Undocumented students deserve path to citizenship – Report

A new report on undocumented students which highlights their socio-economic potential to the United States, makes a strong case for a more “permanent legislative fix that will allow them to work and study without fear of deportation and create a path to permanent residency and US citizenship”.

The report, Undocumented Students in Higher Education: How many students are in US colleges and universities, and who are they? (Undocumented Students), produced by the American Immigration Council and Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration (PAHEI), notes that in 2021, there were more than 408,000 undocumented students – those living in the US without citizenship or legal immigration status – in America’s colleges and universities.

As such, they represent 1.9% of all students in higher education in America. This figure is slightly lower than the 2% recorded in a similar study PAHEI and the New York-based non-partisan immigration research and advocacy NGO, New American Economy, conducted in 2019.

The authors of Undocumented Students say that the 0.1% decline in undocumented post-secondary students “likely reflects overall enrolment decline due to the pandemic and economic pressures, as well as factors that specifically impact undocumented individuals, such as continued legal challenges to DACA [the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrival programme established in 2021 by then-president Barack Obama, which shields undocumented individuals who were brought to the United States as children before 2007; DACA-eligible individuals are often referred to as ‘Dreamers’ after the phrase ‘American Dream’]”.

Just over a third of undocumented college and university students (141,000) come under the DACA programme.


According to Undocumented Students, the population of undocumented post-secondary students is significantly more diverse than might be expected given the emphasis Republican presidential candidates such as Donald J Trump and Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, place on the Rio Grande River, which forms the border between the United States and Mexico.

In 2015, in the speech at Trump Tower in which he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Trump accused Mexico of sending criminals, including drug dealers and rapists, to the United States; a signal policy of his presidency was, famously, to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, which, in fact, was not built. For his part, DeSantis has pledged to complete the wall and proposed tough new laws to curtail illegal immigration.

Using data from the US Census’ 2021 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Undocumented Students shows that Hispanics make up less than half (45.7%) of the total population of undocumented post-secondary students.

Almost a third, 27.2% of the undocumented college and university students, are Asian, the majority of whom arrived in the United States on work, study or tourist visas and overstayed the expiration of their visas, says Dr Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst and data manager for the Washington DC-based NGO Migration Policy Institute. Similar immigration patterns apply to the 13.8% of blacks, 10% of whites (mainly from Eastern Europe) and the remaining 3.4% (“others”) of undocumented students enrolled in higher education.

By contrast, Hispanics make up 68.8% of DACA-eligible post-secondary students; Asians make up 16.5%; blacks account for 5.7%; white 6.6% and “others” make up 1.3%.

“Latinos constitute a significant portion of unauthorised immigrant students in US colleges: 69% among DACA-eligible and 46% among all unauthorised immigrant students as of 2021. Their representation is greater among DACA students in part because of the programme's conditions, like arrival before 15 June 2007.

Back then, Latinos comprised an even larger share of unauthorised US immigrants than they do today. Additionally, Latino youth and young adults enrolled in the programme at higher rates compared to other ethnic groups thanks to the ongoing discussions of the programme's benefits in Spanish-speaking media and strong community support,” says Batalova.


Almost all of the undocumented students attend college or university in 11 states. California has the most: 83,000 or 2.8% of the state’s total post-secondary student body. The 59,000 undocumented students in Texas’ colleges and universities constitute 3.3% of the state’s total number of post-secondary students; Florida’s 40,000 are 3.1% of that state’s total. New York’s 30,000 represent 2.2% of the state’s college and university student body.

The other states with 10,000 or more undocumented post-secondary students are Illinois, Maryland, Georgia, Virginia, Washington and Arizona. The states with the largest DACA-eligible populations are California (38,000), Texas (20,000), Florida (8,000), New York (9,000) and Illinois (8,000).

The vast majority of students are enrolled in public colleges and universities: 77% of the total and 80.8% of DACA-eligible post-secondary students. Just over 87% of the total number of undocumented students are undergraduates while 81% of DACA-eligible students are undergraduates.

In support of DACA

In June of 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Trump’s 5 September 2017 executive order rescinding the DACA programme (which had been stayed for three years by an injunction), was invalid because it had been made without adequate policy justification.

Undocumented Students provides a wealth of data supporting the programme – and, indeed – the more politically fraught initiatives in 23 states to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and 17 to access in-state financial aid. (Undocumented students are barred from receiving federal financial aid.)

Among the benefits to the American economy listed by the report are the fact that 33.6% of undocumented graduate students (including 37.1% of DACA-eligible students) are pursuing STEM degrees. Of these, 23.1% are studying in a healthcare-related field.

“This is especially important,” notes the report, because of “the nation’s increasingly severe shortage of workers across the healthcare industry from physicians to home health aides.”

Further, in 2021, households led by undocumented individuals paid almost US$30 billion in taxes, US$18.6 billion of which were federal taxes and US$12.2 billion in state and local taxes. DACA-eligible households alone pumped US$16.1 billion into local business, or for rent or mortgages.

According to the report, a recent study in Massachusetts found that were the state to extend in-state tuition to undocumented students, these students would create between US$2.6 million and US$3.5 million new income for the state’s public colleges and universities; these new students would also help “stem the decline in enrolment” that the state’s colleges and universities are experiencing due to the overall nationwide decline in the student population.

Additionally, Batalova, whose organisation advocates that the federal government extend DACA-like recognition to all undocumented immigrants, told University World News, we know that higher education leads to more productive people and stable communities.

“Those who have DACA protections are buying homes in general and, as studies show, the status of people who own homes is greater and they get better jobs. We also see that these people have a different trajectory in participating in their communities and volunteering,” she said.

Undocumented Students also shatters a few shibboleths. For more than a century states along America’s southern border have complained about illegal immigration across the Rio Grande. The derogatory term ‘wet back’, for Mexicans who swam across the river, was first used in the New York Times on 20 June 1920.

In an effort to stem illegal immigration (which had in fact declined by about a half in the past year), late last month Republican Governor Gregg Abbott ordered the construction of a floating barrier with razor wire constructed in the Rio Grande; at least one child drowned in the river on 2 August.

Twenty-two years ago, however, under Abbott’s predecessor, Republican Rick Perry, Texas “became the first state to extend access to in-state tuition and some forms of financial aid to undocumented students based on non-residency requirements”. These requirements included, for example, having graduated from a Texas high school or received an equivalent diploma.

A permanent fix

As do its authors, Batalova hopes that this report will lead policy makers in Washington to modernise immigration legislation that is now three decades old and out of date.

“In light of the economic contributions Dreamers already make, and the future talent and workforce potential represented by this student population,” Undocumented Students calls on Congress to pass legislation that offers Dreamers a “permanent legislative fix … that allows them to work and study without fear of deportation and creates a path to permanent residency and US citizenship,” she says.

As is the case in other countries, immigration “becomes embroiled in much bigger debates about the future of the country, or type of country it should be and how to treat people seeking asylum whether for economic, family migration or climate change driven migrants.

“The impact of immigration is not at the abstract level or the national level. It’s felt at the community level, at the level of the block and neighbourhood, the level of the school district and university.”

Batalova says while today’s anti-immigrant ‘cultural’ sentiment also revolves around economic competition and political fears, along with apprehension about “changes associated with unfamiliar cultures, languages, and religions”, research summarised by the National Academies of Sciences shows that immigrants and their US-born children, driven by the promise of the ‘American Dream’, have made significant strides in linguistic, economic, educational, social and policy integration.

“In the process, they have also brought about significant contributions to the United States. Think of the famous immigrant tech pioneers like Sergey Brin of Google, business leaders like Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani, Hollywood royalty such as Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, and political leaders like Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state,” she said.

“History has demonstrated that the United States has gained immensely by embracing its ‘Immigrant Dream’.”