The Lives of “Undocumented” Students in Higher Education

Article By: 


Carmen Martínez-Calderón

Carmen is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley and is currently a Guest Lecturer at San Francisco State University. She is a past ISSC Graduate Fellow and Gates Millennium Scholar. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Ethnic Studies and a Masters in Social and Cultural Studies in Education from U.C. Berkeley.  Her current research project is an ethnographic inquiry into the lives of "undocumented" students in higher education.  By focusing on the social structure of higher education she hopes to illuminate linkages between education, social stratification, and inequality. She may be contacted at


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Carmen Martínez-Calderón, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate School of Education, UC, B

This two part series analyzes how “undocumented” students make sense of school, schooling, and their social standing in the U.S. Based on two years of ethnographic research with 20 undocumented Mexican immigrant college students in California, this study examines the factors that have led these students to abandon their state of “social invisibility” and participate in higher education. The study finds that undocumented students decide to seek a higher education in an attempt to improve their chances for upward social mobility and incorporation into mainstream U.S society. They also see schools as safety zones and schooling as a mechanism of assimilation. This paper further explores how segmented assimilation theory can be utilized to understand the processes by which these students’ assimilate into mainstream U.S society. Lastly, the paper considers how assimilation theory can be expanded to better understand and depict the divergent paths of immigrant incorporation in the U.S. The second part of the series will be included in the Fall Edition of the iJournal.  



Upon arriving in the United States, Mexican immigrant students face myriad obstacles, problems, and educational needs.  In addition to dealing with the emotional stress associated with adjusting to a new physical and social environment, as students, they must cope with the need to learn English and adapt to new cultural norms and expectations.  They are also confronted with problems like poverty, high residential mobility, broken ties with family and communities in their native countries, and the loss of social support networks (Duran & Weffer 1992).  Immigrant students are also likely to face inadequate and unequal educational opportunities, and those without legal status are more likely to drop out of school and not pursue higher education.

In spite of these obstacles, some “undocumented”  students make it into college and earn a degree.  This is especially striking when one considers the relatively low rates of completed schooling among the Latino population as a whole.    What are the reasons that explain the decision by some undocumented Mexican immigrant students to pursue higher education, while others (undocumented and documented immigrants, as well as U.S.-born Latinos) do not?  What are the protective factors that allow some students to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of obtaining a college degree?  These are the central questions that guide this study.
I explore these questions by first reviewing the historical and contemporary context that has produced the anti-immigrant climate undocumented students face in the U.S. today and the ways in which several key immigration policies and laws have helped to shape this context.  I follow this historical overview with a description of the different methodological tools utilized by this study to document the daily struggles of undocumented students.  Third, I present excerpts of students’ stories which illustrate the complexities of their daily experiences as undocumented Mexican immigrant students and their incorporation into U.S. society.  Fourth, I discuss segmented assimilation theory, its usefulness for explaining the experiences of the students profiled in this study, as well as its shortcomings.  I conclude with a proposal for how assimilation theory can be enhanced and best utilized to help explain the experiences of undocumented students.

The words and experiences of participants in this study demonstrate the complex circumstances and different situations that enable some undocumented students to pursue a college degree.  They also show how students, whose lack of legal status places them at risk of arrest and deportation, can effectively negotiate and avoid the various obstacles that all too frequently push Latinos out of schools and institutions of higher education.  These stories not only challenge the dominant belief that Latinos, and more specifically Mexicanas/os, do not value education, but they prove that the experiences of undocumented students are far more complex than what can be explained through dichotomous typologies of success and failure adopted by assimilation models.

Through this paper, I hope to challenge this prevailing dichotomy and present instead a more complex understanding of how undocumented students who come from rural backgrounds understand schools, schooling, and their social position within U.S society.  I also propose an alternative way of viewing student persistence – one that recognizes the possibility of multiple pathways to higher education and as a result, multiple processes of community incorporation.  Finally, in addition to revealing shortcomings in the literature on Latino youth achievement this paper proposes additional factors, including the importance of legal status, that must be considered when developing theories that seek to explain Latino youth achievement and assimilation.

Research Context: Living in Times of Anti-immigrant Hysteria
The anti-immigrant climate in which undocumented students currently live and the obstacles they face are products of immigrant social stratification created by the state and its policies throughout U.S. history.  Before turning to a discussion about why undocumented students decide to pursue higher education and how they are managing to be successful within academia, I will discuss the role of the state and its laws and policies in barring some immigrants from moving up the social ladder.  Reviewing past events around immigration reform is imperative for understanding the political and social forces that have paved the way for different forms of restrictive immigration laws and policies that in turn fuel the current anti-immigrant climate.

Historically, Mexico-U.S. relations have been based on co-dependency and have been full of tensions and contradictions.  The issue of immigration is the best example of these dynamics.  On the one hand, the U.S. has historically depended on Mexico’s cheap labor supply and, at many times, has encouraged immigration (both legal and illegal).  On the other hand, the influx of Mexican immigrants into U.S. territory has been viewed as a problem and threat to U.S. sovereignty (Huntington 2004), especially during times when the U.S. economy has become fragile.  It is important to point out that “Mexican immigrants” were created after the annexation of Mexican territory by the U.S. after the Treaty of Guadalupe of 1848 , which resulted from the Mexican-American War.  Later, Mexican immigration was initiated by U.S. growers and railroad companies who sent recruiters into the interior of Mexico to hire needed workers.  According to Portes and Rumbaut (2006), by “1916, five or six weekly trains full of Mexican workers hired by agents were being run from Laredo to Los Angeles” (p.14).  The temporary arrival of thousands of Mexicans to the U.S. during World War I and World War II was crucial to maintaining low labor costs in the agricultural sector of the U.S. economy.  Immigrants were also recruited through guest worker programs such as the Bracero Program (1942-64) which allowed nearly 4.6 million Mexican migrant laborers to enter the U.S. legally to join a temporary labor force (Gelletly 2004, p. 50).  Due to the need for cheap labor, Mexican immigration to “El Norte” was not a pressing issue in U.S. law and policy until well into the 20th century when it became regulated.
Nativist arguments against Mexicans emerged in the mid 1920s.  “Every year since the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act , a national debate to exclude Mexicans resurfaced with added vigor” (Acuna 2004, p.209).  After the stock market crash of 1929, the United States was at the brink of bankruptcy and its rising unemployment rates gave rise to nativist sentiments against Mexicans who were filling the need for cheap labor.  Historically, there has been a strong correlation between anti-immigrant sentiment and economic anxiety, particularly around unemployment rates, and “[a]s in every economic downturn in U.S. history, the ugly head of racist nativism revealed itself,” this time through policies such as “Operation Wetback” (Acuna 2004, p.208).

In the mid 1950’s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched “Operation Wetback” which led to the roundup and deportation or repatriation of thousands of Mexicans (including some U.S. citizens).  This “massive enforcement effort aimed at apprehending and deporting undocumented agricultural workers from the southwest, especially south Texas and southern California” was part of a national reaction against Mexican illegal immigration (Ngai 2004, p.154).

In 1964 the Bracero Program was terminated.  This was due in part to the fact that American agribusiness had become far less dependent upon imported contract labor.  Ngai (2004) explains, “The mechanization of sugar beets in western states and cotton, the chief crop drawing braceros in Texas, Arizona, and parts of California, were mechanized by the early 1960s.  This was followed by the mechanization of tomato-harvesting in California where the majority of braceros were employed after 1961” (p. 166).  While mechanization reduced the need for cheap labor, it did not eliminate it.  Ngai (2004) states that after the Bracero Program ended, the exploitation of undocumented labor increased. 

As the number of immigrants grew during the 1970s and ‘80s, so did the creation of new restrictive policies.  In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) which not only expanded funding for militarization and enforcement of the U.S. border, but it also penalized employers who knowingly hired undocumented immigrants.  Its aim was ultimately to reduce illegal immigration by making it harder for undocumented immigrants to obtain employment.  During this time the U.S. economy was experiencing a prolonged recession and immigrants were again, blamed as the cause of the economic downturn.  The influx of immigrants was viewed as an invasion that resulted in wage depression and high unemployment rates.  Consequently, the recession was also used to justify additional spending on border enforcement by claiming that tighter borders offered one solution to the country’s economic ills (Dunn 1995).

In spite of these restrictive measures, Mexican immigration, including “illegal” immigration, has continued its steady climb.  Immigration scholar Douglas Massey (2005) claims that during the 1980s, border control was framed by U.S. politicians as an issue of ‘national security’ and that illegal migration was portrayed as an ‘alien invasion.’  Drawing on Andreas (2000), Massey (2002) states that between 1986 and 1996, Congress and the President undertook a remarkable series of restrictive actions to reassure citizens that they were working hard to “regain control” of the Mexico-U.S. border.  For example, in 1994 concerns about undocumented immigrants using and abusing social services and the reactionary backlash against immigrants and growing diversity led to the development and passage of Propositions 187, 209, and 227 in California.  Proposition 187, which sought to deny undocumented immigrants access to government services (including education, medical and social services) was later struck down by federal judges as unconstitutional.  However, Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in public institutions, including the University of California’s admissions policies, and Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education in California public schools, managed to pass and ultimately saw enforcement.  

Anti-immigrant sentiments and hostility against this population did not end at the border.  Instead they bled and continue to bleed into every vein of U.S. society where Latino immigrants reside.  Recent laws and initiatives  continue to target and criminalize “undocumented” or “illegal aliens,” as they are called, forcing them into hiding and into low-level service sector jobs.  Consequently, immigrants without legal papers experience and undergo many obstacles that prevent them from incorporation into mainstream America and achieving economic stability.  Given the current anti-immigrant climate, it has not been possible for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and it is unlikely that efforts to pass reforms that would offer protections and assistance to undocumented immigrants will succeed anytime soon.  Three notable examples of proposed reforms are: the California Real ID Act –SB60, which would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for and obtain drivers licenses in California; the California Dream Act, which would grant college and university students access to state financial aid; and the National Dream Act, which would grant these students the opportunity for legalization and ultimately citizenship through education or military service.

Mexican Immigrant Student Incorporation and Segmented Assimilation

Segmented assimilation theory offers a framework for understanding the process by which the children of immigrants become incorporated into the system of stratification in the host society and the different outcomes of this process (Zhou 1999, p. 1).  It proposes three possible outcomes for second generation immigrants: “One of them replicates the time-honored portrayal of growing acculturation and parallel integration into the white middle class; a second leads straight into the opposite direction to permanent poverty and assimilation into the underclass; still a third associates rapid economic advancement with deliberate preservation of the immigrant community’s values and tight solidarity” (Portes & Zhou 1993, p.82). 

According to segmented assimilation theory, undocumented students pursuing a higher education would mainly fall within the first option – acculturation and integration into the white middle class – because they are doing everything necessary to become part of mainstream America and to advance their socio-economic status.  Theoretically, undocumented students who obtain a higher education will gain entry into the middle class by using their degree to secure a professional position.  However, the possibility of pursuing a professional career is in jeopardy if they have not yet become legal permanent residents by the time they graduate.  Without this legal status, they will be denied the opportunity to work within their professional fields and instead will be forced to re-join the underclass of undocumented individuals in the service sector.

Segmented assimilation theory is most relevant for those who are legally in the U.S.  It does not fully take into account the role of the state in either incorporating or excluding certain groups of immigrants.  I, like Roger Waldinger (2003), argue that in a
contemporary world internal boundaries aren’t simply defined by ethnicity as sociology of assimilation insists, but instead, the crucial categorical memberships also derived from the political organization of the contemporary migration regime. Thus, the coercive power of the American state is kept busily working, affecting dissimilation by keeping the world out and creating distinctions among residents of different types to be sure the United States is also accepting lots of foreigners and turning them into Americans (p. 12).

 Undocumented students in higher education are an anomaly within the framework offered by segmented assimilation theory, given that they are being discriminated against and prevented from being fully incorporated into mainstream America through the institutional mechanisms of the American state.  In order to get a full understanding of how different groups of immigrants assimilate into the U.S., we need to consider and highlight the role played by the state in either preventing or encouraging assimilation.  Segmented assimilation theory as it stands today fails to consider the role played by the state as a central factor in dictating divergent outcomes to different immigrants depending upon their legal statuses.

Persistence and Motivations

When discussing their motives, undocumented students mentioned multiple benefits they hoped would come from pursuing a higher education.  The three primary benefits undocumented students identified were: socio-economic upward mobility, obtaining professional jobs, and most importantly, an opportunity for legalization.  Laly explains,

I am just trying to get a better life and do what the government wants all immigrants to do…to assimilate, be educated, to have good jobs, and to pay good taxes because most immigrants like us have bad, low paying jobs that don’t really pay that much taxes because they don’t earn that much. [. . .] hopefully this will also help me in the future to get my papers.
-Laly,  female, 18 years old

A major myth perpetuated by the U.S. mainstream media, among other sources, is that Mexican Americans, particularly those with low socio-economic status, do not value education.  As a consequence, the myth asserts, these children experience poor academic achievement (Valencia & Black 2002).  Challenging this myth are undocumented Mexican students and their families for whom education is highly important not just for personal and professional growth, but for obtaining a “better life”:

I want to study to be a nurse because I like helping people and they make good money.   [. . .] my mom has gone through a lot and I want to help her. I don’t want her to always be worrying about money
-Gigi, female, 19 years old

For Laly, Gigi and other students interviewed in this study, obtaining a better life includes both financial stability, which will bring a certain level of social and emotional stability, and being productive in something they are passionate about.  They all currently face or have faced financial and economic hardship, which has convinced them that having an education will improve their economic and financial situation and/or prevent them or their family from having to face similar circumstances again.  They speak about how they aspire to obtain better jobs than those they currently hold or have access to, emphasizing their dream of having a job they would enjoy doing as opposed to feeling “stuck” in a job they dislike or feel they have to do because they have no other alternatives.

It makes me feel bad to hear my uncles complaining about their jobs. They are not happy with what they do and I would hate to be in their shoes [brief laughter]. Well I guess I kinda am because I am a janitor and I really don’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I want to be able to go to work and be excited and happy to be doing what I am doing. I don’t want to have to be part of those conversations where all they do is talk about how much they hate their jobs…
-Serio, male, 20 years old

A benefit these students see in obtaining a higher education, regardless of their legal status, is that they will be able to earn more money while in school than what a non-student immigrant would otherwise earn.  For example, China is studying to be a nurse and is a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) currently working at a rest home.  In her view, she would never have obtained this job without declaring that she was currently an RN student, and she would not be earning as much as she is earning as a CNA if she did not have the little education she already has.  She explains,
I would most likely be working at a fast food restaurant somewhere or at some winery where they pay a lot less than what I make as a CNA and as someone who is working on her Nursing degree.
-China, female, 25 years old

Additionally, many undocumented students have their hopes set on the National Dream Act and see education as the vehicle that will allow them to achieve their career goals and improve their socio-economic status.  Some hope the legislation will pass because they have nothing on file with Homeland Security that shows they reside in this country, and they are interested in becoming permanent residents.  In most cases, they have had to remain invisible because they do not qualify under any approved immigration category that will grant them the opportunity to obtain a green card.

We already talked to a couple of lawyers and they all say that the only way that I can become legal is if I submit a petition under…like…uhhmmm…based on the time or like…uhmm…number of years I have lived here. But they all say it is not likely that I will qualify because there isn’t really any category favoring Mexicans right now and none of my parents are either permanent residents or citizens.
-Guero, male, 23 years old

For some, the only option is to continue with their education while they wait for the National Dream Act to pass.  Once the National Dream Act passes, they will be eligible to apply for legal permanent residency in the U.S.  Thus, these students view obtaining legalization as one of the greatest benefits that may come from pursuing a higher education.  In order for undocumented students to qualify for immigration relief under the DREAM Act, they must have been brought to the U.S. more than five years ago when he or she was 15 years old or younger and they must be able to demonstrate good moral character.  In the Senate version, the student must also be under 30 years old on the date the DREAM Act is signed into law.  Under the DREAM Act, once a student graduates from high school, he or she would be permitted to apply for conditional status, which would authorize him or her up to six years of legal residence.  During the six-year period, the student would be required to graduate from a two-year college, complete at least two years toward a four-year degree, or serve in the U.S. military for at least two years.  Permanent residence would be granted at the end of the six-year period if the student has met these requirements and has continued to maintain good moral character (NILC 2007).  Gordis describes the hopeful outlook many undocumented students share with regard to the passage of the National Dream Act:

I know that sooner or later the government is going to see that we are deserving of our papers because we are hardworking people that want to succeed and help this country…even though I wasn’t born here, I still consider this my home. My whole family is here. I grew up here… This is all I know, I have never been back to Mexico since I was brought here when I was eight.
            -Gordis, female, 23 years old

Some students are already in the process of obtaining legal status, but they too hope that the Dream Act passes soon, and thereby reduce the time it will take for them to become permanent residents.  Most of the students in this study have waited between ten and twelve years for a response from the government, and others are still waiting.  According to Rosaura Segura (2008), an immigration specialist, the typical wait is between twelve and fifteen years for those who do not turn 18 before the priority date – otherwise, they are looking at a 20 to 25 year waiting period before they are granted their residency if neither of their parents are citizens of the U.S.  The only other options are to file under “domestic abuse victims” (i.e. “asylees”) or to marry a U.S. citizen.  These students believe that the number of Mexicans in this country and their many contributions will ultimately force the U.S. government to provide some kind of comprehensive immigration reform.  They just hope and pray that the Dream Act is part of that reform. 

Even those who recognize that they may never be granted legal permanent residence status or U.S. citizenship see value in pursuing a higher education.  As Serio explains, even if he gets deported, as an educated individual with a professional degree he is still likely to find a decent job in Mexico – a job that would otherwise be unattainable to people without an education.

I know that even if I get deported back to Mexico, I will be educated and in better shape than if I wasn’t. I would probably be able to find a good job down there because of the education I am getting and also because I am bilingual. My dad always tells me that the education I receive will follow me wherever I go and that it is something no one can take away from me.
        -Serio, male, 20 years old

All participants in this study recognize the importance of obtaining a higher college education and the financial benefits that this is likely to bring to them, whether in the U.S. or Mexico.  They all gave examples of how everyone they see who is financially stable or successful has some form of college education.  They noted how those who are struggling financially either never finished high school or barely finished but did not pursue a college education.  Most important, however, is that all participants of this study view schools and schooling as vehicles that will aid them in either obtaining legal status if pending legislation passes or in speeding up the process they have already embarked on to become a permanent resident. 

My home is here, this [the U.S.] is the only place I know, I have no memories or recollection of my rancho [village] back in Mexico. As a two-year old, ¿tú qué crees que pueda recordar?...¡Nada!  [What do you think I can remember?...Nothing!]
-Chapis, female, 19 years old

In addition to improving their socio-economic status, obtaining legal status, and securing a good paying professional job, a fourth factor that motivates some of these students is to prove that they are productive members of society and not the criminals anti-immigrant people perceive them to be.  Undocumented students view the U.S. as their home and also continue to see it as other immigrants have historically viewed it – as the land of opportunity.  They all want to become educated, productive members of society, not only for personal reasons, but also to “show other people who dislike immigrants that [they] are not criminals, that [they] are normal young individuals who only want to work hard and live a normal life” (Laly, female, 18 years old). They want to be able to prove that they are productive members of society who only wish to become legal and fully incorporated into mainstream America.  As Polla explains,

We want to be able to take advantage of the great opportunities this country has to offer. We want to be educated and be able to have the right to vote and to have a say on what goes on in this country, because right now it seems like everyone else is almost deciding for us. We want to be able to participate in May 1 marches [boycott and immigrant rights marches in 2006] as legal people who have knowledge and a voice—not as immigrants who are considered uneducated, voiceless, and always hiding in the shadows. We want to be able to prove that we have skills and are smart. That we can be leaders and serve as the leaders of this country we consider our home. Even now, without legal papers and with our low paying jobs and all, we are making great contributions to this country like no other group of immigrants have…
-Polla, female, 30 years old

We will continue the series with the final installment of Confronting Obstacles through Agency and Social Networks. The second and final part of the series will explore the obstacles, the safety issues and civic engagement these students enter into. The conclusion weighs in on the desire for the students to pursue higher education and no wait for the resolution of the political debates.  



1.This term is used to describe an individual who does not possess legal documentation that identifies him or her as a permanent resident or citizen of the U.S.
2. A recently published report by the National Research Council (2006) asserts that Latinos/Hispanics “are distinguished by their historically low levels of completed schooling, currently completing less formal schooling than any other demographic group” in the United States (p. 81). Within Latino subgroups, disparities in educational attainment exist most notably between native U.S.-born and foreign born Latinos. The National Research Council (2006) reports: “On average, foreign-born Hispanics of working age complete 2.5 years less formal schooling than their U.S.-born compatriots, with negligible differences between men and women” (p. 81). Mexicans have the lowest educational level of any Hispanic subgroup, and, according to the National Research Council, “the gap in completed schooling between the foreign and native born is larger for Mexicans than for Hispanics of other nationalities. This number grew from 3 years in 1980 to 4.4 years in 2000, “owing to substantial educational advances among the U.S-born rather than declining attainment of recent immigrants” (p. 82). Furthermore, recent Mexican immigrants “who arrived as teenagers have non-enrollment rates over 40%, but Mexican youths who arrived as very young children show only moderately high rates of school attrition…” (Hirschman 2001, p. 322). Other studies show that recent immigrants actually do better academically than U.S.-born Latinos (Rumbaut 1990, Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco 1995, Valenzuela 1999, Velez & Griego-Jones 1997).

3. This ratified treaty drew the boundary between Mexico and the United States at the Rio Grande and the Gila River. As a result, Mexico ceded almost half of its territory to the United States in return for $15 million. The U.S. also agreed to settle more than $3,000,000 in claims made by U.S. citizens against Mexico.

4. Otherwise known as the “Johnson Reed Act,” this was the first United States federal law that established temporary quotas based on 2 percent of the foreign-born population in 1890, and mandated the secretaries of labor, state, and commerce to determine quotas on the basis of national origins by 1927. Additionally, it excluded Japanese immigrants and placed numerical restrictions on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere (Ngai 2004).

5. For example, Arizona’s current SB1070 whose aim is to identify, prosecute and deport undocumented immigrants and Proposition 200 also in Arizona, which was approved by 56 percent of voters on November 2, 2004, requires Arizona residents to prove their U.S. citizenship before registering to vote or applying for government services and forces government workers to report an undocumented immigrant trying to get services like welfare or food stamps. More recently, Members of Congress put forth HR 4437, otherwise known as the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which would make undocumented individuals felons. Furthermore, HR 4437 would make anyone known to “assist” an individual without documentation liable for criminal penalties and five years in prison. 

6. All names used for students are pseudonyms chosen by participants of this research project.

(Note: This working paper is part of a larger dissertation research project – forthcoming Dec. 2010.)

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