Supporting Undocumented Students at School

by TBS Staff

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Education is an important resource for all people in the U.S., and colleges have a responsibility to protect inclusive access to that resource.

The right to education in the United States is constitutionally protected for all, regardless of residency status or citizenship. However, America's constantly changing immigration laws — including its stance on the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — present undocumented students with practical, bureaucratic, and legal challenges.

Despite these obstacles, America's colleges and universities must continue to educate all who seek and qualify for admission. Classmates, educators, and community members to America's undocumented students also have a shared obligation to protect their peers from discrimination, intimidation, and the violation of civil liberties.

What can we do to help undocumented students work toward college credits, graduate degrees, and career opportunities here in the United States? This guide highlight a few steps you can take to support your undocumented classmates and colleagues, especially amid heightened uncertainty for America's immigrant communities.

Education and Immigration Law

Constitutional law and legal precedent indicate that the first responsibility of educators and educational institutions is to serve students of every background, irrespective of immigration enforcement priorities.

Educators and colleges do not have a responsibility to enforce America's ever-shifting immigration laws.

While enforcement initiatives and executive policy orders may shift culture and behavior around the treatment of immigrant and undocumented Americans — especially given the uncertainty surrounding the DACA initiative — legal precedents regarding the rights of undocumented students remain unchanged.

Educators, colleges, and universities are not merely ethically compelled to protect undocumented students: Judicial review specifies that they are also legally obligated to do so.

The Intercultural Development Research Association states that "school personnel — especially principals and those involved with student registration and enrollment — should be aware that they have no legal obligation to enforce U.S. immigration laws."

With that in mind, here's how we, as classmates, colleagues, educators, and administrators, can fulfill our obligation to protect undocumented students in our educational communities.

Know the Law

First and foremost, we must understand the rights available to undocumented students — and the challenges to these rights. As an advocate, you must first have a basic understanding of key education and immigration laws.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

This policy, enacted in 1974, gives parents and families the right to access educational information regarding their children. It also established the right to access information about public entities and the right to privacy regarding certain personal details.

Most notably, FERPA generally prohibits public schools and districts from disclosing certain student information, including immigration status, without prior consent.

Plyler vs. Doe

This 1975 case concerns a set of laws in Texas that required students to prove their citizenship status to attend public schools. Public schools in one Texas municipality also imposed tuition requirements on students without this documentation.

An eventual 1982 Supreme Court decision found that both the Texas law and the municipal law imposing tuition fees were unconstitutional and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The decision set a legal precedent, making free access to K-12 public school a constitutional right for all, regardless of immigration status.


This policy was originally introduced to Congress in 2001 to provide pathways to legal status and eventual citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors, but it was never passed into law. However, many still use the term "DREAMer" to describe young undocumented Americans, many of whom arrived here as children through no decision of their own.

In offering a special classification for this group of undocumented Americans, the proposed DREAM act also created a framework for providing structured protection for immigrants who attend school, maintain gainful employment, and otherwise remain free from criminal convictions.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

The DACA policy opened major pathways to normalization, visibility, and educational access for young immigrants and undocumented residents. Building upon the DREAM Act, DACA provides a temporary fix in the absence of real legislation, giving thousands of young immigrants the chance to obtain legal status, education, work, and freedom from legal persecution.

However, Donald Trump's 2016 election exacerbated federal immigration policy, resulting in widespread deportations, criminal prosecutions, enforcement raids, and efforts to roll back DACA protections. DACA status remains in a state of legal flux, creating uncertainty for undocumented students. Most recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the administration's 2017 attempt to terminate DACA, instead upholding the program on administrative grounds.

Uncertainty Surrounding DACA

Among the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S, roughly 800,000 have received DACA status since its implementation in 2012. This status translates into a wider array of educational options — including more public colleges and universities — and opportunities for state-based financial aid or scholarship assistance.

Though the Trump administration has sought to prevent new applications while advancing efforts to unravel DACA protections, judicial challenges have protected the law from total elimination.

Still, DACA protections remain threatened and uncertain. It is important for advocates to remain current on the changes surrounding DACA. These may shift with election outcomes, administrative policies, and judicial decisions.

You can also visit the American Immigration Lawyers Association for ongoing updates on legislative changes, executive actions, and both judicial and advocacy-based efforts impacting DREAMers or visit the DREAM Education Justice Program at United We Dream for education-specific support relating to student Dreamer status and opportunities for educational advancement.

Protect Sensitive Locations

Though various immigration enforcement tactics have become exceedingly aggressive in recent years, a policy memorandum released by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in 2011 still dictates that ICE agents cannot attack in "sensitive locations."

In addition to hospitals, places of worship, and public demonstrations, all schools, colleges, and universities have "sensitive location" status. This means that classmates, educators, and campus faculty members have a right to defend undocumented students against inappropriate enforcement actions. You can use the safety of your citizenship to speak out against enforcement actions on your campus.

Issue Statement of Support

Institutions and educators must ensure that undocumented and refugee students know that the campus and its personnel are there to help. Otherwise, some students may fear seeking support from those in authority.

Issue a multilingual statement of support for undocumented students at the beginning of each semester and maintain online resources at all times, indicating that counselors, educators, financial aid advisors, and others are a part of the support system for undocumented students.

A schoolwide resolution indicating an official policy rejecting immigration-related federal enforcement actions will bolster this statement. Any such statement should indicate a commitment to the safety, protection, and learning rights of undocumented students in your community.

Build Campus-Wide Awareness

Undocumented students face unique challenges, including employment insecurity, difficulties accessing healthcare, and social alienation. Fortunately, campus culture can actively combat these issues through student outreach to ensure safety, confidentiality, and inclusive curriculum design.

Colleges can cultivate a student and faculty culture that demonstrates acceptance by providing diversity training for employees and student allies. They can also establish trust by ensuring the confidentiality of student records and providing legal and safety information about on- and off-campus housing, ID use, and travel.

Schools can also use curriculum design to explore different cultural issues in a positive light. Hosting student events, guest speakers, and workshops with a focus on immigrant rights can foster helpful dialogue among enrollees. Ultimately, building campuswide awareness of the issues faced by undocumented students helps alleviate their struggles.

Make Informational Resources Readily Available

In addition to understanding undocumented students' rights, you should also communicate those rights to others. Your college or university should provide a permanent online list of resources and information in an array of languages and in a readily accessible location.

In addition to outlining undocumented student rights, implementing inclusive university policies, and providing links to support groups and networks, institutions and individuals should promote these resources through targeted and public outreach. Keep your student body informed.

Provide Multilingual Counselors and Other Staff

Undocumented students often face the challenge of learning a new language. This barrier can stand in the way of information access, awareness about legal rights, opportunities for financial support, or even a basic sense of belonging.

Colleges that provide multilingual counselors, financial aid officers, admissions personnel, and educators can create more than just a sense of inclusion. Reducing barriers to communication and information can also help undocumented students remain supported, protected, and successful while pursuing a degree.

Create a Culturally Inclusive Educational Experience

In addition to language barriers, undocumented and refugee students often face cultural challenges on the path to earning degrees. As classmates and educators, we have a responsibility to promote cultural exchange. Cultural diversity is a virtue.

To collectively realize the value of this diversity, we must promote open and conscientious dialogue between different groups. Advocates should disseminate information promoting intercultural sensitivity and explaining the effects of discrimination, while also confronting discrimination vocally and without tolerance. Create a welcoming atmosphere on campus that does not tolerate hate or exclusion of undocumented students.

Partner with Legal Resources

Undocumented students often face many legal challenges, including seeking citizenship, extricating a loved one from detention, navigating the changing DACA landscape, fighting deportation, or just attempting to work and live in the United States while avoiding confrontations with ICE.

College campuses must provide access to legal support and resources for undocumented and refugee students. To accomplish this, schools should establish partnerships with advocacy groups and law firms that work pro bono to address immigration challenges.

Some schools even retain local immigration raid rapid-response teams composed of attorneys, media personnel, and community leaders. These teams help provide support and defense for students facing enforcement discrimination or the violation of their personal liberties.

Stay Vigilant

Classmates, educators, and faculty members must remain vigilant at all times. If you see signs of enforcement actions on your campus that you believe may be inappropriate or in violation of individual liberties, contact the proper legal advocacy groups or appeal to your campus leadership.

If your classmate or student shows signs of distress that you believe may be related to citizenship status, reach out. Let them know that you are an advocate, that you are there to help, and that you will do your best to create access to the proper support and resources. In short, be a helpful member of your community by ensuring its members receive fair treatment, personal support, and protection.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Undocumented Students Pay for College?

Immigrant students commonly pay for college with scholarships tailored specifically to undocumented, first-generation, low-income, or other high-need students. Undocumented students can pursue scholarships from certain states, private colleges, nonprofits, and other organizations. Unfortunately, undocumented students do not qualify for federal student aid.

Do DACA Recipients Get Free College?

DACA recipients cannot claim any entitlement to free college. Instead, they often find themselves turned away from financial aid and admissions offices for their lack of citizenship. However, DACA recipients do qualify for state funding in some states.

Can You Go To College If You Are an Undocumented Immigrant?

Yes. No federal or state law prevents undocumented immigrants from attending college. Though some colleges require applicants to submit proof of legal citizenship, many others do not. Some schools also admit undocumented students but treat them as foreign students, disqualified from in-state tuition rates and state aid.

In some states, undocumented immigrants can pay in-state tuition rates for college if they graduated from in-state public schools and commit to applying for citizenship. However, policies vary by state and institution.

Can You Get Financial Aid If You Are Undocumented?

You can gain access to financial aid as an undocumented immigrant through grants and scholarships from states and private foundations that do not require U.S. citizenship to qualify.

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