"In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower: Undocumented Undergraduates and the Liminal State of Immigration Reform"


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In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower:
Undocumented Undergraduates and the
Liminal State of Immigration Reform
The UndocuScholars Project
The Institute for Immigration, Globalization, & Education
University of California, Los Angeles
In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower:
Undocumented Undergraduates and the
Liminal State of Immigration Reform
The UndocuScholars Project
The Institute for Immigration, Globalization, & Education
University of California, Los Angeles
This report is the result of a joint collaborative effort between the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education
at the University of California, Los Angeles and the UndocuScholars Community Advisory Board, Research Advisory Board,
and Student Advisory Board.
The authors of this report were: Robert T. Teranishi, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. Other contribu-
tors included: Olivia Birchall, Cynthia M. Alcantar, Edwin Hernandez, Yuliana Garcia, Dalal Katsiaficas, Janet Cerda, Minas
Michikyan, Monique Corral, Alicia Ayala, Saskias Casanova, Margary Martin, Nidia Gracia, and Cyndi Bendezu Palomino.
Ford Foundation
This research was made possible by the generous funding from the:
UndocuScholars Research Team
Robert T. Teranishi, Co-Principal Investigator
Carola Suárez-Orozco, Co-Principal Investigator
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Co-Principal Investigator
Olivia Birchall, Principal Analyst
Minas Michikyan, Research Associate
Cynthia M. Alcantar, Research Associate
Monique Corral, Research Associate
Edwin Hernandez, Research Associate
Alicia Ayala, Research Associate
Yuliana Garcia, Research Associate
Saskias Casanova, Research Associate
Dalal Katsiaficas, Research Associate
Margary Martin, Research Associate
Janet Cerda, Research Associate
Nidia Gracia, Research Associate
Cyndi Bendezu Palomino, Research Associate
Community Advisory Board
Advisory Board Members
Student Advisory Board
Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights
Janet Awokaya
Bethay Garcia
through Education (ASPIRE-LA)
Fredrick D. Patterson Research Center, UNCF
Coalition for Humane Immigrant
Santiago Bernal
Lupe Lopez
UCLA Center for
Northern Illinois University
Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)
Community College Partnerships
Basti Lopez de La Luz
Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC)
Laura Bohorquez
University of California, Irvine
Improving Dreams, Equality, Access,
United We Dream
and Success (IDEAS), UCLA
Arlette Lozano
Angela Chuan-Ren Chen
University of California, Los Angeles
Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL)
UCLA Undocumented Student Program
Linett Luna Tovar
New York State Youth Leadership
Gaby Garcia
University of California, Los Angeles
Council (NYSYLC)
Renata Martin
Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant
Katharine Gin
Brown University
Stories on the East Coast (RAISE)
Trisha Mazumder
Student Immigrant Movement (SIM)
Roberto G. Gonzales
University of California, Los Angeles
Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER)
Harvard University
Martha Ortega
United We Dream (UWD)
Nancy Guarneros
University of California, Santa Cruz
Claremont Graduate University
Pavitee Peumsang
Alfred Herrera
University of California, Los Angeles
UCLA Center for
Luz Rodriguez
Community College Partnerships
University of California, Riverside
Tina Kim
Silvia Rodriguez
College Track
University of California, Los Angeles
Susana Muñoz
Seth Ronquillo
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
University of California, Los Angeles
Anthony Ng
Eden Velasco
William Perez
Claremont Graduate University
Pedro Trujillo
Kent Wong
UCLA Labor Center
Hirokazu Yoshikawa
New York University
Beyond our Advisory Board Members, we would like to thank those who generously took the time to review and
provide valuable feedback to this report including Leisy Abrego (University of California, Los Angeles), Linda Lopez
(Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs), Mark Hugo Lopez (Pew Research Center), Matt Matera (Scholar-
ships A-Z), Kenny Nienhusser (University of Hartford), and Roberto Suro (University of Southern California).
Report Design & Typographic Layout by Alex Amerri, alexamerri.com
ExEcutivE Summary
Amidst the turbulent crosscurrents of immigration reform, nearly a quarter of a million undocumented undergraduates
are struggling to find their way in higher education. Their liminal state calls for research to inform the unique needs and
challenges of this growing student population. In this report, we shed light on the range and complexities of undocumented
undergraduates experiences based on a sample of 909 participants across 34 states originating in 55 countries. The participants
attended an array of postsecondary institutions including two-year and four-year public and private colleges that range in
selectivity. In this report, we describe their demographic characteristics, experiences in college, as well as their aspirations
and anxieties. Further, we make specific recommendations for what colleges should consider to better serve this population.
Lastly, in light of executive actions in 2012 and 2014, this data can be used to extrapolate some of the issues that are likely to
define this newly protected immigrant population moving forward.
Characteristics of
• Undocumented college students reported
Undocumented Undergraduates
strong longings to belong in American society.
A vast majority (90.4%) said they would become
Undocumented students are diverse in terms of countries
citizens if they could
of origin, languages spoken at home, and religion. They
encompass a range of immigration histories and vary
Undocumented students also attend a wide range of post-
along the spectrum of socioeconomic status.
secondary institutions – ranging in type, selectivity, and
size – and represented a range of different academic majors.
• Participants emigrated from 55
different countries of origin
• 28.2% were majoring in STEM, making
• On average, participants had resided 14.8
these the most popular majors.
years in the U.S.; in most cases, the majority
• 48.2% attended four-year public
of their lives have been spent in the U.S.
colleges or universities, 42.4% reported
• Participants reported 33 different
attending two-year public colleges,
primary languages spoken at home
and 9.4% attended private colleges
• 61.3% had an annual household income below
• 67.6% were first-generation college students
$30,000, 29.0% had an annual household
(neither parent had attended college)
income of $30,000 to $50,000, and 9.7% had
an annual household income above $50,000
• 72.4% were working while attending college
The Policy Context for the
• 64.1% reported having at least one
Undocumented College
member of their household who
was citizen or lawful resident
Student Experience
• Deportation is a constant concern. Over ¾
of participants reported worries about being
We identified specific ways Deferred Action for Childhood
detained or deported. 55.9% reported personally
Arrivals (DACA) was beneficial to some undocumented
knowing someone who had been deported
students relative to their financial stability and well-being,
including a parent (5.7%) or a sibling (3.2%)
access to resources and opportunities, and participating
• Undocumented undergraduates reported
more fully in college and society.
significantly elevated levels of anxiety. 28.5% of
male and 36.7% of female participants’ anxiety
• 65.9% applied for and received DACA;
scores were above a clinical cut off level (in
DACA recipients were most likely to be
contrast to 4% and 9% of a norm population
female and attending four-year public
and private colleges or universities
• 85.5% of students with DACA reported it
• Among respondents who reported stopping-
had a positive impact on their education
out, 73.9% indicated that it was due to financial
• DACA recipients reported higher
rates of working, receiving grants and
scholarships, and participating in
Undocumented students reported challenges within their
internships than students without DACA
campus communities and discussed a desire for safe spaces.
• DACA recipients reported better access
to transportation, more stable housing
• Respondents spoke of their sense
conditions, and a greater desire to become U.S.
of isolation on campus as they felt
citizens if given the opportunity than students
uncertain about who they could trust
without DACA
• Students reported high levels of being treated
unfairly or negatively due to their legal
However, there are also notable limitations to DACA that
status by faculty, counselors, other students,
continue to impede access and success in higher education
financial aid officers, campus administrators,
for undocumented students.
and security guards/campus police
• Of the respondents with access to
• Policies that determine whether or not
organizations, centers, or safe spaces
undocumented students will pay in-state or
where undocumented students can gather
out-of-state tuition, if they can gain access to
to share experiences, 73,1% reported
certain forms of financial aid, and in some
making use of them; this highlights
cases if they can enroll in institutions in certain
the importance of these spaces
states that are governed at the state, higher
education system, and institution levels
Lessons Learned and
• While DACA has been an important first
Looking Ahead
step toward greater security, the provisional
nature had many students asking, “What
Implications for Policymakers
will happen when DACA ends?”
• A higher proportion of DACA recipients (89.6%)
• Considering that recent executive action will
than DACA non-recipients (70.8%) reported
create employment authorization for more
ongoing worries about the detentions of friends
than 3.9 million tax-paying undocumented
and family, which are correlated with higher
residents who will generate an estimated
levels of anxiety among DACA recipients
$4 billion in new tax revenue, states should
offer equitable tuition policies for undocu-
mented students. The review of these policies
The Campus Experience
is especially important for the states with
unstipulated tuition policies and the nine
Undocumented students face a number of unique barriers
states with restrictive tuition policies.
that impact their ability to attend and succeed in college,
• The federal government should provide clear
which have implications for the work of higher education
guidelines for ways the higher education
community could better serve DACA
students regarding work authorization,
• 56.7% reported being extremely concerned
internships, and access to scholarships.
about financing their college education
• There is a need for closer examination of the
• 75.6% of respondents attending two-year
guidelines for federal and state financial aid
colleges and 69.4% of respondents
for both, undocumented students and citizen
attending four-year colleges worked
and lawful permanent resident children of
while attending college, which inhibited
undocumented parents. For the latter group,
their ability to succeed academically
procedures need to reflect changes to work