consider themselves Americans.

In 2001, the US Congress introduced legislation that would provide a path to legalization and access to higher education for undocumented high school graduates. As of today the DREAM Act has not been passed into law and these students remain in limbo; although momentum appears to be moving in the direction of this bill becoming law. The bill would extend a six-year conditional status to undocumented students who meet certain criteria. These criteria include: entry into the US before the age of 16, continuous presence in the US for five years prior to the bill’s enactment, receipt of a high school diploma or its equivalent, and demonstrated good moral character. Those who qualify would be authorized to work in the US, go to school, or join the military. If during the six-year period they graduate from a two-year college, complete at least two years of a four-year degree, or serve at least two years in the US military, the student would be able to move from provisional US resident status to permanent legal residency (Perez, 2009).

Current Status
It is not illegal for our institutions to permit undocumented students to attend. The federal government is currently allowing institutions to develop their own policies. Some of our colleges and universities do not require students to provide a social security number (which are not available to the undocumented) in order to enroll, or in some cases, qualify for institutional aid. Therefore we do have undocumented students attending our institutions. We do not need to provide that information unless federal authorities request it. Although their number is unknown and may not be significant, we still must provide them the same level of support and care we provide our documented students.

Institutional Support
The challenges that these students must overcome in order to complete their education are many; and many of them have already shown resiliency by gaining admittance to our institutions. That being said, institutional support is critical to their success.

Undocumented students do not qualify for work-study positions and will therefore not be able to work on campus. Institutions can begin to think about how they could provide financial support by creating think tanks to brain-storm ideas. One idea would be to develop a fund that is accessible to these students and supported through private donations.

Admissions and Financial Aid staff should be informed about outside resources that are available to undocumented students. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the University of Southern California Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, and the National Council of La Raza have extensive lists of scholarships for which these students are eligible.

Admissions and Financial Aid staff should also be trained on how to guide these students through the application process. Staff should be made aware of ways to avoid making these students feel as if they are being criminalized. In addition student life staff should be informed about the issues so they can better support these students. The development of workshops designed to educate college personnel about these issues are is recommended. It is important to understand that for many of these students this is a sensitive topic and rapport must be built before they will openly discuss these issues with administrators. At our institution we have informed faculty mentors and advisors about the status of certain students after receiving permission from these undocumented students. This provides them with an additional resource for potential mentoring and advising capacities.

Recently as part of our institution’s commemoration of Cesar Chavez we screened the film Papers ( This film documents the experience of five undocumented youth and provides a platform for engaging students and staff about issues surrounding the DREAM Act and immigration. The institution believed that it was important to educate our community about this national issue so as to provide a space to talk about the experiences of undocumented students. Other films that engage immigration issues include El Norte and The Visitor. Books on this topic include We ARE Americans, A Home on the Field, and Enrique’s Journey.

Ultimately, it is my belief that institutions need to ask themselves whether being open and supportive of undocumented students fits with their mission as Christian Colleges. If it is not a mission fit and does not have the support of the executive leadership than it is better not to attempt to receive these students. In our case, we have made a commitment at the board level and senior leadership that this is something that aligns with our history as a Quaker institution and our mission as a Christian college. This mission is to reflect the Kingdom of God by bringing many different people together both from similar and dissimilar backgrounds to be in community together regardless of their backgrounds. Although, we know this endeavor can have many challenges we are committed to working toward building an inclusive community.

Joel Perez serves as the Dean of Transitions and Inclusion at George Fox University. One of his main responsibilities is to assist the institution of thinking how to better reflect the diversity of God’s Kingdom as describe in Revelations 7:9. He is a first generation college students and a son to parents that immigrated from Mexico.


Fix, M., Passel, J.S. (2003). U.S. Immigration: Trends and Implications for Schools. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Fortuny, K., Capps, R., Passel, J. S. (2007). The Characteristics of Unauthorized Immigrants in California, Los Angeles County, and the United States. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Passel, J. (2006). The size and characteristics of the unauthorized migration population of the U.S.: Estimates based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Perez, W. (2009). We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing The American Dream. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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