Undocumented Undergrads Continue to Face Challenges - Higher Education
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Undocumented Undergrads Continue to Face Challenges

by Lydia Lum

Despite strong academic achievement and ambition, many undocumented college undergraduates continue to grapple with unique educational and financial challenges and high stress levels, according to a new University of California, Los Angeles report.

Ironically, some of the most stressed-out students are beneficiaries of the U.S. government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to the UCLA report. DACA grants temporary relief from deportation and gives work permits to qualifying residents who were brought to this country as children.

About two-thirds of undocumented undergraduates in the UCLA survey applied for and received DACA protection. Most of them say it has boosted their studies by letting them subsequently obtain scholarships and paid internships.

However, the provisional nature of DACA causes students to wonder—and worry—about what will happen to them when the program expires. DACA currently covers participants for only three years.

Moreover, 90 percent of undergraduates who are DACA beneficiaries say they still worry about the detention of family and friends, a sentiment expressed by only 71 percent of non-DACA students. Consequently, higher levels of stress exist among DACA participants than among nonparticipants, according to the UCLA report.

Researchers also found that undocumented, male undergraduates experience seven times the level of anxiety than do their counterparts who are U.S. citizens or lawful residents. For undocumented, female undergraduates, it is four times that of their counterparts.

“Even with programs like DACA, these students feel challenged,” says Dr. Robert Teranishi, a UCLA professor of education who’s a co-author of the report. “You would anticipate that student anxiety would decrease, but it has not. DACA has led more undocumented students to come out of the shadows, but (college) faculty and practitioners need to be aware of these students’ life circumstances and (become) more knowledgeable about campus resources that respond to their needs.”

Despite their anxieties, many undocumented undergraduates earn high grades and are academically ambitious, regardless of whether they have DACA status. About 79 percent of all community college and 86 percent of all four-year, public university respondents have grade point averages of at least 3.0, according to the UCLA study. About 30 percent plan to pursue a master’s degree here.

The 40-page UCLA report, titled “In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower: Undocumented Undergraduates and the Liminal State of Immigration Reform,” surveyed 909 students in 34 states who had emigrated from 55 countries.

The study offers a rare snapshot of the characteristics and college experiences of this population. Undocumented residents often are unwilling to participate in surveys out of fear their answers could be used against them in deportation efforts—even if they have approval for DACA.

In the UCLA study, Hispanics make up the majority of respondents—Mexico is the most common country of origin in this racial group—but ethnic diversity is apparent among the 14 Asian and Pacific Island nations and the five African countries that respondents listed as their birthplaces.

About 61 percent of students report annual family income below $30,000, and another 29 percent come from families earning between $30,000 and $50,000 annually. Not surprisingly, 72 percent of undergraduates work paid jobs while juggling their studies, and, among those who left college for a semester or longer, 74 percent say that financial problems are the reason why.

Furthermore, 90 percent of respondents say they want U.S. citizenship. About 64 percent of respondents live in this country with at least one person who’s a U.S. citizen or lawful resident, a statistic that Teranishi says illustrates “how our immigration system is broken.”

Fears of deportation are omnipresent. More than half of the students personally know someone who has been deported. The fathers of almost one in five respondents currently live outside the United States, and the same holds true for mothers of almost one in 10.

About 90 percent of respondents attend either a four-year, public university or a community college. On average, each of the survey participants has lived in the United States for about 15 years—or, rather, the majority of their lives. Most, if not all of their schooling has taken place here.

Findings from the UCLA report will be presented today in Los Angeles.

“The time has come for colleges and universities to unequivocally commit to supporting undocumented students as members of their campus communities,” says Dr. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, co-author of the study and dean of UCLA’s graduate school of education and information studies. “These students are studying and working hard and they long to belong. It is high time to fully embrace them.”

Some of the recommendations for how to improve campus environments for undocumented undergraduates are from students. For instance, some survey respondents suggest that faculty and staff ought to post signs or a symbol of solidarity on their doors so that undocumented students become aware of safe zones where they can seek help with their problems or just find support.

Teranishi chides U.S. states that lack tuition policies that are friendly to the oft cash-strapped undocumented students—even though some of these states and their universities can apparently afford tuition discounts.

For example, Nevada offers in-state tuition as a so-called good neighbor gesture to residents of 10 California counties but has no explicit policy for undocumented residents within Nevada. Teranishi and his colleagues also found a Michigan institution and a Texas institution that each offer in-state tuition to residents of Canada and Mexico, respectively. Neither university has provisions for undocumented, in-state residents.

The UCLA report shows that 28 percent of survey respondents are pursuing degrees in STEM fields. Teranishi suggests that this subgroup can help reverse the underrepresentation of people of color in these professional fields.

As he puts it, “These kids are pursuing the American dream.”

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