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William Perez

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Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Civic Engagement/Activism

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the academic research on undocumented students in recent years has focused on their activism. Their ability to influence policy at the local and national level continues to inspire academic interest in understanding how marginalized youth become empowered and how their efforts evolve into a social movement. Recently, it feels like I everyone I know is doing research on undocumented student activism. Various studies note the role of campus student groups that serve as the catalyst for broader political mobilization.

I still remember vividly my first attendance to a Dream Act public demonstration. It was a press release and mock graduation held on the front steps of Los Angeles City Hall. Some students were dressed in graduation gowns, others held up signs that read “I am Human,” “Pass the Dream Act Now,” and “My Dream, the American Dream.” Another group of students held a large banner that read, “Our Dreams Can’t Wait.” I proudly wore a black t-shirt given to me by one of the student organizers when I arrived that had the phrase, “Legalize LA,” on the front. I knew many of the event participants and organizers and met others for the first time. I was amazed by the scale of the event, the logistical sophistication, and the students’ ability to capture the media’s attention. Although I’ve lost count of the many public demonstrations, rallies, hunger strikes, and civil disobedience actions I’ve attended, the lessons I have learned about activism and civic engagement have been profound.

Because they are legally always at risk of being deported, the law plays an explicit and palpable role in the lives of undocumented students. Undocumented student activists interpret the rights granted to them by in-state tuition laws as a formal recognition of their merits, giving them a sense legitimacy to invoke the law to demand additional rights. Previous studies suggest that both pro- and anti-immigrant legislation can transform social identities and encourage political mobilization. Laws like California’s AB 540 and the proposed Dream Act have provided student activists with new and non-stigmatized social labels. Since the labels “illegal” and “undocumented” conflict with the perceptions of themselves as upstanding and productive members of society, after the passage of AB 540 students in California began to refer to themselves as “AB 540 students.” Most recently, students across the country have adopted the label “DREAMers.” These new labels and political identities help students not only conceal their stigmatized status but also reinforce their merits as students through their activism. Under these new labels, students organize, recruit others, and share resources. Unintentionally, AB 540 and the DREAM Act have shaped the political identities of undocumented student activists. To them, these laws not only represent access to higher education and legal status, but they are also a formal recognition of their earned belonging in society and signal support for their endeavors.

Student activism has led to a growth of undocumented student groups and statewide and national networks. The student organizations meet with chancellors, provosts, deans, scholarship providers, legislators, community leaders, community organizations, counselors, parents, and other students to increase awareness of policies like in-state tuition laws that help improve access to resources and opportunities that exist. Social networking sites have nurtured the growth of these student activist groups and have become a powerful tool for undocumented youth activism. Over the last few years, social media has facilitated undocumented student efforts to higher education and immigration policy by contacting legislators, mobilizing, and staging public actions such as fasting and vigils that have received broad media coverage. Despite the dangers involved in speaking out publicly, many students have become frustrated by the limitations of their status and are finding strength and courage in numbers. For some, the transition to postsecondary education is linked to a growing politicization.

In my research I have found high levels of civic participation among undocumented college students, with 90% of participants reporting civic engagement in the form of providing social services, working for a cause/political activism, tutoring, and functionary work. By virtue of the extensive civic development efforts of schools, both formal and informal, undocumented students adopt an American social and political identity, prompting them to act and behave according to the democratic and civic ideals they learn in schools. Their adherence to American democratic values has been nurtured for years by teachers, extracurricular activities, and peers.

So, what can be expected in the future of undocumented youth who demonstrate high levels of civic engagement as young adults if they were to become legalized? Research consistently shows that young adults who are civically involved continue to do so as adults. Thinking back about the student activists at the mock Dream Act graduation event almost four years ago, I can recall several students that have since graduated from college, have pursued service careers with a strong civic engagement component, and have emerged as influential leaders in their community. It has been enlightening to witness their evolution from being tentative public speakers who preferred to work on the logistics behind the scenes to becoming the articulate and inspiring public speakers and leaders they are today.

Undocumented student activists will most likely continue to assume leadership positions in their community and remain civically active throughout their lives. The extent of that involvement and the long-term civic benefit to American society, however, remain uncertain as long as their legal status remains the same. The U.S. government does not recognize undocumented immigrant youth as formal members of society despite their various civic contributions and academic accomplishments. These model citizens, therefore, remain in the shadows and with few prospects to fully realize their potential as civic leaders. Current research continues to highlight the wide array of civic participation of undocumented students and challenge simplistic characterizations of then as “lawbreakers.” These studies highlight the various ways they make important contributions to civic life.

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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