Supporting and Protecting Undocumented Students

ASO Staff Writers
Updated November 8, 2022
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What Schools, Leaders & You Can Do to Help the Undocumented Community

Given the political uncertainty around DACA specifically and immigration policy in general, this guide is a reminder of what educators and ordinary citizens can do to help undocumented students. While it should not be taken as legal advice, it does provide readers with powerful examples of initiatives schools and students are taking, as well as several useful resources to learn more about immigration policy and its effects on people with undocumented status. Read on to learn how to be an ally for undocumented students.

11 Ways You Can Help Undocumented Students

There was an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in 2015. Without a clear immigration policy, these individuals are left fearful and unsure of their futures, including nearly 800,000 Dreamers who are previously protected under DACA. Despite ongoing debate in Congress, most Americans support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., if they meet certain requirements. During these times of uncertainty, undocumented students need direct support and advocacy more than ever. Here are just a few ways anyone – from neighbors to complete strangers – can help undocumented students:

Try to understand their hardships and your own privilege

It can be hard for citizens to truly understand the effects of living in limbo. And Ariana Mora Mero, Program Coordinator for Services for Undocumented Students at UC Merced, admits, “I don’t think it’s something that can be fully achieved or understood if it’s not your situation.” Still, she emphasizes the importance of listening to individual, personal stories and trying to understand one’s privilege of holding citizenship or a resident status. “When students do come forward to you, hopefully this will help you offer support through validation and affirmation of their experiences,” she says.

Empower them by bringing them into the conversation

Mero says, “A lot of folks who were coming forward as allies tended to want to do things for us and without us instead of for us and with us.” She explains that even if someone does want to help, they have to be mindful of how they use their voice. “Instead of disempowering us, bring us into the conversation and make sure people are aware that you’re not doing this on your own,” she advises.

Create communities, not safe spaces

There’s a national conversation happening about the use of the phrase ‘safe spaces‘ on campuses. Mero admits that the term is narrow and unrealistic. “I tend to stay away from the term ‘safe space’ and even ‘brave space’ isn’t one that I utilize often.” Instead, Mero recommends creating a sense of community (community agreements, community spaces, community conversations). “Doing so aligns our rhetoric around community as opposed to a specific space that may or may not be safe or brave.”

Learn the legislation and policies

Enrollment, admissions and financial aid policies for undocumented students are a tangled mess, and can differ from state to state, school to school, and year to year. Students need sound guidance from allies who know and understand such policies. Keeping up with the news and participating in your local government are great ways the average person can to stay up-to-date on immigration policies. For those in academia, one of the best places to learn about these policies is through UndocuAlly or UndocuPeer trainings. The former is for university faculty and staff, and the latter are for students. While the training is different from campus to campus, at UC Merced, they cover a lot of legislative issues.

Know where the legal resources are

Immigration law is a specialized and complicated field, and students deserve solid and affordable legal advice. UC Merced’s Services for Undocumented Students Program hires an outside lawyer who comes once a month for half a week. If you’re working with students who don’t have school-provided access to a lawyer, consider using the DREAMer Intake Service. It’s a free tool from Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) that helps undocumented young people assess their options with an attorney or other expert.

Use inclusive words

It may not always be obvious but some words can alienate undocumented students. “It’s not just staying away from the word ‘illegal’…It’s also using words that students feel comfortable with. One word that our center and myself stay away from is ‘DREAMer’ because if you really look at the undocumented community, the word DREAMer can also be divisive. It places a higher regard on university students and immigrants who are able to access higher education — and not everybody can.”

Build relationships to foster trust

Schools like UC Merced already understand that college is about more than just academics. But treating students holistically must start even earlier. Joel Peixoto, assistant principal at a middle school in Reno, Nevada, says it’s important to foster a relationship with undocumented students socially as well as academically because it engenders trust among students. “They trust the teachers and that we’re not going to do anything bad to their families,” he explains. The same principle can be applied to the average person outside of the classroom.

Foster trust among parents too

When it comes to trusting the school, Peixoto says, “The parents are usually more hesitant than the kids.” Peixoto, who works at a Title 1 school (meaning many of its students are from families with low incomes or even homeless), notes that such “schools really open up the doors quite often to the families, saying, ‘Look, we have a lot of resources. We don’t care about your status, we don’t care about your poverty, we don’t care about any of that stuff. We want you to have kids that are successful at school and at home.”

Mero agrees. “We need to be smart about being inclusive of family members,” she says. To accomplish this, the campus hosts an overnight program meant to introduce families to services, meet the lawyer and just get comfortable with the experience their children are about to take part in.

Find scholarships and/or help students apply to college

According to Kayla Kosaki, Assistant Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at Whittier College, “Because of the cost of higher education and lack of access to federal financial aid, 74% of undocumented students that leave higher education do so because of financial difficulties.” You can help undocumented students by helping them search for scholarships, or contacting scholarship committees to see if they accept undocumented applicants. You can also act as a reference and proofread personal statements. Mero also says there’s a need for schools to maintain emergency funds that students can access — if you’re able to, see if you can donate to one.

Help with the college search

Many undocumented students may be unfamiliar with different colleges and how to learn about them, which can make it hard to find one that will support them. You can help students by researching colleges with them and showing them the services and resources they should look for. Kosaki recommends searching for resources on schools’ websites that serve the undocumented community specifically and reaching out to those offices or departments to ask how undocumented student are supported on campus. This can be especially helpful when students themselves are scared to call and ask. She also recommends seeing whether the school has made any statements in support of the undocumented community and has any non-discrimination policies.

Stay active

Mero points out that getting trained or educating yourself is not the end of the process. “Just because you did a training doesn’t automatically make you an ally or automatically say that students are going to view you that way either. Allyship and solidarity is a continuous effort.”

What Schools Are Doing

Plenty of K-12 schools and colleges around the country are stepping up to help undocumented students. Here are some examples of what they’re doing:

What Students Are Doing

Students of all ages are also getting involved to support their undocumented peers. Examples include:

What Leaders Are Doing

Leaders are in a unique position because they can use their platform to directly impact the lives of undocumented students that they’ve never met. See what a few have done to lead the way:

Immigration Options After DACA

Some DACA recipients may be eligible for another immigration option when their DACA status expires or if DACA ends. Given the highly complex nature of U.S. immigration law, the following should not be taken as legal advice but instead as a starting point to understanding the basic options that may be available and their requirements.

What About the DREAM Act?

The DREAM Act stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, and is a bill Congress never passed.

It was first proposed in 2001 as a path to citizenship or legal residency for undocumented college students and military members. Just as importantly, it would have made such students eligible for federal loans. While states such as California and Illinois have passed their own DREAM acts or similar policies, the bill has never been able to pass both the House of Representatives and Senate. A 2010 version of the bill was approved by the House of Representatives before dying in the Senate.

Still, the bill has been successful in one way – President Obama pulled from the DREAM Act to create DACA via executive orders; DACA allowed certain undocumented immigrants that had been brought to the U.S. as children to go to college and/or work without worrying about deportation.

A bipartisan group of 11 senators sponsored the Dream Act of 2017. And the debate over DREAMers led to a government shutdown in early 2018. Since the state of U.S. immigration policy is in flux, it’s best to keep up-to-date. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website posts news regularly, and is a top source for policy headlines.


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