Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Undocumented Students and Access to Higher Education: A Dream Defined by State Borders

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Undocumented Students and Access to Higher Education: A Dream Defined by State Borders

Article excerpt


The United States Constitution expressly states that immigration is a federal law issue. However, due to ambiguous or insufficient federal statutes, many states have adopted policies and laws that influence immigration patterns within their borders. A common method of state action furthering this purpose is the grant or denial of public funds to undocumented students seeking to obtain a higher education.

The ambiguity in federal law allowing states to legislate immigration law has created an imbalance in immigration policy among the states. In some states, public universities admit undocumented students and grant them eligibility for state financial aid. In other states, public universities deny these same students financial aid and in some circumstances, may even deny them admission.

I was born in Mexico; however, I have lived in Nevada since I was ten years old. Like me, many Latin American immigrants who currently reside in the United States have lived here from a young age. For many in this category, the United States has become "home." Although we may be culturally aware of where we were born, it is increasingly difficult to identify ourselves with a Latin American country that has not been "home" since we were children.

Many Latin American immigrants in this category graduate from American public high schools and attend state universities. Many of them are successful college students that have similar dreams ? graduate school, professional school, or a dream job. But despite our common drive to find a dream job or continue with our education, state laws and policies often substantially limit the opportunities for the undocumented immigrants in this category. Current immigration laws prohibit undocumented college graduates from both pursuing further education and applying their expertise in industry. For example, I am able to pursue my dream of a professional degree because I am not hindered by the fact that I am undocumented; on the other hand, my undocumented classmates cannot. They have math, chemistry, and journalism degrees, yet they make a living as factory workers, receptionists, and waitresses. These students and many others find it difficult to understand why an immigration status dictates how a hardworking, talented group of professionals can live their lives.

In many states, such as Nevada, immigration status does not become a barrier to an undocumented immigrant's educational or professional development until college graduation. Nevada does not consider immigration status in determining whether a student will have access to public universities and community colleges. ' In Nevada, although state and federal law prohibit undocumented college graduates from working or continuing their education, the state at least gives them the opportunity to learn, and as a result, develop personally and intellectually. Students in other states are not so fortunate.

Some states have decided that lawful immigration status is a prerequisite to learning.2 These states have denied undocumented students access to public colleges and universities.3 This Note does not focus on the present struggle of undocumented college graduates. Instead, this Note focuses on the battle many students fight simply to have the opportunity to sit in a university classroom ? an opportunity earned only by living in the right state at the right time.4

This Note analyzes the way in which three different states currently respond to undocumented students who want a post-secondary education. It will show that a state's response to undocumented immigrants is not dictated by federal law; rather, it is dictated by the state's policy on undocumented immigration. Part II provides an overview of federal and state law governing the education of undocumented students. Part III examines how Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, working within their own interpretations of federal law, approach the issue either through state law or state policy. …

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