Only a quarter of the 122,600 undocumented students who graduate high school in the United States each year will attend college and less than 3 percent will complete university. Undocumented students face tremendous obstacles to educational success—due to their legal status, financial hardship, and their parents’ lack of experience with higher education. Many of these undocumented students have spent nearly all their lives in California and know no other home.
With nearly two and half million of the estimated eleven million undocumented migrants in the United States, California is the state with the largest number of undocumented migrants. The Golden State also offers some of the most favorable higher education policies for them. Governor Gray Davis signed California Assembly Bill (AB) 540 into law in 2001, which granted undocumented students eligibility for in-state tuition. One decade later, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 130, making private scholarships available to undocumented students; and AB 131, which allowed eligible undocumented students to apply for Cal Grants and other state financial aid. These policies make higher education more affordable and accessible for undocumented students.
What happens when these students arrive on campus? In 2014, a group of undocumented students at the University of California, Merced—the institution where we work—asked us to help them find out. These students wanted to know what obstacles undocumented students face, and what opportunities allow for their success. We conducted focus groups with thirty-five undocumented students enrolled at the university, which is a Latino-majority university in California’s Central Valley.
Our findings reveal that a favorable local context, including ample university resources, targeted university policies and procedures, favorable state laws, as well as federal policies of administrative relief such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have brought a four-year degree within reach for undocumented students. As Yvette, one of our focus group participants, stated, “Here in California we’re lucky… I know other people in other states still have it really hard. If none of [these policies] had been in place, I would probably be back in Mexico.”
At the same time, undocumented students continue to experience the negative consequences associated with being undocumented, especially as it pertains to economic uncertainty and the threat of deportation, both directly and vicariously through the experiences of their family members. Joaquin captured the sentiment of many when he told us he has a “constant fear” his parents could be deported.
Financial concerns were paramount for the undocumented students we spoke to. Two-thirds of the students in our focus groups had an annual family income less than $25,000. Their undocumented parents were barely getting by and had difficulty coming up with financial support for their children in college. At the time, undocumented students did not qualify for student loans, a fact many of our participants lamented. Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.” California now offers small loans to undocumented students, which alleviates some of these concerns.
Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.”
Although the adjustment to university was difficult for many students, they also spoke about how much support they found on campus. Sara summed up the climate at UC Merced: “I think that overall this school and the faculty and staff try to make us feel as comfortable as possible.”
California laws that legitimize undocumented students’ presence at university and enable their access to education combined with a supportive campus climate suggests undocumented students at UC Merced fare substantially better than those who came before the passage of such policies or reside outside of California. Our findings suggest that expanding access to opportunities for all undocumented people—or better yet, a massive legalization program—has the potential to change undocumented immigrants’ social and economic life chances in the United States.
Undocumented students’ daily lives are affected most by the contexts closest to them, which at the local level of UC Merced and California has improved their educational experiences and likelihood of attaining a four-year degree; and yet, they are unable to forget the larger national context, including federal policies of looming mass deportation, which underscore their own vulnerability and that of their family members, and the condition a persistent sense of exclusion and isolation. The specter of illegality forms the backdrop for undocumented students’ lives.
In a highly favorable local and state context, these students thrive in high school and move on to college. An encouraging teacher, a supportive group of friends, and a full ride to university all make their lives more bearable. Nevertheless, there are real limits to these students’ ability to excel in the absence of federal immigration reform, and their legal vulnerability is never far from their minds.
The financial constraints undocumented students confront affects their ability to enroll in needed classes in time, secure affordable housing, and dampens opportunities other students enjoy, such as taking advantage of study-abroad programs. Our findings underscore the importance of trained and skilled institutional agents and support staff at high schools and colleges who make an immediate impact on undocumented students’ decisions to apply for and attend university.
We conducted these focus groups in 2015, when President Obama was in office. The climate has changed. Whereas Obama participated in creating and supported DACA, President Trump ordered an end to the program. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, students questioned whether they should continue to apply for DACA and also expressed growing unease regarding the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the wider off-campus community. Students also expressed some doubt that UC Merced administrators and faculty were doing enough to protect them on campus and off, which led to some campus protests and calls for faculty conducting research among this vulnerable community to be more accountable to students.
With the recent rescission of DACA, students who currently have DACA will eventually lose their work permits as well as access to employment in the formal economy. DACA has had a noticeably positive impact on its beneficiaries. It has opened up economic opportunities, allowing recipients to obtain driver licenses, and even to open their first bank accounts. The rescission of DACA will negatively affect undocumented youths’ access to university as it affects their ability to work and thus afford university, either while working, or while having to pay back loan debt upon graduation.
In contrast, a more favorable federal context could be life-changing. Providing a pathway to legalization would go a long way to help remedy the issues undocumented students face.
Our research provides evidence that favorable policies at the local and state level improve the life chances of undocumented youths and students in California in very real ways, with positive effects on their educational outcomes and the broader community. From our perspective, then, policy reforms at the federal level that improve the national context are necessary to alleviate the challenges undocumented students face, expand their opportunities and chances of success, and enhance their lives and those of their family members.
 Esther Yu Hsi Lee, “Why So Few Undocumented Immigrants Make It Through College,” Think Progress, 31 March 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/why-so-few-undocumented-immigrants-make-it-through-college-d07d30136e5/; Tanya Golash-Boza and Benigno Merlin, “Here’s how undocumented students are able to enroll at American universities,” The Conversation, 24 November 2016, https://theconversation.com/heres-how-undocumented-students-are-able-to-enroll-at-american-universities-69269.
 Leisy J. Abrego, “I Can’t Go to College Because I Don’t Have Papers: Incorporation Patterns of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Latino Studies 4 (2006): 212-31; Leisy J. Abrego and Roberto G. Gonzales, “Blocked Paths, Uncertain Futures: The Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Prospects of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 15 (2010): 144-57.; Shannon Gleeson and Roberto G. Gonzales, “When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States,” International Migration 50 (2012): 1-19.
 California DREAM Loan Program, http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/paying-for-uc/whats-available/dream-loan-program/index.html.
 Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Moves to End DACA and Calls on Congress to Act,” New York Times, 5 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/us/politics/trump-daca-dreamers-immigration.html?mcubz=3.
 See Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, “On the Road to Opportunity: Racial Disparities in Obtaining an AB 60 Driver Licenses,” Boom California, 28 November 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/11/28/on-the-road-to-opportunity/.
Tanya Golash-Boza is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She has published five books including: Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (2016), Forced Out Fenced In: Immigration Tales from the Field (2018), and Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9/11 America (2015).
Zulema Valdez is Associate Professor of Sociology at UC Merced. Her research interests include racial and ethnic relations, entrepreneurship, and health disparities. She is the author of two books, The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class and Gender Shape American Enterprise (2011) and Entrepreneurs and the Search for the American Dream (2015).
Copyright: © 2017 Tanya Golash-Boza and Zulema Valdez. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/