How undocumented students go to college

In the heated debate about mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, some anti-immigrant groups are demanding that they not be given any services at all, including education. Some student groups in colleges are calling for them to be made ‘sanctuary colleges’, similar to proposed ‘sanctuary cities’, that will protect such students from being thrown out of the country.

This made me wonder how it is that these students get any education at all, especially higher education, because there is a lot of paperwork that students have to fill out to get admitted into most accredited colleges in the US that requires providing information that people with uncertain status may not have. At the very least I thought that you had to provide a Social Security number that is required for most things. And yet there are an estimated 30,000 students enrolled in colleges.

A 1982 US Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe said that states passing laws denying free public education to undocumented immigrants (as Texas had done) violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, using as its reasoning that the clause protected the rights of ‘persons’ and that undocumented immigrants were undoubtedly persons and that “the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection extends to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a State, and reaches into every corner of a State’s territory.”

In writing for the 5-4 majority, justice Brennan wrote:

The discrimination contained in the Texas statute cannot be considered rational unless it furthers some substantial goal of the State. Although undocumented resident aliens cannot be treated as a “suspect class,” and although education is not a “fundamental right,” so as to require the State to justify the statutory classification by showing that it serves a compelling governmental interest, nevertheless the Texas statute imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. These children can neither affect their parents’ conduct nor their own undocumented status. The deprivation of public education is not like the deprivation of some other governmental benefit. Public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement. In determining the rationality of the Texas statute, its costs to the Nation and to the innocent children may properly be considered.

However, that ruling did not apply to higher education and Tanya Golash-Boza and Beninno Merlin write that those rules vary greatly from state to state, since there are no controlling federal statues.

In fact, when it comes to higher education, three states explicitly bar undocumented students from enrolling in universities: Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Alabama and South Carolina bar undocumented students from all public institutions of higher education. Georgia bars undocumented students from enrolling in the five most selective public institutions.

Most states, however, have no policies with regard to access to higher education for undocumented students. This is made possible as there is no federal law that requires students to prove they are lawfully present to be admitted into a post-secondary institution in the U.S. Undocumented students do not have to disclose their status and they do not have to provide a Social Security number when applying.

In those states that have no official policies, undocumented students often must pay out-of-state or even steep international rates for public education. This makes access to higher education difficult.

In contrast, there are 20 states that not only allow undocumented students to attend institutions of higher education, but also permit those students to pay in-state tuition.

The 20 states, subject to change, that have this policy are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah and Washington.

Private universities have more freedom in what they can do because there is no law that governs their admissions policies but the catch is that those universities are much more expensive than public ones.

Some private universities offer a small number of scholarships to undocumented students that enable them to access higher education, but the demand far outpaces supply.

The most selective universities in the country, such as Harvard, Princeton and Duke, offer need-based scholarships to all admitted students, including those who are undocumented.

What might happen under the vicious anti-immigrant policies of a Trump administration? What might be targeted is what is known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an executive order signed by president Obama.

This policy temporarily protects undocumented youth from deportation, and provides them with a Social Security number and a work permit.

To qualify, undocumented immigrants must have been under the age of 31 on or before June 15, 2012; have arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen; and be currently enrolled either in school or in the armed forces or already have completed high school. DACA does not provide any additional benefits when applying to college.

DACA does allow many undocumented college students to supplement their parents’ meager income by getting part-time employment.

President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to rescind all of President Obama’s executive orders. If this happens, youths who currently have DACA would eventually lose their work permits as well as access to employment in the formal economy. DACA has had a noticeably positive impact on its beneficiaries. It has opened up better economic opportunities and allowed recipients to obtain driver’s licenses, and even open their first bank accounts.

As president, Trump could threaten to take away federal aid from states or even from universities that allow undocumented students. However, as the sanctuary movement builds, and as more and more campuses sign on, there would be, we believe, strong resistance to any efforts to restrict access to higher education for undocumented youth.

I foresee a whole slew of lawsuits emerging as Trump pursues his extreme right-wing agenda in order to placate those who voted him into office. While he will undoubtedly renege on many of his campaign promises as he seeks to benefit the wealthy and abandon the working class, targeting undocumented immigrants for harsh actions will be the easiest for him to keep because it carries little financial cost and will satisfy the nativist, xenophobic elements that are his most vocal supporters. The lot of this group of people may not improve but they will gain some satisfaction from seeing other people treated vindictively.


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