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Persisting Inequalities and Paths Forward: The State of Undocumented Students in California’s Public Universities

Representatives from the UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity (UC PromISE) and the Undocumented Student Equity Project (USEP) discussed results from their 2020 research report on Dec 10. The report detailed the extent to which immigration-related policies produce inequalities for undocumented students based on survey responses from 1,277 undergraduate students from CSU and UC campuses throughout spring 2020.

The representatives proposed steps that educational institutions can pursue to combat these inequalities by supporting and promoting students’ educational success and well-being. 

Panelists included: UCI Associate Professor of Chicano/Latino Studies, Laura Enriquez, CSUCI Assistant Professor of Sociology, Karina Chavarria, SFSU Assistant Professor of Psychology, Melissa Hagan; UCR Associate Professor and Chair of Ethnic Studies, Jennifer Najera; UCI Associate Professor of Public Health, Annie Rowe; CSLA Assistant Professor of Sociology, William Rosales; CSLA Associate Professor of Sociology, Haley Saraviya and UC Merced Associate Vice Provost for the faculty and Professor of Sociology, Zulema Valdez.

“Undocumented immigration status continues to compromise students’ educational experiences and yet students still find the wherewithal to maintain their academic performance which really points to a more nuanced story about undocumented college students’ experiences,” Chavarria said.

Chavarria said that campuses can create programs to help mitigate disruptions caused by immigration statuses such as peer mentoring programs; tools to navigate campus resources and support services; cross-campus collaboration teams for academic support and mental health services and professional development programs and internships.

The report also looked at mental health risks for undocumented students. 

“[Undocumented] students show a really interesting mix of increased risk but also enhanced resilience,” Hagan said.

She proposed that campuses hire more mental health professionals who are trained to consider the unique needs of undocumented students, to increase a sense of belonging and to increase awareness of available campus services.

The survey investigated how students were affected by the ongoing pandemic, including finances, family finances, mental health, physical health, attention to academics and academic performance. 

“We found that students were absolutely overwhelmingly negatively affected by the COVID pandemic,” Rowe said.

Policy recommendations include buffering financial strain by considering emergency grants that target available campus resources towards high risk parties.

“Punitive immigration enforcement policies in the recent years have really made this threat of deportation salient and real, driving feelings of exclusion, isolation, and discrimination among undocumented students. Importantly, undocumented students experience this deportation threat primarily as a threat to their parents,” Rosales said.

Rosales recommended that higher education institutions take leadership in advancing comprehensive immigration policies to push pathways to citizenship and provide accessible rights training and education to students and their families.

Valdez said that almost all undocumented students experience substantial financial strain and economic hardship, meaning that they do not have enough money for school-related materials, basic needs and food. The report recommends that institutions expand and make need-based aid, such as emergency grants, readily available.

She said that undocumented students struggle to access needed campus information resources but characterize campus climates as pro-immigrant. Valdez suggested professional

development training for staff to mitigate this difficulty.

“We found that undocumented students overwhelmingly use undocumented student research services,” Saraviya said.

She said that universities should increase funding for services, particularly the Basic Needs and Food Pantry, and that universities should strengthen collaborations and referrals between undocumented student services and key campus services.

Enriquez said that UC PromISE and USEP hope that the report will help to “create systematic and systemic change in higher education.” 

Rachel Vu is a Campus News Intern for the 2020 Fall Quarter. She can be reached at