- More than 408,000 college students were living in the U.S. without legal permission in 2021, according to a new report from the American Immigration Council and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
- That number represented a 4.2% decrease from 427,000 students in 2019, the report from the two advocacy groups said. They attributed the decline to pandemic- and economic-related enrollment losses, as well as ongoing legal challenges to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
- DACA provides protection from deportation for certain immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children and permits them to study and work. Of the students lacking permanent legal status, 141,000, or roughly one-third, are eligible for or enrolled in DACA.
The report uses the term "undocumented students" throughout and acknowledges the diversity of this population, which makes up 1.9% of all college students.
Almost half of these students, 46%, are Hispanic, and more than a quarter, 27%, are Asian American Pacific Islander, it said. Almost 14% are Black, and 10% are White. Researchers disaggregated 2021 census data to calculate their findings.
More than three-quarters of undocumented students attend public institutions, with a notable share at community colleges, according to the report.
The number of students eligible for or enrolled in DACA has been on the decline, down 41,000 students from 182,000 in 2019. Researchers expect that number to continue to drop if the government does not open the program’s eligibility to those who arrived in the U.S. after 2007.
The majority of undocumented students were brought to the U.S. at a young age. But many are not eligible for DACA protections, the report said.
For example, if someone was four years old when they arrived in the U.S. in 2008, they would now be college aged but would not qualify for DACA.
Thus far, DACA has survived multiple court challenges, though in a greatly diminished form. In 2021, a federal judge in Texas ruled the program unlawful and barred new applicants. But he permitted current enrollees to continue receiving its protections.
And if one of the lawsuits against it is elevated to the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court, it is unlikely to continue.
"In light of the economic contributions Dreamers already make, and the future talent and workforce potential represented by this student population, the new estimates underscore why Congress must pass legislation that offers Dreamers a permanent legislative fix," the report said, "one that allows them to work and study without fear of deportation and creates a path to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship."
Lowering barriers to higher education for undocumented students would reduce high school dropout rates and lead to higher student achievement, according to the report.
While DACA is a federal program, state policy also plays a key role in making higher education accessible.
Texas, for example, has roughly 59,000 undocumented college students — the largest amount second only to California. In 2001, it became the first state to offer in-state tuition and some financial aid to that group through nonresidency requirements, such as having a high school diploma from a Texas school.
Legal challenges to the state's programs have largely been unsuccessful, despite its conservative make-up. Recently, an appeals court upheld a policy at the University of North Texas which charges higher tuition for out-of-state students than that paid by unauthorized Texans.
Researchers classified the state as offering undocumented students comprehensive access to tuition and financial aid.