Risks, rewards for undocumented college students

Susana Muñoz

Susana Muñoz focuses her research on higher-education policies and activism among undocumented students. (Photo by Troye Fox)

A student who didn’t show up for an appointment inspired Susana Muñoz to research the experiences of undocumented students

“This topic sort of found me,” says Muñoz, now an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Muñoz recalled the experience in an essay for “21st Century Scholar,” a blog administered through the University of Southern California. She was working in an academic services program for low-income and first-generation students when a friend called her seeking help for Mexican-American student.

After discovering the student was “undocumented,” Muñoz realized helping the student within working hours might jeopardize the federal funding of her program. She offered to meet with the student at an off-campus location during her lunch hour. He never showed up.

A painting by Claudia Ramirez, a graduate student at San Diego State University, depicts the struggles of undocumented students trying to obtain their education. Muñoz received the painting as the 2012 Outstanding Faculty Award winner at the 2012 Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education conference.

“This bothered me immensely,” says Muñoz. She was a U.S. citizen who’d come here with her family at age 6 and spoke fluent Spanish. “Yet, perhaps this student felt unsafe to see me.”

Degrees represent honor, opportunity

When she started her dissertation at Iowa State University, Muñoz began looking at the factors that helped undocumented Mexican women persist and succeed in college in the U.S. As she interviewed the students, she became more aware of the privileges of her U.S. citizenship and the sometimes scary lives of the undocumented students.

“I never thought about issues of transportation … I never knew they didn’t have drivers’ licenses until much later in the study.” When she traveled with them by car, “I never once thought about how scary a traffic violation and the presence of police officers could be for them.”

In the four years since completing that dissertation, she has focused on identity issues that undocumented students face, how colleges and universities deal with these students, and on students who are “coming out of the shadows” to advocate for changes to immigration policy.

Many of these young people are highly motivated to complete college, says Muñoz, and unafraid to speak out. “For the women in my (dissertation) study, obtaining a college degree was one way to honor the sacrifices made by parents, but more importantly, they viewed a college education as a pathway to gaining legal status or perhaps developing the confidence and communications skills needed to defend their own human rights.”

Pursuing the Dream Act

Recent events have removed one barrier for some undocumented students. The Obama administration announced a new policy in 2012 that allows young people who were brought to the United States as children to apply for a work permit, with a two-year stay on deportation. Experts say that change will motivate many to pursue higher education and allow those already in school to make plans for work in their field after graduation.  “Undocumented students are cautiously optimistic about the impact of this policy change,” Muñoz says.

Still, numerous challenges remain. She now is looking at how colleges and administrators work with undocumented students. For example, these students now must pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges in all but 12 states, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Universities take a variety of approaches to making decisions about in-state tuition, financial aid and other assistance to undocumented students, says Muñoz. Often such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, with universities reluctant to set specific policies. “They approach the issue with caution because they don’t want to draw attention to this issue, which might have repercussions with their constituents. That’s the reality of the political context.”

Complexity, challenges remain

Her research also focuses on the complexities of undocumented students choosing to go public with their status.

Many are inspired by the need for social activism, pushing for general immigration reform and, in particular, for the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). The Dream Act could make it possible for undocumented students to qualify for financial aid, in-state tuition and other support services, and open a pathway to citizenship for those who arrived in the U.S. as children. Many such students have grown up in the U.S. and already feel like citizens, even though some have had to be cautious about admitting their status for fear of deportation, according to Muñoz.

Increasingly these student activists are choosing to go public. “They are saying ‘this is who I am.’ It gives them a sense of liberation to proclaim themselves as undocumented and unafraid. Coming out of the shadows is a complex process and these college students are just trying to get an education, like other students.”