Along with the Common Application, essay supplements and resumes, high school seniors applying to college must also complete financial aid applications that make higher education possible for many low-income students. Questions regarding family taxes can be confusing for every high school student, but undocumented students face the additional challenge of overcoming fear of exposure and deportation for their families. According to data published by the California Community College System, California Dream Act financial aid applications have decreased by 40 percent since last year, likely as a result of increased paranoia among undocumented students under the Trump administration’s vehemently anti-immigration rhetoric and policy ideas.
The California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to pursue education, keeps information provided by applicants private within the state government and does not share information about student citizenship status with the federal government.
This report is indicative of new, major barriers to undocumented students’ access to higher education. These barriers include hostility from the federal government that could result in policies that roll back their rights and protections or amount to rhetoric that prevents undocumented students from wanting to participate in normal school activities. As the data by the California Community College System reveals, this fear has resulted in a sharp decline in undocumented students applying for financial aid, which, for many, is tantamount to not applying for college at all, as financial aid is the only way higher education could be possible. This suggests another barrier to higher education for undocumented students: a lack of education regarding their rights and legal protections. It is understandable that they live in fear under a president who made deportation and demonizing immigrants the backbone of his presidential campaign, but it is also unacceptable that so many undocumented families have not been adequately informed about their rights.
This data is particularly alarming coming from the California Community College System, since California hosts roughly 23 percent of all undocumented people in the nation. Many undocumented students grew up receiving an American education and expect to stay in the United States to seek employment, which will be exponentially more difficult for them without access to higher education. Thus, barriers to undocumented students’ access to higher education could have the long-term consequence of promoting cycles of intergenerational poverty among undocumented communities.
Not only is it unfair to shun undocumented students from crucial societal spheres such as academia, but it is also dangerous and inequitable to deny students who have worked as hard as their peers access to education due to their nationality or citizenship status. Diverse backgrounds and experiences are what make higher education and academia in America strong and unique and for generations have yielded innovation and research that would have otherwise been impossible. All students, college faculty and frankly all Americans would suffer by limiting who is able to attend college in America — by forcing young undocumented students to live in fear and failing to inform them about their legal rights. To fail to inform them of their rights is tantamount to denying them their rights and contributes to dangerously homogenous colleges and, as previously noted, intergenerational poverty and economic marginalization for undocumented students.
America is strong because of the diverse identity, culture, backgrounds and ideas that it embodies. Undocumented students have the capacity to improve and better our society as much as their peers with citizenship. Denying them the opportunity to receive a higher education and a career in the United States — their home — will have long-term consequences that will affect society at large.
Many colleges and universities declared themselves sanctuary campuses following the election of President Donald Trump. This declaration carries the promise that the University will not hand over information about undocumented students to the federal government unless ordered to do so by a court of law. The school will also protect undocumented students against intimidation and harassment by law enforcement officials. Although there are legal limitations on a school’s ability to protect undocumented students, additional resources such as counseling and legal advisement must be offered to undocumented students so that they are able to pursue an education equal to their documented peers and are informed of their rights. The latest data by the California Community College System reveals the dangers of students not knowing their legal rights, such as the Dream Act’s promise to protect undocumented students’ information from the federal government.
Undocumented students are our friends, classmates and neighbors. Although the recent political atmosphere has placed them under intense scrutiny, we cannot allow their rights to be sidelined and done away with through fear and misinformation. USC has an obligation to protect its community of immigrant students and the diversity and equity that it claims to value. This means USC should not only make resources to protect undocumented students more accessible but also reach out to surrounding communities and prospective students to ensure that they know their rights.
Financial aid ultimately makes higher education possible for many students, and higher education is what makes economic enfranchisement and ending intergenerational poverty cycles possible as well. The benefits to equal access to higher education can be felt on every level. Higher education is a right for everyone — including undocumented students.