The Silent Problem: The Plight of the Undocumented Student

By Nancy Barile on September 27, 2010


 Which one of these students should not be permitted to attend college, get a job, or join the military?


The issue of undocumented immigrants is a highly charged one. But as an educator in an urban high school, where it is estimated that as many as 20% of students are undocumented, it is also an issue that profoundly affects my school and me. As an educator with a teaching philosophy that is grounded in the belief that all students can achieve, and achieve at the highest level, I am faced with a great barrier when I find that nearly 1/5 of my students' educations stop at the end of high school. The DREAM Act and in-state tuition are two things that might help solve this problem.


Approximately 2.8 million students will graduate from U.S. high schools this year and go on to college, join the military, or take another career path. A group of about 65,000 students a year will not have this opportunity because they are undocumented immigrants (The DREAM Act Portal, 2010). In Massachusetts, students who are undocumented are ineligible for financial aid and in-state tuition. If they attend college, they must pay international student tuition. Undocumented students are also unable to join the military or get a driver's license, and, without a social security card, finding gainful employment is very difficult.

Most undocumented students who would actually be ready for college don't apply to college because it is not economically possible. These students are stuck in a legal paradox: the law states that they have a right to an education in primary and secondary grades, but then they have nowhere to go when they graduate. "While some states explicitly allow undocumented students to attend college, there are many grey areas that cloud the college admissions, financial aids, and enrollment processes. In addition, undocumented students cannot legally join their native-born peers in the workforce, where Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that educated workers are needed" (Gonzales, 2009, p. 1).

Currently undocumented students cannot legally receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. In most states, they are not eligible for state financial aid. Most private scholarship funds and foundations require applicants to be U.S. citizens or legal residents.

Hector's Story

Hector was a student in my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class last year. When he was six years old, Hector and his mother made the long and dangerous journey from the mountains of El Salvador to the U.S., where Hector's mother hoped to find escape from the poverty, crime, and corruption in El Salvador. Hector didn't speak English when he came, but he learned the language quickly. He exceeded in school, earning straight As in his classes and winning many academic awards. Hector took seven Advanced Placement courses during high school, earning high qualifying grades on all of them. He was accepted to many prestigious colleges, including Boston University, Brandeis, Hofstra, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts — but he could not attend any of these schools. Without financial aid or scholarships, he was unable to afford the high rate of tuition. Hector did everything right. But his journey to success ended when he graduated from high school and was faced with the reality that he would not be able to go to school or find meaningful employment. Hector felt more American than Salvadorean, but he now had to face the fact that he would be paying for the rest of his life for a decision that was made for him when he was six years old.

I have seen Hector's situation duplicated over and over. Each year at graduation there are those hardworking and intelligent students who have nowhere to go. Or worse — I see the students who drop out because they realize how futile their situation is. It makes no sense to them to stay in school when they will only be able to earn minimum wage anyway.

Undocumented immigrants are those that came to the U.S. without proper documentation and entered the country illegally. In examining the issue of whether undocumented immigrants should have access to jobs and higher education, it is important to foresee what would be best for society. The economic advantages of higher education for both workers and the economy are clear. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers without a high school diploma in 2008 earned an average of only $453 a week and had an unemployment rate of 9%. Contrast that with workers who had a bachelor's degree, who earned an average of $1,012 per week, and had an unemployment rate of 2.8% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008). Studies of undocumented immigrants who have achieved legal status through the Immigration and Reform Contract Act (IRCA) of 1986 reveal that legal status brings fiscal, economic, and labor-market benefits to individual immigrants, their families, and U.S. society in general. The U.S. Department of Labor found that the wages of those immigrants who received legal status under the IRCA had increased roughly 15% five years later (Smith, 1996). Given a chance, now-undocumented students could improve their education, get better paying jobs, and pay more taxes.

In-State Tuition

Some people think that illegal immigrants would take college spots away from American students. However, experience shows that access to higher education helps kids without burdening institutions of higher learning. Ten states — Texas, California, Utah, Washington, New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nebraska — have passed laws permitting undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition if they attended and graduated from high school in the state. The experience of these states reveals that the number of undocumented students is far too small to deprive native-born students of college admissions slots or financial aid. For instance, three years after Texas allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates, the total number of students paying in-state tuition to the state's colleges and universities amounted to only 0.36 percent of all students in the Texas public education system (Strayhorn, 2006, p. 5). In addition, the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation estimates that if an in-state tuition bill is passed, it would probably result in $2.5 million of extra revenue for the state (Massachusetts Taxpayer Association, 2010).

Given a chance, undocumented students can help fill the growing demand for highly skilled workers. Nine of the fifteen occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow at least twice as fast as the national average between 2004 and 2014 require an associate's degree or higher. In four of the higher-skilled occupations, immigrants accounted for a significantly greater share of workers than in the U.S. labor force as a whole in 2005. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010). If undocumented students were able to attend college, they could fill many of these much needed positions.


In 2007,  the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was reintroduced in the House and Senate. If passed, this legislation would permit undocumented students to begin a six-year process leading to permanent legal status if, among other requirements, they graduate from a U.S. high school and were brought to the U.S. when they were age 15 or younger, and at least five years before the legislation is signed into law. To complete the process, students would, within the six-year period, be required to graduate from a community college, complete at least two years towards a four-year degree, or serve at least two years in the U.S. military. These individuals would qualify for in-state tuition rates in all states during the six-year period.

Test video player created by Naushin Azim for the Scholastic Canada kids page.


If the DREAM Act passes, undocumented youth who have gone to college will have a path towards legal residency and work. The U.S. could tap into the great strength that is today's youth. The DREAM Act seems to be a great solution to a difficult problem. Since students would have to be in this country for five years before the act passed, it would not open the floodgates for more illegal immigrants to enter the country. Students would have to "earn their keep," so to speak, by entering college or joining the military. The DREAM Act would give hope to hundreds of thousands of young people who can contribute a great deal to our country. Further, in-state tuition would allow students to become educated, and it would provide a huge source of revenue for states. Immigration reform is greatly needed, and this would be one step in the right direction. One would have to argue — what would be better for this country, this state, and for society? An uneducated, undocumented immigrant or an educated one? I think the answer is clear.


Test video player created by Naushin Azim for the Scholastic Canada kids page.

For more on this issue, read "Law of the Land?" in Scholastic Administrator. The New York Times Upfront has also addressed the problem of undocumented immigrants in several articles, including: "Should Illegal Immigrants Be Able to Get Driver's Licenses?" "Should Illegal Immigrants be Eligible for In-State Tuition," "Under One Roof: Legal and Illegal," "Who Gets to Be an American?" and "The Debate Over Immigration: 200 Years and Counting."

In Return to SenderJulia Alvarez's 2010 Pura Belpre Author Award Book, Tyler's family is forced to hire Mexican migrant workers when Tyler's father is injured in a tractor accident. Although this book is written for younger readers (ages 10 and up), Tyler's friendship with Mari, one of the workers, captures the real life issues surrounding this current problem.


Contreras, R. (2010, February 8). "Deleo: Mass Immigration Tuition Bill Is Likely Dead." 

           The Boston Globe.

Georges, V., Krop, R.A. & Rydell, C. P. (1999). Closing the Education Gap: Benefits and

            Costs. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Education.

Gonzalez, R. (2009, April). "Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented

            Students." College Board Advocacy.

Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation (2010, May). Retrieved from

Smith, S., Kramer, R.G. & Singer, A (1996, May). "Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act:

            Characteristics and Labor Market Behavior of the Legalized Population Five Years Following

            Legislation." Washington, D.C. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department

            of Labor.

Strayhorn, C.K. (2006, December). "Undocumented Immigrants in Texas: A Financial Analysis of

            the Impact to the State Budget and Economy, Special Report of The Texas Comptroller.

The DREAM Act Portal. Retrieved from

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008. Retrieved from





I agree, Mary - The Dream Act seems like such a great solution to a difficult problem - I'm shocked it hasn't passed yet. And thank you, Christy, for your kind words. Let me know how those convos go over at dinner parties - I bet this one could start a pretty good fight lol.


U rock! I spent the morning reading your posts. Every post is a match to ignite amazing professional development, substantive convo in education courses or thoughtful convo at dinner parties. Thank you for such great reads & ideas!


What an eye-opener. The statistics are disheartening. I agree with you. As an educator, we want to see that every child receives and education. Wouldn't it be to our benefit, socially and economically to support these students who aspire higher education?

Thank you, Kate! I think putting a face to this issue is key.

Hello Nancy, your article was amazing! Here is an invitation for you, which you might be interested in attending to. I work with the Student Immigrant Movement which a youth-led organization in MA fighting for equity for higher education.

Dear colleague,

I'd like to extend to you a personal invite to the Student Immigrant Movement's (SIM) 1st Annual Dare to Dream Conference on December 14.

SIM, the largest youth-led immigrant rights organization in Massachusetts, is fighting for education equity, access and excellence for undocumented and immigrant youth through its Dare to Dream campaign. Through its local and regional organizing chapters and teams, SIM is changing schools from the inside out, creating institutional change in high schools, school districts, colleges and universities, with the ultimate goal of establishing a network of DREAM schools, schools that are committed to and actively working toward inclusive and supportive spaces for immigrant youth.

Building on the on-the-ground work that SIM organizers and leaders have laid out throughout November, Immigrant youth and schools will come together on December 14 to figure out what DREAM schools can look like in Massachusetts and how we can build a sustainable roadmap together to get us there. What does college access look like? What wraparound supports and community engagement strategies do immigrant youth most benefit from? How can schools provide specialized financial aid and admissions assistance to immigrant youth applicants facing status-based barriers? How do we retain immigrant youth once they enroll? How do we help our youth perform better in school? This is a great opportunity as educators to learn how we can support our youth better in our local communities.
The conference will take place on Saturday, December 14 from 8AM (registration and breakfast 8AM- conference starts at 9AM) to 6PM, in the Ryan Lounge at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Here is the registration link: Please RSVP so you can be guaranteed space and food!

(the full link is

Attached as well is a flyer you can use to advertise and recruit colleagues or anyone you think would be interested in attending!
For any questions or concerns please feel to contact Carlos Rojas, Campaign Coordinator

Best Regards,
The Student Immigrant Movement

Thank you for putting faces to this issue! Wonderful post--your posts are amazing!

Thanks, Luciana. We've got to get the word out to the politicians and voters. That's the only way we can make it happen.

This article is amazing. It shines light on a problem that has gone unvoiced for too long. Hopefully, with your passionate words, more people will understand the troubles of the undocumented student. Thanks for your great words on such a heartbreaking problem.

I hope so, too, Linda! I have kids in my room crying every day - they are stressed out beyond belief. Something needs to change.

Nancy, Thank you for posting such a well researched and well written commentary on the plight of our undocumented students. This is a very complex issue, one that is especially difficult for undocumented people to publicly acknowledge because it puts their families at risk of deportation. I was a third grade teacher where one of my undocumented student's will graduate from high school this year - to what end? It breaks my heart that someone who is so hard working and deserving of further education may never have an opportunity to achieve this goal and make the contribution to society that we expect of all those living in this country. I hope others reading this will take the time to send a link to your post to their local and state representatives to kick start the conversation and move the Dream Act forward!

Act would be a remarkable breakthrough for the lives of the undocumented immigrants as well as the American nation as a whole.

I agree 100% with this article. It's these types of stories that need to be told to senators, congressmen, and any political leaders. It's an absolute shame that there are so many students who are more than willing to learn, to enhance our universities and yet this country denies them this opportunity. We need to show that these undocumented kids are here to stay and they need our help furthering their education, something that is a fundamental right for us all, immigrant or not.

I love this!=) Thank you for thinking about us and keep fighting!

I agree, Alec! It seems like a no brainer to me, so let's hope!

Great article! If we could just change the laws to make it easier for people to become American citizens, we could make sure we are collecting taxes from these families and then let them enjoy the same rights, privileges, and educational opportunities that we all do. We are a nation of immigrants, but it seems that we have already forgotten that.

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