Institutions of higher education across the country enroll students whose residency remains undocumented, as well as students who have received temporary, but renewable deportation relief under the Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. Many of these students identify as Hispanic or Latino, but undocumented and DACAmented students (those with approved DACA applications to remain in the U.S.) have origin stories as diverse as the full student population.
They come from Europe, Asia, Africa all corners of the world. But now, they seek the education they need to reach their full potential and make a full contribution to this country. Many of these students face challenges of access and equity, and student affairs administrators and faculty alike need resources to understand how they can serve as resources for students as they navigate the often exclusionary policies and practices that have forced too many to defer their dreams of postsecondary education.
We shared a presentation at this year’s national conference of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education as one effort to provide guidance to student affairs and faculty allies of undocumented and DACAmented students. We heard from many colleagues whose institutions are grappling with how to support these students. On many campuses, the issue—like many students who fear sharing their status—remains largely in the shadows. Higher education professionals on those campuses can support student activism to bring challenges affecting undocumented students onto the institution’s agenda and into the consciousness of the campus community.
Elsewhere, students have raised their voices and called upon institutions to meet their obligations to provide equitable college experiences for all, regardless of a student’s residency status.
Although commentators and politicians may employ hostile rhetoric toward this nation’s undocumented population—a population that contributes over $10 billion annually in state and local taxes —commentators and politicians do not serve students. Institutions do. As colleges and universities move to address the challenges faced by many undocumented and DACAmented students, they often do so in early stages in ways that are uncoordinated, ad hoc and unarticulated. We call upon institutional leaders, along with student affairs professionals and faculty allies, to affirm the role of higher education in providing equitable opportunities to all enrolled students. This affirmation requires policies and practices that are coordinated, systematic and tied directly to institutional mission statements and sustained financial resources.
The Undocumented Student Program at the University of California Berkeley seeks to provide a holistic model of support that meets the academic advising, counseling/psychological, food and housing security and legal counseling needs of students. The program fosters a sense of community built on trust and care.
Northeastern Illinois University has a distinct student profile from that of UC Berkeley, but shares a commitment to leveraging both on- and off-campus resources to empower undocumented students to achieve their educational goals. NEIU is a 100% commuter student campus, and the average student age is 28. But students historically referred to as “nontraditional” are increasingly the students representing the most common profiles. NEIU has developed a faculty and staff Undocumented Student Resource Guide and, like their colleagues at UC Berkeley, project staff offer ally training to faculty and staff to prepare them to support undocumented students who approach them for guidance.
In addition to identifying and training on-campus resources, advocates for undocumented students at both UC Berkeley and NEIU engage community-based partners to provide bases of support for students along their educational journeys.
Many undocumented and DACAmented undergraduates face challenges associated with fearing that they or a loved one will be deported, working multiple jobs while pursuing a degree fulltime, and encountering student affairs professionals, faculty and peers who foster inhospitable climates for their educational success. Instead of stigmatizing undocumented students, or presenting them as a “model minority,” institutional allies must instead affirm the place of all students, work to identify the resources they need to succeed, and facilitate equitable access to those resources. Rather than, for example, only adopt a policy providing instate tuition eligibility for undocumented students at public institutions, colleges and universities must recognize that access represents the first step in a student’s postsecondary career.
In 1982, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all children in the United States to a K12 education at the public expense. Today, the nation is focused on enhancing postsecondary educational attainment in order to meet both workforce needs and the need for a more informed citizenry. Good conscience, smart economics and professional values combine to compel postsecondary educators to institutionalize holistic supports for undocumented students. In doing so, they can exemplify a commitment to the public good and, through strategic advocacy, work to bring about more just policies that reflect the character to which our country aspires.
Kyle Southern is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. Daniel Lopez, Ph.D. serves as Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at Northeastern Illinois University. Meng So is director of the UC Berkeley Undocumented Student Program.