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William Perez

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Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Notes From the Field

The first research presentation I gave on my work with undocumented students was in 2006 in Anaheim, California at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) annual conference. My graduate students and I wondered how the audience would react. Would there be a fierce debate? What would we do with a hostile audience member? How would we manage the tension? After six years and over 200 research presentations, invited lectures, keynotes, workshops, and radio/TV/newspaper interviews about undocumented students, the dreaded uncomfortable encounter has yet to occur. I’ve come to realize that, with the exception of a few individuals with irrational anti-immigrant sentiments, most people are uninformed about the issue but once they learn more about it, their opinions begin to change. Their opposition to supporting students diminishes. I continue to believe that with a solid body of research as the foundation we can implement institutional changes in higher education to better serve the needs of undocumented students.

My research during the past seven years has resulted in three major works: We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream, Undocumented Latino Students: Their Socioemotional and Academic Experiences, and Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education. In these books I examined the academic achievement, civic engagement, and higher education access of undocumented students. I found that in addition to the potential economic contributions of undocumented youths, they also contribute in a variety of ways to the civic vitality of their communities and school campuses. They demonstrate high levels of achievement motivation, resilience, and civic engagement. Their volunteer and community service rates exceed that of their native-born peers. Undocumented students are both supported and constrained by educational institutions, individual educators, and non-profit community based organizations. Some individuals within educational institutions are very helpful and supportive, while others limit or prevent educational access. Over the next week I’ll reflect on the following question: How much have we learned about the context of higher education for undocumented students over the past 10 years? What are the major trends in the research literature? How do we proceed as higher education researchers and practitioners to further expand the body of knowledge and implement effective strategies to ensure student success?

In many ways 2012 is a landmark year for undocumented students. It is the 30th anniversary of Plyer v. Doe, the Supreme Court decision that to this day still protects access to K–12 education for undocumented children. Earlier this year California implemented the California Dream Act, the tuition assistance bill that along with California AB 540, greatly increases higher education access for undocumented students in California. The passage of the bill also has important symbolic and political implications. California has generated momentum in other states to pass their own tuition-assistance bills. As of 2012, 12 states have passed in-state tuition laws. Among these, a total of four have also passed tuition-assistance laws. Although there have been many legal challenges and efforts to repeal these laws, they have only been successful in two instances, the rescinding of tuition assistance in Oklahoma and the repeal of Wisconsin’s in-state tuition law.

This year we have also seen the undocumented student activists take center stage in the national discourse about immigration. One of their crowning achievements this year was being profiled in the front cover of both domestic and international versions of Time Magazine, America’s secular bible. Dreamers have become a power political force. Their efforts led to another highlight of 2012, the signing of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) by president Obama. Although it is not the Dream Act or comprehensive immigration legislation, this new federal policy stands to benefit almost 2 million undocumented students. As a community member, I celebrate these remarkable accomplishments. As a scholar and social scientist who studies immigrant youth and higher education access, I view these developments as inspiration to continue to expand our understanding about how undocumented status affects not only higher education access and youth activism, but also human development, achievement motivation, and psychological well-being. During the next week, I’ll share my reflections as a scholar who has dedicated the last seven years of my academic career to the study of undocumented students. I’ll discuss highlights from the growing body of literature on undocumented students and suggest future directions. Even after the Dream Act and/or comprehensive immigration reform are passed into law, we will still need to study and understand the impact of undocumented status on students and families.

About the author

William Perez is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on the social and psychological development of immigrant students, and Latino academic achievement and higher education access.

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