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Advising the Undocumented

June 7, 2010

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference, sessions focused on every aspect of the international student experience -- recruitment and admissions, student and residential life, and challenges in the classroom. The attendees, more than 7,000 of them, discussed every category of international student and scholar, those in the United States on F visas, Js and Ms. On Friday, the final day of the conference, a session focused on a segment of students who don’t fit into any legal category – the undocumented.

For these students, nothing is easy. “On our campus even just to get a student ID card, you have to have official identification,” said Teri Albrecht, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Texas at Austin. Albrecht wrote her dissertation on the challenges and service needs of undocumented Mexican undergraduate students. “You have to have a driver’s license or a passport.”

The enrollment of illegal immigrants in U.S. colleges, always a controversial subject, has flared anew this spring. Arizona’s passage of a strict new illegal immigration law, which makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, has refocused attention in higher education on those students who lack legal paperwork -- as in the high-profile case of a Kennesaw State University senior who produced an expired Mexican passport when stopped on a minor traffic violation in March.

Immigration authorities initiated deportation proceedings against Jessica Colotl, but the university’s president intervened, requesting, successfully, that no punishment be imposed until Colotl completed her degree. The incident gave renewed momentum to a movement to bar undocumented students from U.S. colleges. As one local commentator complained, of the president’s actions, “Everything is sacrificed by these universities in the name of 'diversity' and multiculturalism and open borders.”

At the NAFSA conference, where “diversity” and “multiculturalism” and “open borders” (or, at least, relatively open borders) are deeply held and shared values, the spirit of Friday’s session was how to ease these students’ passage through college, not restrict it, and how international student offices can better serve these functionally stateless students.

First off, to address any misperceptions: Federal law does not bar students in the country illegally from enrolling in colleges here. Per the most recent guidance on this issue, a 2008 letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stipulates that “the individual states must decide for themselves whether or not to admit illegal aliens into their public post-secondary institutions.… In the absence of any state policy or legislation addressing this issue, it is up to the schools to decide whether or not to enroll illegal aliens.”

The states and schools have taken different tacks. South Carolina, in 2008, explicitly barred undocumented students from enrolling in state universities. North Carolina’s State Board of Community Colleges flip-flopped on the issue before finally deciding that illegal immigrants could be admitted, as long as they are charged out-of-state tuition rates. On the other side of the spectrum, 11 states have passed legislation allowing undocumented students to qualify for lower in-state tuition rates. Texas was the first state to do so, in 2001, and Wisconsin the most recent, in 2009.

Albrecht, of UT Austin, got interested in the issue after Texas passed its in-state tuition law, HB 1403. “Each year we started seeing more and more students come through our international office,” she said. “We really felt the need to be able to provide good services to this group that doesn’t have any other office on campus that knows about their needs, that knows about what their experience is.”

Albrecht shared on Friday what she’d learned, in her research, about their experiences and needs -- how, she said, these students make it through.

“They view themselves as having to work twice as hard as other students because of the circumstances that they’re in,” Albrecht said. “They feel the need to prove themselves, that their education is deserved” – to refute the commonly stated argument that their spot in college should have been reserved for a U.S. citizen.

They face family pressures. Their parents, said Albrecht, often feel like higher education is a trick, that “They’re being lured into a system where they’re going to be found out.” They’re often first-generation college students and feel pressure to be role models for their families and communities. They worry about money; they worry that Texas will overturn its law allowing for in-state tuition. They’re exceedingly careful about whom they talk to about their status, even among their peers, for fear that someone will report them; they feel invisible to college administrators. They can’t study abroad and they can’t go along with student organizations to conferences or other events, because they don’t want to get on an airplane for fear of getting detained.

They also face immense uncertainty about what their opportunities will be when they graduate. Currently there’s no legal mechanism for these students to work in the United States. Proposed federal legislation, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, would provide a pathway to permanent residency and work authorization for students who were illegally brought to the United States as children, but that legislation has been stalled since it was first introduced in 2001. It was again reintroduced this spring, but it remains a difficult climate to pass any bill related to immigration.

“They’re all waiting for the DREAM Act to pass, and get immigration reform going so they can work when they graduate. That is what they’re all going through college and hoping for,” Albrecht said. In the meantime, their options are severely limited. “I’ve followed up with students who have gotten their master’s degrees. They’re now living in other cities but they’re doing hourly work. These are students that have gone through public health, they want to be nurses, they want to give back to their community and they’re unable to do that.”

One lesson for colleges, Albrecht said, is to designate point people whom undocumented students can trust, and to whom they can turn for advice without having to re-explain their situation over and over. This person should be knowledgeable and up-to-date on undocumented student issues. “They want to have an expert on campus that they can go to and say, ‘Hey, is there anything I need to know that’s going to help me in my situation?’ ” Albrecht said.

One person in the audience asked how the undocumented students would know who that designated point person or office is. “How do you reach these students because obviously you can’t be called an undocumented student adviser?” Word of mouth, Albrecht responded.

Another in the audience, from a different Texas university, said that it doesn’t have to be the international student office that takes on this advising role; at her institution, undocumented students are explicitly classified as domestic students and the multicultural office serves in the advising capacity. And one other person in the audience worried about the legal implications of advising undocumented students – whether, specifically, these students will attract the attention of local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. “I know I’ve tangled with my local ICE people who are adamant that we should not be allowing undocumented students to enroll. I’m always afraid that he’s going to call and say, ‘Who are they?’ ”

In response, Ellen Badger, Albrecht’s co-panelist and director of International Student and Scholar Services for the State University of New York at Binghamton, said that the international student officer’s legal responsibilities for reporting extend only to students on non-immigrant visas. For everyone else, she said, “there are no legal requirements to be monitoring them, tracking them, anything else – that includes undocumented students.” So, in other words, she said, there’s no list that you’re required to keep or report.

“In terms of ICE appearing on your campus,” Badger continued, “I will just say anecdotally that I have heard that runs the entire spectrum depending upon the role a particular district office chooses to take in your geographic vicinity. So it really depends. Have we ever had ICE officers on our campus? Yes. I think I know when that happens. Have they ever come to campus to pick up a student…Not that I’m aware of.”

Meanwhile, life moves on, often with difficulty, for undocumented students. Back to the student ID question -- this being the first step in accessing student services -- at UT-Austin, the university has developed workarounds for undocumented students to get their IDs even without the proper paperwork. But the students, who call themselves 1403 students after the bill granting them in-state tuition, first have to identify themselves: “They have to say, ‘I’m a 1403 student’ in order to get that special consideration,” Albrecht said. “They have to out themselves. And that can be very scary to them.”

 

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