As an undocumented student navigating higher education, you face a number of unique challenges including constantly changing immigration policies, complex legal circumstances, financial hardships, language barriers, and of course, the challenges that all students face when adjusting to campus life and college classes. But you don’t need to take on these challenges alone. There are countless advocacy groups and support organizations dedicated to improving the experiences and opportunities available to immigrant and undocumented Americans, as well as undocumented students in particular.
Whether you’re struggling to navigate America’s complex immigration laws, you need help navigating your college campus, or you just need some good advice on selecting an online college, a reputable organization is ready to provide assistance. Below, we outline some of the key groups along with links and contact information so you can access or reach out directly to the organizations best suited to help you.
The groups below are broken down into the following categories:
As an undocumented student, one of the greatest difficulties you’re likely to face will be navigating the constantly changing and often inconsistent immigration laws both at the national and state levels. This may include issues related to your legal status, unlawful detention, deportation proceedings, family separations, institutional discrimination, civil rights violations, and other threats to your residency or to the completion of your education.
Otherwise, read on for a look at the groups and organizations designed to help you remain, and succeed, in the U.S.:
- Al Otro Lado is an organization that works both in the U.S. and Mexico to provide legal support in the Tijuana border area for migrants, deportees, and parents who have been separated from children through deportation.
- The American Immigration Lawyers Association is comprised of more than 15,000 attorneys and law professors, who practice and teach immigration law, as well as represent those seeking permanent residence for family members, businesses seeking global talent, and foreign students, entertainers, athletes, and asylum seekers in need of legal support, often on a pro bono basis.
- American Immigrant Representation Project (AIRP) is part of the Immigration Justice Campaign, and is dedicated to providing legal representation for immigrants, particularly those who have been detained by enforcement officials.
- CARA is a consortium of religious and immigration advocacy groups — including the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association — which collectively make legal services available for immigrants who are being held at family detention centers.
- Immigrant Justice Corps provides direct legal representation in immigration court to parents and children, both at the border and in the New York metro area.
- Immigration Legal Resource Center provides training, technical assistance, and educational materials to help immigration law professionals expand their expertise, and engages in advocacy and civic engagement on behalf of immigrant rights.
- Immigrant Legal Services provides attorney services both pro bono or low cost in support of immigrants from all over the world who are attempting to navigate the complex U.S. immigration process.
- The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) raises money for the legal defense of undocumented and immigrant families, and has taken a particularly important role in confronting the family separation and related civil rights violations occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border.
- World Relief Immigration Legal Services empowers local churches to provide immigration legal services, leading denominations in the provision of immigration legal ministry, immigration legal services clinics, training opportunities for church-based clinic sites and staff/volunteers, and start-up support.
Note: Most of the groups selected for inclusion here are national or international, with some regional inclusions. However, there are many local and regional groups working to help immigrants and undocumented Americans in communities all over the United States. Moreover, many of the national organizations listed above may have a local chapter in your community. In addition to exploring the groups here above, ask for legal referrals from trusted members of your family and community, or search online for local assistance.
In addition to facing legal challenges, immigrant Americans and undocumented students face an array of obstacles related to shifting policies, enforcement tactics, and practical impediments to citizenship, residency, or educational access. A number of advocacy groups and networks are designed to help push for positive policy changes, to support individuals and families impacted by aggressive enforcement tactics, and to offer a voice for those who may not otherwise have one.
For a look at the policy changes and legislation that could have a direct impact on you, check out our discussion on the DREAM Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and other laws impacting undocumented students.
Otherwise, read on for a look at the groups and organizations advocating for your rights. Find out how these groups can help you:
- The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is one of the leading resources for information, support and guidance in matters concerning Constitutional violations, institutional discrimination, and other practices or policies resulting in unequal treatment against any group, including immigrant or undocumented Americans.
- The American Immigration Council (AIC) promotes education, advocates for judicial protections, and advances cultural exchange around immigration issues and needs.
- Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project provides support and services aimed at keeping families together, particularly those separated by enforcement personnel in spite of their status as asylum seekers.
- Immi helps you understand and consider your options for staying in the United States and provides access to education, resources and legal support as your pursue the best path forward.
- Freedom for Immigrants (Formerly CIVIC) is a leading voice exposing and opposing immigrant detention, as well as organizing visitation opportunities for individuals in detention centers.
- Immigration Advocates Network (IAN) uses free, accessible and comprehensible online resources to connect leading immigrants' rights organizations with the goal of improving communication and collaboration between groups, and consequently, improving service capacity and access to justice for immigrants.
- International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) organizes law students and lawyers around the goal of advancing legal and human rights for refugees, particularly through legal and judicial challenges to existing immigration laws.
- Kino Border Initiative collects supplies and distributes as humanitarian aid to refugees and migrants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
- National Immigrant Justice Centerprovides advocacy and representation for immigrants facing removal, for those struggling to gain access at the borders, and for families separated by aggressive enforcement tactics.
- Pueblo Sin Fronteras provides shelter and humanitarian support to migrant families and individuals during their often-perilous travels to the U.S. border.
- Women’s Refugee Commission provides support and advocacy for women, children and youth seeking asylum in the U.S. in flight of violence, persecution and abuse.
- Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights works to advance and protect the rights of immigrant children, especially those who are facing immigration proceedings.
Government Agencies and Offices
There are a number of government agencies and outlets designed to either carry out immigration laws, provide administrative support in navigating bureaucracies, or simply provide information about your status or the status of a family member or loved one.
Be advised that the degree to which these agencies are either supportive of, or hostile toward, immigrant needs may vary. For instance, the Office of Civil Rights is part of the Department of Education and is designed to support your needs as an undocumented student, whereas the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is largely designed to enforce what have become increasingly hard-line anti-immigration tactics.
During your time in the U.S., you may be required to interact with or navigate any number of these agencies either in pursuit of proper documentation, in advocacy of a loved one inside the enforcement system, or to locate public support services. It is best to know and understand some of the federal groups and agencies you are likely to encounter.
You should first be aware of the various enforcement prongs of the United States government as they pertain to immigration. It’s important that you recognize these agencies and that you have a sense of how they work. This is a key step in understanding your rights and how you can preserve them in the face of discrimination or unlawful enforcement tactics:
At present, the immigration arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is divided into three prongs:
The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS)
The primary agency for processing applications for green cards, visas, citizenship, renewals, and other immigration status documentation.
The Bureau of Customs and Border Control
The agency responsible for screening the arrival of international travelers, legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and asylum-seekers.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
The agency responsible for detention, deportation, raids and other activities aimed against individuals suspected of being in the United States unlawfully.
Additional government agencies that you might interact with as an undocumented student include the following:
- The Family Policy Compliance Office navigates issues and complaints related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which concerns privacy and information sharing within the education system.
- The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is the division of the Department of Education responsible for providing support, guidance, and advocacy to students seeking protection from exclusion or raising charges of discrimination against an educational institution.
- The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), part of the National Security Investigations Division, oversees the various standards and regulations surrounding the arrival of non-immigrant students in the U.S. and largely applies to individuals seeking or holding a student visa.
- The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, including handling of most procedural matters related to the pursuit of citizenship and naturalization.
The ACLU offers a simple portal that you can use to locate your elected congressional representatives. You should also consider your elected officials as a potentially valuable source of advocacy and public support. Don’t forget to reach out to state and local office-holders who might be sympathetic to your situation. Whether you need support, intervention or simply wish to voice your support for fair and equitable immigration law reforms, reach out to your local and state officials for help.
Undocumented students face the dual challenges of navigating a new country and a new campus or online college. Adjusting to your courses, learning a new language, and adapting to a new culture can magnify the already significant difficulties that come with earning a degree. Be sure to access some of the support networks, organizations, and resources formed specifically with immigrant and undocumented students in mind:
- American Council on Education (ACE) provides advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform centering around undocumented students, with a particular focus on advancing fair and equitable DREAM Act legislation, and providing pathways for talented international students — especially STEM students — who wish to remain in the U.S. after completing their studies
- The DREAM Education Justice Program, sponsored by United We Dream, provides education-specific support, resources and continually updating information on DACA and related policy changes impacting Dreamers.
- Generation Progress focuses on advancing progressive views on immigration law and policy reform among Millennials through collaboration, political engagement, and social action, particularly with young individuals on campuses and those who are engaged in activism, journalism or policy research.
- Immigrants Rising (Formerly Educators for Fair Consideration), is a community of educators and educational professionals who provide both resources and support — including scholarship opportunities, legal advocacy, and educational workshops — for undocumented students working toward an education, a degree, or a career in the United States.
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is technically a legal advocacy group, but it warrants inclusion in this section for its groundbreaking work in advancing educational equality for undocumented students, especially its successful prosecution of the landmark Plyler vs. Doe Supreme Court case which set the precedent making public school legally accessible to all children regardless of citizenship or status
- My Undocumented Life provides a set of tips and resources aimed directly at the experience of the undocumented student, including scholarship opportunities, tips for navigating the educational system, news on immigration policy, and ongoing updates relating to DACA.
For many undocumented students, the difficulty of financing college is even greater than the challenges of access or legal status. As an undocumented immigrant, you are eligible to apply to and attend most colleges or universities. However, you are not eligible for federal financial aid. In addition, many states prevent undocumented students from receiving either in-state tuition rates or state-based financial aid.
Whether you are or are not eligible for state financial aid or discounted tuition rates, you should still take advantage of every opportunity for financial support. A number of scholarships and grants are offered specifically for immigrant and undocumented students. You have to apply to take advantage though. Check out a few of these scholarship directories, indexes and guidelines to see which undocumented student scholarships apply to you:
- 10,000 Degrees
- Financial Aid and Scholarships for Undocumented Students (FinAid)
- Immigrants Rising Scholarship Fund
- Immigrants Rising Entrepreneurship Fund
- International Financial Aid and College Scholarship Search
- Student Center from Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard
The advocacy groups, government agencies, and educational resources listed here are designed to ensure that you know your rights, have access to meaningful legal support, and have all the assistance you need in order to succeed in your education and on your path to legal status in the U.S.
One of the best ways to support undocumented students and other immigrant community members is teach English Language Learning (ELL) courses. Check out these degrees if you’re interested in a career as an English instructor for students who are adjusting to a new culture, life, and language:
- The Best Online Bachelor's in English Language Learning Programs
- The 25 Best Online Master's in English Language Learning Programs
Bookmark this page, and remain tuned in to our Undocumented Students Guide to College for updates on shifting policies, insight on how these changes impact you, and access to an ever-growing set of resources designed to help you navigate both immigration and education in the United States.
And if you’re truly interested in better understanding and helping to improve America’s immigration laws, check out the following degree options and build a career in support, advocacy, or policy reform: