Barriers to Higher Education: Undocumented Students and Smith College

Kayla Ginsburg ’13
Rachel Klinger ’15
Contributing Writers

Every year, 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from high school. Some have been living in the United States since their earliest memory. Some are not even aware of their undocumented status before beginning the college application process.

The path to college for undocumented students is difficult, and potentially dangerous, due to the threat of deportation. Barriers include: the requirement of a social security number to fill out the Common Application, lack of information on admissions websites about how to apply as an undocumented student, lack of guidance as very few people (including most college counselors) know about the college application process for undocumented students, as well as ineligibility for financial aid. Federal financial aid is not available for undocumented students and state policy varies as to whether they can be granted in-state tuition state aid. This means that attending college is nearly impossible unless they have enough money to pay for all four years out of pocket.

For undocumented people living within the US, there is currently no way to attain citizenship without risking deportation. However, while there are several proposed pieces of legislation trying to change this, none have been passed. One of these is the DREAM act, which was introduced in 2001.  It is a proposed bipartisan piece of legislation which would allow undocumented youth who graduated from US high schools to be eligible for 6 year long path to citizenship with the stipulations of attending institutions of higher education or military service (although currently people with undocumented status are not eligible to serve in the United States military). It’s been reintroduced practically every year since 2001 without much headway. In 2012, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would stop deporting undocumented students who met the criteria proposed in the DREAM act. Out of this came Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Obama’s June 15, 2012 Executive Mandate. DACA serves as a legal channel to suspend the deportation process for undocumented students who meet the Dream Act criteria. Unfortunately, usage of DACA is discretionary meaning that is up to individual immigration officers, so it probably isn’t used often.  Furthermore, DACA does not provide a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency, and it does not allow students to apply for federal or state financial aid. On the upside, it does provide some protection from immediate deportation.

There are a number of incredible activist networks and initiatives that are also making things easier for undocumented students. In response to a racist and violent racial profiling law in Georgia (a copycat law of SB1070 from Arizona- if you don’t know about it, look it up!) that made it illegal for Georgian residents to employ, provide health care, or educate undocumented students, a group of incredible female professors at the University of Georgia organized to create Freedom University. This alternative university provides education for undocumented students. The location is kept secret, spread only by word of mouth, due to risk of deportation and harassment. Professors from all over the United States have been taking sabbaticals to teach university-level courses at Freedom U. These students have been receiving no credit for their learning.

On a larger scale, undocumented youth and their allies have been staging actions across the country under the banner of “Undocumented and Unafraid.” Most recently a group protested an immigration hearing in Congress through interrupting the proceedings with chants of “Undocumented and unafraid!” Being involved in this movement and ‘coming out’ about their undocumented status is helping to challenge and shift the dominant understandings and assumptions about citizenship and nation but also puts these students at risk of detention and deportation.

As national debates rage, many universities will not even accept undocumented students. While there are a number of private and public institutions that do, few publicize this fact. Even in the case of these universities, as we mentioned earlier, access to financial aid is extremely limited.

Things are slowly changing. As recently as December 2012, UC Berkeley announced a formation of a $1 million fund specifically for undocumented students, the largest of it’s kind in the country. A little closer to home, Hampshire College recently raised enough money for a scholarship for one undocumented student to attend with a full ride for all four years. While Smith does accept undocumented students, they are considered “international” and therefore become part of a larger applicant pool, with only 10-12% accepted (Smith’s acceptance rate for domestic students is 45%). Therefore, even if they are accepted, they still must pay for their education out of pocket, which makes attending Smith, as for most of us, an impossibility.

So what can we do here at Smith? We need to be thinking about ways we can make our college safer and accessible for undocumented students. Smith College needs to be more transparent about the process of admission and the process of receiving financial aid, for all students, but especially for undocumented students. The administration can and should provide information on the admissions website about the process of applying to Smith as an undocumented student. University of Chicago and University of Washington currently both have statements and extensive information on their website specifically for undocumented students and the application process. Smith could also do away with the unnecessary requirement of social security numbers in their application, especially considering we are the only private institution in the five college to do so. We can look to Hampshire as well, perhaps creating a fund specifically for undocumented students.

While these are all concrete institutional actions, it is also important to be thinking about campus culture. We should return as a community to the discussions of microaggressions and safety at Smith College for students of color, working class students, international students, queer students, trans students, disabled students and all other students who feel marginalized or not immediately welcomed at Smith College. We can begin by not assuming anyone’s immigration status and not collapsing immigration status and race (aka not all undocumented students are Latino/a), as well as remembering that people with different nationalities have different access to citizenship.

In short, we both feel that this is a matter of international human rights and a basic right to education. People deserve access to education regardless of their immigration status and of their wealth. So, as a progressive institution, we need to make stronger efforts to support all those who are marginalized in our society, and in this moment, specifically undocumented students.

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