Undocumented Latino Students and the DREAM of Pursuing College

In this excerpt from Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education Through Public Policy (Teachers College Press, 2009), Dr. Frances Contreras discusses the policy context for the DREAM Act, discusses implications for undocumented students, and offers a set of related policy recommendations.

I think that every person has the right to go to school regardless of who they are. I just want to go to school, be a citizen, and not worry about how I am going to be perceived. I am spending money trying to go to school, and this is going to benefit the state because I [would have] already gone to school and will go to work. The economic advantage is that now I am going to be a productive citizen. — Nina, a premedical undergraduate student attending a flagship institution

Latino students who successfully persist through higher education represent a very small proportion of the Latino students enrolled in college, particularly when compared to their enrollment in the K—12 sector. This imbalance is most evident among undocumented1 immigrants, students for whom college seems unattainable, especially if they are required to pay out of- state or international tuition to attend college. In addition, unauthorized students are far less likely to know the requirements necessary or the process of applying to college.

The undocumented students who are savvy enough to navigate high school and complete the requirements for college are still left with the considerable challenge of financing their higher education. DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Acts, or in-state tuition bills, have been one policy approach to ensure a level of affordability for undocumented students. Passel (2003) estimates that approximately 65,000 unauthorized students graduate from high school each year, many of whom have been in this country for more than 5 years, and that approximately 13,000 are enrolled in U.S. colleges.

Even with the promise of in-state tuition in 10 states, the hurdles remain considerable because a strong anti-immigrant climate is pervasive in many communities across the nation, and the fear of deportation looms over these students and their families. As seen in the case of Arizona in the three anti-immigrant policies initiated in 2010 and described earlier, a blatant discriminatory approach exists toward Latino immigrants. Their accounts represent sacrifice, selflessness, and the ganas (the will) to persist despite the uncertainty of their ability to work legally once they complete their degrees.

Learn more

For more student profiles from Washington state, see the rest of chapter 5 in Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education Through Public Policy.

This article explores the experiences and challenges of undocumented Latino students in select colleges and universities in Washington State and the institutional and public policy opportunities that exist for implementing functional DREAM Act policies in the United States. These research findings are unique because all of the study participants are not only persisting through college — they are succeeding academically.

Their accounts represent rich perspectives and examples of the distinct hurdles that exist for students pursuing postsecondary education under the DREAM Act.

National Context For Unauthorized Students In Higher Education

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that undocumented children have the right to attend public schools. Plyler was a critical case that provided equal protection for undocumented children under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution (Chapa, 2008; Olivas, 2004; Valencia, 2008). Few laws, however, address the needs of undocumented youth as they move from the K—12 sector into postsecondary institutions. Nationally, 10 states have passed laws to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition: California, Texas, Washington, Kansas, Utah, New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nebraska (Table 5.1).

TABLE 5.1. States with DREAM Act Policies as of 2010
StateLegislationYear PassedIn-State Financial Aid
CaliforniaAB 5402001Yes, via Top 4% Plan
IllinoisHB 602003No
NebraskaLegislative Bill 239July 2006No
New MexicoSB 582March 2005No
New YorkSB 77842002No
OklahomaSB 596

Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007 (HB 1804) nullified this legislation

Yes, while DREAM Act was in place (prior to 2007)
TexasHB 14032001Yes, via Top 10% Plan
UtahHB 1442002No
WashingtonHB 10792003No, HB 1706 attempted in 2009 session

Many of these state DREAM Acts, however, remain in peril in the courts and in legislative arenas (Olivas, 2004). For example, in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007 (HB 1804) rescinded SB 596. In addition, other states, such as Arizona (Proposition 300 in 2006), Colorado (HB 1023 in 2006), and South Carolina (HB 4400 in 2008), have further banned immigrant students from eligibility for in-state tuition rates.

The most recent challenge to the legality of in-state tuition was Martinez v. Regents in California, in which plaintiffs argued that in-state tuition violates federal law [Title 8 of the United States Code (U.S.C.) section 1623] by providing a "benefit" to unauthorized students.2

In 2006, Judge Warriner upheld the decision made by higher education institutions to grant undocumented students eligibility for in-state tuition. However, in 2008, a California appeals court agreed to hear the lawsuit in the Yolo County Superior Court. And on December 23, 2008, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear Martinez v. Regents. The California Supreme Court voted to uphold AB540 on November 15, 2010, negating the plaintiffs' claim that this statute violated state and federal law. Specifically, the California Supreme Court found that AB540 "does not violate the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution" (Martinez v. Regents Summary, November 15, 2010). The court further upheld the right for states to determine the criteria for in-state tuition status, such as the requirement to attend high school for the three years that currently exists in California.

This legal win in California on behalf of undocumented students represents a significant step towards securing the rights of undocumented student residents who are attempting to earn postsecondary degrees. While state DREAM Act legislation has been a positive step toward ensuring access for undocumented students to higher education, we do not know the extent to which these laws have provided equitable access to services and whether schools and colleges are adhering to the intent of the law. The actual implementation and oversight of DREAM Act laws, particularly those involving civil rights, rely on the interpretation and implementation efforts of higher education officials and staff. This research provides a case study of undocumented students in college in Washington, a state with a DREAM Act Policy (HB 1079) that was enacted in 2003. We know very little about the experiences of undocumented Latino students as they attempt to navigate higher education institutions in states with DREAM Act policies.

Looking Beyond The College Degree: Policy Considerations

Many U.S. residents question the motivation behind unauthorized immigration and why these families take such risks in coming to the United States. The overwhelming answer among study participants was that their parents wanted a better life for their children — a life they believe can be achieved through the economic and educational opportunities that exist in this country.

The majority of these students considered themselves part of this country. Students also described the incredible sacrifices their parents made to come to the United States, to expose their children to educational opportunities. The DREAM Act in Washington does not dispel student fears and concerns about working or living in this country after they earn their college degree. State DREAM Acts, as they stand, do not provide permanent residency for unauthorized students, nor do they provide a seamless pathway to citizenship. As a result, many unauthorized students who would otherwise be capable of going to college believe that a college degree may not be worth it.

Even those already in college worry about the future. Patricio's case exemplifies how undocumented students worry about their future. He wants to be a bilingual teacher in a rural community. Having been in the United States for over 20 years, after coming as a 1-year-old, he has limited ties to Mexico. He worries that he will be unable to enter the field of education that he has been trained for:

I am concerned about not being able to get my legal documents in time, able to use that knowledge I learned, that I strived for, and not being able to teach in the U.S.…that all of this time is just a waste. I am hopeful that something is going to happen and that I will have my legal status so I can become a high school teacher. I'm a good person, I contribute to this country a lot, I love this country — why can I not have papers that will allow me to be a teacher? Washington needs bilingual teachers. I am the person to do that job, but I can't.

The majority of students considered working and contributing to their families and communities as a priority. Students were very concerned about economic stability. Their commitment to education was largely intertwined with an optimistic belief in the American Dream and is consistent with previous research on immigrant students that describes the concept of immigrant optimism as the driving force behind student persistence and sacrifice (Orozco, Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Undocumented students believed that they could achieve success, assist their families financially, and provide leadership in their communities.

The experiences of unauthorized Latino students in higher education convey stories of hard work, perseverance, and a commitment to establishing a productive and meaningful life in this country. For undocumented students who started at a community college in particular, their hurdles are even more disconcerting, with all of them working, having less access to campus resources, and having limited or no access to private scholarships.

The findings presented here, through student accounts of their personal experiences and struggles, provide a basis for policy recommendations for state and national leaders to consider as they continue to be educated on the complexity of immigration, particularly the challenges facing immigrant children. The core areas that would facilitate more positive college experiences among undocumented students include:

  1. a federal DREAM Act
  2. access to federal and state financial aid
  3. conducing formal audits of the implementation of the DREAM Act within states
  4. professional development for staff who interact with unauthorized students.

The Need for a Federal DREAM Act

A federal DREAM Act would allow students to qualify for permanent residency upon completion of high school (or equivalency). It would provide a level of security for unauthorized students and a pathway toward citizenship. In addition, previous DREAM Act legislation has not addressed the need for federal financial aid opportunities for undocumented students.

One important consideration for future drafts of a federal DREAM Act, in order to allow students to realize their full academic potential, is to provide undocumented students with the ability to compete for and be eligible to receive federal financial aid. All of the students interviewed were hopeful about a national DREAM Act and even more hopeful about permanent residency status and a road to citizenship, which would allow them to work legally while in school, qualify for financial aid, and remain here to work in the United States upon degree completion.

Allow DREAM Act Students to Compete for In-State Financial Aid

States that already have a DREAM Act do not need to wait for a federal DREAM Act to provide in-state financial aid to these high achievers. Undocumented youth are not only highly capable, they are also likely to give back to their local communities and foster economic growth. Monique, the community college student, reminds us how in-state financial aid "would make the life of many undocumented students, including myself, to not be afraid of getting an AA [degree]." Allowing undocumented students to compete for state aid is not only equitable; it is morally right to provide students who came to this country as minors educational opportunities comparable to those of their peers.

Formally Audit the Implementation of State DREAM Acts

One approach to addressing institutional adherence to state laws in states with DREAM Acts is to conduct formal audits of their implementation in higher education systems and institutions. In Washington, many secondary schools as well as institutional officials are not fully aware of the 1079 law, and there is no oversight to ensure accurate information is communicated to parents and students. As a result, misinformation is often communicated to prospective applicants and their families. Contreras and colleagues (2008) found that unauthorized prospective college students had access to varying levels of information and misinformation from higher education officials as well as school officials. A formal auditing process by state entities or routine monitoring from state Offices for Civil Rights would help to ensure that DREAM Act laws are implemented. As seen in the case of Alejandro, a financial aid officer at the flagship he attended threatened his status as a 1079 student. While Alejandro was inquiring about obtaining an employment card after being granted one previously by the university, the financial aid staff member commented, "That was just pure luck. You are lucky that you have not been deported." Such statements are threatening to 1079 students and are counter to the intent of the policy — it is not the responsibility of university staff members to "report" or "police" students who are well within their right to attend higher education institutions.

The Need for Greater Professional Development

Professional development is needed for college and university staff in states that have DREAM Act policies. Institutional staff members are responsible for conveying the most up-to-date and accurate information to their students. Advisers, college counselors, financial aid staff, and outreach personnel are all on the front line of interaction with college students, where a critical element of their position is to assist students in navigating college. However, as this study has revealed, not all college staff are willing to provide information to undocumented students and either behave in a discriminatory manner or discourage undocumented students from obtaining the answers they need regarding financial aid, programs, or courses. Consider Amalia's experience, for example, where she recounted her interaction with the graduate program director and heard the following comments: "Grad school is really expensive, especially if you don't qualify for federal aid," and "If I were you, I would not be talking about your status in school because people might get offended."

Professional development relating to DREAM Act policies is necessary for college officials who routinely conduct outreach, engage in recruitment, and work in critical offices dealing directly with students in order to prevent staff from discouraging unauthorized students by giving them inaccurate information.


Undocumented Latino students in higher education are the most vulnerable student population within the Latino college population because their statuses as a resident and student are constantly influx and at the mercy of policy and legal communities. This level of instability, coupled with a pervasive anti-immigrant climate in the nation today, has fueled varying levels of implementation of the DREAM Act in Washington among higher education officials — hindering the experiences for undocumented Latino students in college. The findings from this study illustrate the need for greater oversight and professional development in all types of institutions and for a commitment to educating students and parents in K—12 and postsecondary sectors on the options that undocumented Latino students have for pursuing higher education.

As this chapter illustrates, undocumented Latino students are determined, hardworking, engaged, and optimistic, despite the fear and anxiety they experience due to their legal status. Their stories are part of the American story, with a shared history of immigration, persistence, optimism, initiative, and hard work — this nation would be ill served if it continues to turn its back on these deserving students who positively contribute to the place they consider to be their home.


Our policy section made possible by a generation grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


Contreras, F. Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education Through Public Policy. Excerpts from Chapter 5, "Undocumented Latino Students and the DREAM of Pursuing College." Pps. 97-110, 117-120. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University. 2011. Reprinted with permission.


Olivas, M. (2008). Recent developments in undocumented college student issues (2005-present). Retrieved January 10, 2009, from http://www.law.uh.edu/ihelg/undocumented/homepage.html.


1The term undocumented is used interchangeably with unauthorized in this chapter to describe students that are not legal residents of the United States.

2For a detailed discussion on the legal cases pertaining to in-state tuition, see Olivas (2008).


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