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William Perez

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Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Future Directions

The next Congress and presidential administration might finally deliver the Dream Act or comprehensive immigration reform. In the meantime, DACA will undoubtedly impact the undocumented student experience in significant ways. Although an estimated 2 million young adults may be eligible for it, many will not be able benefit due to past legal troubles that disqualify them, or not applying for fear of deportation or lack of financial resources. Already there are efforts under way to provide financial assistance in the form of grants or scholarships to help students with the application fees, but the financial need is so high that many may be left out.

As far as institutions of higher education are concerned, DACA may increase the need for campus support for undocumented students. Although enrollments might rise, particularly at the community college, those eligible for DACA still do not qualify for federal financial aid or student loans, a key resource for low-income students. The challenging school/work balance may remain the same. Students may still have to postpone higher education to help support their families financially. Schools may need to make decisions about how they are going to allocate campus resources for undocumented students between those with DACA and those without. DACA may not eliminate a student’s sense of alienation on campus.

I have enjoyed the broad range of individuals I’ve met over years as a result of my research on undocumented students. Visits to cities in diverse states ranging from California, Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and North Carolina have allowed me to better understand how people become engaged with the issue and how they work to support students at the local level. I’ve received e-mails from middle school students and teachers, high school students and teachers, concerned parents, and many others who work in higher education settings. In the past few years I’ve become particularly concerned about college students who are either U.S. born or legal residents but whose parents or other family members are undocumented. Many came across my work as they searched for answers after one or both of their parents were deported and they had to assume a caretaker role for younger siblings.

About two years ago I met a student enrolled at a public university in California whose father had been deported several years ago and the family became homeless. Although she was born in the United States, her parent’s undocumented status had affected her educational experiences and higher education access in significant ways. Like many Dreamers I’ve met, she aspires to attend law school to become an immigration lawyer to help those in similar circumstances who suffer the pain of family separation due to deportations. Her story is one of many I’ve heard throughout the years. Yet we know virtually nothing about students like her and how it affects college persistence even though they number about 4.5 million.

I’ve come to realize that as we continue to expand the body of research that examines the relationship between undocumented status and higher education access, we need to broaden these efforts to include all children and youth that grow up in families where at least one family member is undocumented, also known as mixed-status families. Recent studies suggest that above and beyond the relative disadvantage of undocumented parents due to lower levels of education, a range of everyday experiences—from interactions with authorities to characteristics of their social networks and work conditions—exclude them from obtaining resources to help their children’s development. The threat of deportation results in lower levels of enrollment of citizen-children in programs they are eligible for including child-care subsidies, public preschool, and food stamps, as well as lowered interactions and engagement with public institutions, such as schools. Without recourse to unions or to public safeguards, their work conditions are not only poor but chronic, with harmful influences on their children’s development through increased economic hardship and psychological distress. Among second-generation Latino children, those with undocumented parents fare worse on emergent reading and math skills assessments at school entry than those from groups with lower proportions of undocumented immigrants. Moreover, such disparities are evident as early as 24 months of age. Children of undocumented immigrants average 11 years of education, compared with about 13 years for those whose parents are legal residents. But once undocumented immigrants find ways to legalize their status, their children’s educational levels rise substantially.

My academic work has always been guided by the desire to inform public policy. My focus on immigration and education led to my research on undocumented students. As I reflect back at a time of a significant transition in our nation due to the presidential elections and the election of a new Congress, and during a year of substantial progress in immigration reform and higher education access for undocumented youth, I’m left with a feeling of optimism and renewed commitment to continuing my research on this topic. I’ve come to appreciate that in order to understand the relationship between undocumented status and higher education access it is not enough to study undocumented students in educational settings; our analyses must include undocumented youth pushed out by the educational system as well as undocumented families. So if anyone from a foundation is reading this blog, I’ll be hitting you up for research money really soon.

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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