Undocumented Students at the University

By Janelle Wong
Asian American Studies Program, UMCP

The Maryland Dream Act and deferred action

In 2012, Maryland voters approved the “Maryland Dream Act.” The law allows undocumented immigrant students who have attended a Maryland high school for at least 3-years to pay in-state public tuition rates if they meet certain requirements, including completion of 60 credits at a state community college and proof that their parent or guardian has filed a state income tax return for at least 3 of the years the student was in high school.

Has the Maryland Dream Act been a success? Attaining higher education remains a challenge for most undocumented students, and the number of students who graduate from a four-year institution is small.  College is unaffordable for many undocumented students, even with in-state tuition, because they do not qualify for state or federal financial aid. As such, Governing, a publication for state and local elected, appointed, and career officials, reports that in most states, less than 1% of all undergraduates are undocumented.  A 2012 study by scholars at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, projected that just 435 students would take advantage of the Maryland Dream Act each year.

An additional number are admitted with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. The Obama Administration implemented DACA as part of an administrative directive. The program provides temporary relief from deportation (2 years) to certain undocumented people who came to the United States as children and who meet other requirements. The University of Maryland admits students with DACA who meet certain requirements established by the Board of Regents.

Today, about 130 undocumented students are enrolled at the University of Maryland College Park, according to estimates from various administrative offices on the campus.  While these numbers are not large, proponents of “tuition equity” for undocumented students argue that programs like the Maryland Dream Act help to decrease the costs of a larger uneducated workforce. That is, the lost revenue associated with a student paying in-state vs. out-of-state tuition as an undocumented student is much lower than the cost of lost wages for a student who fails to obtain a college degree when they could have with lower tuition. Tuition equity programs like the Maryland Dream Act provide a pathway to higher education for hundreds of undocumented students who would not have the ability to achieve their higher education aspirations otherwise.

Asian undocumented students

My own experience with these students affirms this perspective. I serve currently as the Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.  The Asian American Studies Program was established in 2000 to provide students with a better understanding of how people of Asian origin fit into the history, society, and culture of the United States.   In 2013, a student enrolled in the Asian American Studies Minor revealed her status as an undocumented immigrant to me. “Seo-yun,” a young woman who had come to the U.S. from Korea as a toddler with her parents, learned of her undocumented status when she applied to college and did not have a social security number to include on her application form.  Seo-yun was quiet, but direct.  She spoke about the stress of applying for DACA as a teenager—not only for herself, but for her two younger siblings. She spoke about feeling alone, without a community of people around her who could understand the immigration status and the associated uncertainties she lived with.  Seo-yun encouraged my office to do more to support students at the university who had made the leap into college with an uncertain future ahead. A colleague introduced me to another undocumented student, “Joseph,” whose parents had been deported to India and Bangladesh.  When Seo-yun and Joseph met, they immediately began to organize an event to help students, faculty and staff understand how migration policies affected their lives and the unique challenges faced by undocumented students at the University. More than 100 people attended this event in 2014.  Seo-yun’s dream was to be a teacher. She graduated with straight “A’s” and today she is working as a middle-school teacher in the District of Columbia.  Joseph is completing a graduate degree in Pharmacy.

At the event that Seo-yun and Joseph organized, several Asian American students were in attendance. An Asian American student sitting next to me at the event leaned over as Seo-yun delivered comments and whispered, “I didn’t even know there were any undocumented Asians in the United States.” I don’t think this student is alone in her surprise. The media frames U.S. immigration enforcement as “southern border” or “anti-terrorism” issues.   As a result, the image of the “undocumented immigrant” in the minds of many in the U.S. is rarely an Asian face. But as undocumented Asian immigrants, Seo-yun and Joseph are part of a broader trend that continues to go unrecognized by both the media and policymakers.  Today, approximately 1-out-of-7 Asian immigrants is undocumented. The number of undocumented Asian immigrants, particularly from China, Korea, and India, is growing faster than any other group of undocumented immigrants, including those from Latin America.

Understanding the facts

As faculty, it is important to know these facts about our immigrant student population. Other critical facts about immigration are also less prominent in current immigration debates:
•    The non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy recently reported that undocumented immigrants pay more than $11 billion in state and local taxes every year, including sales and property taxes.
•    Political Scientist Tom Wong (UC San Diego) recently authored a report that shows that “Sanctuary” jurisdictions, those places in which local governments do not assist federal immigration enforcement officials by holding people with immigration detainers in custody beyond their release date, are characterized by lower crime rates, poverty rates, and unemployment rates than non-Sanctuary jurisdictions.
•    Undocumented immigrants cannot access welfare, food stamps, “Obamacare” or Medicaid benefits. Even some immigrants with legal status cannot qualify for these social services.

The future and how to move forward

If the DACA program is not continued, undocumented students may not meet the requirements for in-state tuition under the Maryland Dream Act, in large part because many will not have completed the community college credit requirements required by the Act (DACA students often enroll as freshmen, without community college credits).  So, the future of undocumented students at the University of Maryland is uncertain.  However, what is not in question is that the university has admitted these students and committed to providing them the same opportunities to flourish and grow as other members of the student body.  To do so, we as faculty can follow best practices:
•    Do not inquire about a student’s immigration status. Students may have legitimate fears about disclosing this information. Educators and other personnel should not make assumptions about students’ immigration status.
•    Convey openness and assurance of confidentiality in discussing the topic, if a student chooses to disclose their immigration status
•    Consider establishing welcoming spaces, while respecting student privacy, where undocumented students have the opportunity to learn and engage with their peers without fear or intimidation
•    Use inclusive language such as “undocumented student,” “undocumented immigrant,” “people without documents,” or “people without legal status.”
•     Understand the educational trends. For instance, the American Immigration Council estimates that each year 5%-10% of undocumented high school graduates enroll in institutions of higher education.
•    Be sensitive to the limits that undocumented students face in your classroom activities and discussions. Not every student is eligible to register to vote, to travel out of the country, or feels comfortable discussing their family’s migration story.

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