Democratic Candidates Must Include Undocumented Students in their Higher Education Plans


Laura Bohorquez and Zenen Jaimes Perez

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This week, Hillary Clinton unveiled her college affordability plan. Like the two other declared Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton’s plan makes many important changes but continues the current policy of leaving undocumented students out of federal higher education programs.

Support for undocumented youth should be reflected in more than an immigration platform, it is a value which must be interwoven in all aspects of a candidate’s campaign.

Leaving the more than 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school each year out of their college access plan was a shortsighted decision by the Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley campaigns.

Clinton’s “New College Compact” plan proposes making community college free, pushes states to stop cutting higher education budgets, and creates a plan to allow students to complete a 4-year public college degree without taking out loans.

But those reforms will be rendered nearly meaningless for the millions of undocumented students who will still face a complex web of policies that prevent them from accessing and completing a postsecondary education.

Undocumented students’ initial barrier is simply getting their foot in the door due to the rising tuition and in many cases the ineligibility to pay in-state tuition rates. Undocumented immigrant students also do not qualify for any federal education benefits – including Pell grants, federal loans, federal work study, and the TRIO early education programs. In the 2013 – 2014 school year, the maximum Pell grant alone helped students cover 61 percent of average tuition and fees at public four year colleges and universities. Even if Clinton’s and other candidate’s proposals stop the increase in costs and debt, undocumented students will still be locked out of the very federal benefits that could support their higher education.

Every day, United We Dream leaders link undocumented students and their families with other undocumented students currently in higher education, college administrators, and community organizations to provide or create the support they need to enter and complete their college journey.

This year, we’ve engaged 120 colleges and universities and trained 1,395 educators, administrators and community organizations about in-state tuition, the barriers faced by undocumented students and their families, and engaged them to advocate alongside their students as educator activists. This led to a record number of states, 12, that introduced legislation to expand education equity for undocumented students. But too many students are still left out. In California, undocumented students can pay in-state tuition rates and receive state financial aid while in Georgia, undocumented students are still banned from even enrolling in many of the state’s public colleges and universities. Missouri just passed a budget that makes recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) ineligible to pay in-state tuition.

We know that too many students are pushed out of high school or college because of the enormous costs they encounter. Costs that are magnified by the lack of access to federal education benefits.

As all candidates talk about immigration and roll out their higher education plans, they must remember that higher education is not truly accessible if it is not inclusive of all students, regardless of their immigration status. Offering help for undocumented youth in a candidate’s immigration platform alone is not enough. A broken immigration system and barriers impeding access to education are interconnected issues which should be solved simultaneously with the input of undocumented students and their families who struggle with them every day.