Guest Blog by: Joel Perez
Introduction: Many of us are familiar with the national political debate surrounding immigration reform. These debates spill over into many of the communities in which our institutions reside. In addition, this issue is salient for us in private Christian colleges, because some of our institutions have decided to admit students who are undocumented. This decision, whether you agree with it or not, raises an important question that each institution needs to answer. How does one support and assist these students in being successful at our institutions?
History: In order to consider how to support these students one must gain a historical perspective on the issue of immigration as it relates to education. In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled in Plyer v. Doe that undocumented students must be given the right to public education. Currently this decision affects approximately 1.8 million children under the age of 18; about one-sixth of the total undocumented population. An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from our nation’s high schools each year. Our country has made a substantial investment in the education of these students. For many the dream of higher education is an elusive goal, as only about ten percent of undocumented high school graduates enroll in college. These students do not qualify for federal aid, and only have access to state financial aid if they live and attend schools in the following states: New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. These states allow them to apply for state grants in addition to paying in-state tuition at state schools. Other states that provide undocumented students with an in-state tuition benefit are California, Utah, New York, Washington, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
Characteristics: It is important to note the characteristics undocumented students exhibit. Perez’s research states that these students exhibit academic achievement, leadership participation, and civic engagement patterns that exceed their US citizen counterparts. His research is based on case studies of undocumented high school, community college, university, and graduate students who are valedictorians, honors students, and other exceptional student leaders. For many of these students their stories begin at a young age when their parents decided to cross the border illegally to gain access to the American dream. These children did not have a voice in determining whether their families should make this journey. For many of them arriving at a young age has allowed them to grow up as Americans, therefore these undocumented immigrants consider themselves Americans.
Current Status: It is not illegal for institutions to permit undocumented students to attend. The federal government is currently allowing institutions to develop their own policies. Some of our colleges and universities do not require students to provide a social security number (which are not available to the undocumented) in order to enroll, or in some cases, qualify for institutional aid. Therefore undocumented students do attend colleges and universities. Institutions do not need to provide that information unless federal authorities request it.
Institutional Support: The challenges that these students must overcome in order to complete their education are many; and many of them have already shown resiliency by gaining admittance to our institutions. That being said, institutional support is critical to their success.
Undocumented students do not qualify for work-study positions and will therefore not be able to work on campus. Institutions can begin to think about how they could provide financial support by creating think tanks to brain-storm ideas. One idea would be to develop a fund that is accessible to these students and supported through private donations.
Admissions and Financial Aid staff should be informed about outside resources that are available to undocumented students. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the University of Southern California Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, and the National Council of La Raza have extensive lists of scholarships for which these students are eligible.
Admissions and Financial Aid staff should also be trained on how to guide these students through the application process. Staff should be made aware of ways to avoid making these students feel as if they are being criminalized. In addition, student life staff should be informed about the issues so they can better support these students.
In the spring of 2010 as part of our institution’s commemoration of Cesar Chavez we screened the film Papers (papersthemovie.com). This film documents the experience of five undocumented youth and provides a platform for engaging students and staff about issues surrounding the DREAM Act and immigration. The institution believed that it was important to educate our community about this national issue so as to provide a space to talk about the experiences of undocumented students. Other films that engage immigration issues include El Norte and The Visitor. Books on this topic include We ARE Americans, A Home on the Field, and Enrique’s Journey. You can also visit my blog A Mexican American’s Musings as well as William Perez’s.
Conclusion: Ultimately, it is my belief that institutions need to ask themselves whether being open and supportive of undocumented students fits with their mission as Christian Colleges. If it is not a mission fit and does not have the support of the executive leadership then it is better not to attempt to receive these students.
Joel Perez serves as the Dean of Transitions and Inclusion at George Fox University, located in Newberg, Oregon.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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