Supporting & Protecting Undocumented Students What Schools, Leaders & You Can Do to Help the Undocumented Community

Meet the Experts

Ariana Mora Mero, Undocumented Students Program Coordinator at University of California, Merced Read bio
Joel Peixoto,Assistant Principal Read bio
Kayla Kosaki, Assistant Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at Whittier College Read bio

Written by...

Jeff Benson Read bio

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:

  • Undocumented student programs

    The University of California (UC) System is a leading ally of undocumented students. One way it’s supporting undocumented students is by ensuring each of its 10 campuses has an undocumented students program that offers legal assistance, access to timely information, and emotional and practical support to help students cope with stress, fear and anxiety. Many of the efforts at UC Merced are highlighted in this guide.

  • Partnership networks

    It’s tempting to build a centralized spot where undocumented students can have all their needs covered, but doing so may suggest other areas of campus may not be as supportive. “Folks think, ‘Oh, the undocumented center is the only place for students to feel safe or find resources or assistance,’ says Mero. Instead, UC Merced focuses on creating a network that students can tap into. “We have a partnership with the Career Services Center and they run the UndocuScholars Academy. That’s a six-week seminar where students can develop their resume skills and cover letters. There are also different conversations about what life after college looks like for them, being undocumented.” The office also runs partnerships with the school’s leadership office, which runs another six-week seminar on social change, focusing on community rather than citizenship. Mero says, “All these efforts show we have multiple campus partners, so this isn’t the only place where you will find community. You can find community within Leadership, you can find community within our Career Center, you can find community within Orientation.”

  • Lawsuits

    The UC System was one of the first to sue the current administration to challenge the decision to rescind DACA. It is currently trying to gain bipartisan support for legislation that would give permanent protections to DACA recipients.

  • Sanctuary campuses

    Like sanctuary cities, sanctuary campuses are colleges that establish policies to protect undocumented students. The Cosecha Movement, a network of immigration activists, has established a platform outlining what a sanctuary campus does and does not do. It includes:

    • Refusing to share voluntary information with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials
    • Not using e-verify
    • Prohibiting housing discrimination based on immigration status
    • Supporting equal access to financial aid and in-state tuition
    • Not allowing ICE officials to enter college property

    Schools such as Portland State University, Santa Fe Community College and University of Pennsylvania all declared themselves sanctuary campuses in 2016.

  • Student summits

    In December 2017, directly after President Trump moved to rescind DACA protections, the Houston Independent School District (HISD), one of the nation’s largest, held a daylong Dream Summit. To assuage the fears of the 6,000 HISD students who are immigrants, Superintendent Richard Carranza told students and parents at the summit that “we will create an environment where you don’t have to worry about getting deported or arrested or pulled out of school,” according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle. Students then attended workshops on going to college.

  • School board resolutions, town halls and teacher trainings

    The HISD superintendent has backed up his talk with action, training teachers and staff on how to turn away ICE agents or deny requests for student records in cases where there’s no warrant or court order. Several schools in the district have organized town halls and called parents to notify them of their rights. And it’s not just Houston. School boards in San Antonio and Austin — like others across the U.S. — also passed resolutions in support of immigrant students, regardless of their legal status.

  • Need-blind college admissions

    Without DACA status, students can’t legally work, which can wreak havoc on their finances and affect their ability to afford college. For this reason and others, Columbia University uses a need-blind admissions policy. Students are admitted without consideration of their ability to pay, and the school meets 100% of their financial need — whether they have DACA status or are undocumented.

  • Free legal aid

    One of the biggest ways schools can help undocumented students is by connecting them to free legal aid. The City University of New York (CUNY), which has over 200,000 undergrads, started CUNY Citizenship Now! The program has actually been around since 1997 to help immigrant students get on a path to citizenship via free and confidential legal assistance. It estimates that it helps more than 10,000 students each year. Students can attend events or visit one of 40 centers. The organization has been working to help students with DACA renewals.

    The model has proved strong enough that it’s gone nationwide, with immigration services also being offered in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. Other colleges, such as Rutgers, have provided similar free legal aid to students.

What Students Are Doing

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

After the Trump Administration moved to rescind DACA in Fall 2017, lawmakers faced a challenge in getting permanent protections for DACA recipients. That issue became increasingly tied to government spending bills. Many immigration activists, including United We Dream, pushed for senators to vote against short-term spending bills until a deal was reached on DACA, which is set to expire in March 2018. To encourage Senator Dianne Feinstein to vote against the spending bill, some UCLA student leaders held a sit-in in her office. She voted against the spending measure. In January, after another spending measure passed, youth activists held sit-ins at six other lawmakers’ offices.

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:

In late 2017, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, and his wife, MacKenzie, donated over $30 million to fund scholarships for TheDream.US. The money is enough to provide 1,000 scholarships to DACA recipients, each worth up to $33,000 over four years. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have also given millions to the fund.

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.

  • Citizenship claim

    According to Sarah Schroeder, an immigration lawyer in New York, a small percentage of undocumented immigrants may have a claim to U.S. citizenship, either by birth or some acquired mechanism. Everyone should take time to research their own history and determine whether their status is accurate.

  • Forgiveness waiver

    The federal government has the power to “forgive” immigrants who have entered the country outside of legal means or overstayed a visa. Applying for such a waiver is not a given and can even require applicants to do so outside the U.S. Often, the granting of the waiver revolves around whether deportation would cause hardship for a resident with legal status. Receiving the waiver clears the way for them to apply for a visa or green card.

  • Work visa

    Some undocumented students may be eligible for a work visa, depending on their education and occupation. The H-1B visa is for baccalaureate holders in specialty occupations; the O-1B visa is a short-term nonimmigrant work visa for distinguished artists; and the H-2B program is a temporary visa for temporary or seasonal work that isn’t related to agriculture (often tourism).

  • Green card via an employer sponsor

    Less common and more difficult to obtain than a family-sponsored green card, this option requires DACA recipients to first have a job. Then, their employer must search for U.S. workers able to do the same job. While this process stretches on, the person has no work authorization.

  • Green card via a family sponsor

    If the path to a work visa isn’t there, a green card could be an option. This goes back to having a close relative with legal status in the U.S. who can sponsor the applicant. A close relative includes a spouse, parent, grown child or sibling. The process for getting a green card is the I-130. The website FileRight recommends that DACA recipients file the I-130 if they are eligible to do so. If they had a visa (since expired) when they first entered the U.S., their application may be fast-tracked and completed in less than a year. However, in December 2017, the current administration called for the end of family sponsorship. The White House has not reached a final decision at the time of this writing.

  • Diversity Immigrant Visa

    The Diversity Immigrant Visa program runs via a lottery system that allows 50,000 people each year from countries with low levels of U.S. immigration to be invited to apply for visas. The program, whose future is also uncertain, is free to apply for via the State Department website. Millions of people register each year.

  • Asylum

    Some DACA recipients’ families came to the U.S. fleeing persecution in another country. As such, they may be eligible for asylum, if they can prove that returning puts their lives in danger.

  • U-Visa / VAWA Petition

    Victims of abuse and/or sexual violence that occurred within the U.S. may qualify for special protected statuses, which allow for work authorization and can lead to permanent residence.

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.


  • DACA Phase Out: What It Means for Undocumented Students & What to Do Now

    Our succinct guide helps clarify the confusion caused by President Trump’s September 2017 decision to rescind DACA. The FAQ section uses interviews with an immigration lawyer and law professor to help undocumented students understand the situation. The guide gives students actionable information about how to protect their rights in case they are presented with a warrant, questioned by immigration officials or arrested.

  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

    DHS is charged with protecting the United States’ borders, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement falls under its purview. Students should go to its site for updates on enforcement, DACA, and immigration. For example, in January 2018, when a federal court order mandated that the government continue accepting DACA renewal requests, the website placed the update directly on the DACA webpage.

  • My Undocumented Life

    What started out as an undocumented college student’s personal blog in 2011 is now a mini Huffington Post for all things DACA and immigration. It’s an ideal stopping point for research on issues ranging from college applications to DACA applications. It also covers news stories, links to scholarships with upcoming deadlines, and profiles the stories of undocumented students who have gone on to graduate.

  • How to Support College-Bound Undocumented Students: Advice for Parents

    The general rule is that undocumented students have undocumented parents, typically without the protections that DACA provides. Those parents may be fearful of their children applying to college or may not fully appreciate the importance. You can point them to this 2011 guide by E4FC, also available in Spanish.

  • Women’s Refugee Commission

    The Women’s Refugee Commission has put together a toolkit — in English and/or Spanish — of 10 guides for parents and families facing deportation and separation. It includes “Make a Plan: Migrant Parents’ Guide to Preventing Family Separation” and “Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement: Parental Rights and Immigration Detention.”

  • Pursuing the American Dream: Expert Advice & Resources for Undocumented College Students

    Our 2017 guide details the steps undocumented immigrants can take to apply to college and apply for financial aid. It also shows students whether they qualify for in-state tuition in their state.

  • TheDream.US

    In addition to providing millions in scholarships, TheDream.US has valuable links to legal resources, specifically those that can help DACA recipients pay for their renewal fees.

  • United We Dream

    United We Dream is a network of 400,000+ youth immigrant activists. Its News page is regularly updated with press releases.

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