Mariela G. Shibley and Suzan Ahmed, MA

“Our workforce and our entire economy are strongest when we embrace diversity to its fullest, and that means opening doors of opportunity to everyone and recognizing that the American Dream excludes no one.” - Thomas Perez

Continuing Education Information

According to the Pew Research Center (2013), the United States is ranked as the number one destination for immigrants. In 2013, 40.4 million immigrants, both documented and undocumented, were estimated to reside in the U.S. With such a large and ever-growing population of immigrants, the U.S. has become home for many individuals who came to the country as young children with their families, creating a substantial number of undocumented youth attending U.S. schools. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year (American Immigration Council, 2010). A significant number of these students are unable to pursue a college degree simply because their legal status disqualifies them from receiving publicly funded financial aid. This barrier to obtaining higher education can be a frustrating experience for these undocumented students, many of whom are valedictorians, honor-roll students, and community leaders, not to mention aspiring doctors, teachers, and lawyers. Without access to financial aid and a path to citizenship, these hard-working, talented students are prevented from fully contributing their potential and gifts to our society, communities, and the world.

In June of 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to curb the deportation of certain young undocumented immigrants. First introduced on August 1, 2001, the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a bill that would provide conditional permanent residency to young immigrants who (a) arrived in the United States as minors (16 years of age or younger), (b) have graduated from a U.S. high school, (c) are currently under the age of 30 years, and (d) are of “good moral character.” Additional eligibility requirements for the executive order include an absence of felony convictions or multiple misdemeanors. Further, the applicant must have also lived continuously in the United States for at least five years prior to June 15, 2012. An estimated 2.1 million undocumented young people in the U.S. may be eligible for legal status under the DREAM Act (American Immigration Council, 2010).

Although the DREAM Act has not yet been passed, President Obama has instituted a deferred action process through executive order as a temporary measure, which may allow certain people without documentation to remain and work in the United States for at least two years. This policy, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), is an American immigration policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the United States prior to their 16th birthday, and before June 2007, to obtain a renewable two-year work permit and may prevent their deportation. However, DACA does not confer legal immigration status or provide a path to citizenship.

In November 2014, President Barack Obama announced revisions to DACA, broadening its inclusion criteria to undocumented immigrants who have resided continuously in the United States since January 1, 2010, and who were born at any time instead of on or after June 16, 1981. Lastly, the revision expanded the deferral period to three years instead of two years. The Pew Research Center estimated that these changes would increase the number of qualifying immigrants by about 330,000 (Krogstad & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2014).

While state governments cannot directly modify DACA itself, they can control the state benefits available to individuals who qualify under DACA. For example, some states have already made it possible for undocumented students to pursue a college education. States cannot provide legal status to undocumented immigrants, but they can allow students without documentation to attend their universities and qualify for in-state tuition. In order to assist students without documentation in funding their college education, 11 states have passed laws that provide undocumented students with the opportunity to receive in-state tuition. California, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin permit undocumented students who have attended and graduated from the state’s primary and secondary schools to pay the same college tuition as other state residents. It is worth noting that four of these states are among the top 10 that have the most potential DREAM Act beneficiaries. The laws in these 11 states require undocumented students to: (1) attend a school in the state for a specified number of years; (2) graduate from high school in the state; and (3) sign an affidavit stating they will apply for legalization of their status as soon as they become eligible. Since 2011, an additional nine states (Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, and Rhode Island) have considered similar legislation.

Policies about whether or not to admit undocumented students vary among universities. Some colleges deny these individuals admission, while others allow them to attend. However, even when undocumented students are allowed to attend college, the tuition is often prohibitively expensive. If undocumented students cannot prove their legal residency in a state, they likely are required to pay the substantially higher out-of-state or international-student tuition rates. Furthermore, these students are not eligible for work study, federal student loans, or other financial assistance. Without the aid of these financial resources, it is extremely difficult for undocumented students to afford college, which then exacerbates already-existing financial stressors. To place this into context, nearly 40 percent of undocumented youth live in families who fall below the federal poverty line, in contrast to 17 percent of native-born children. Additionally, relative to their native-born and legal-immigrant counterparts, the average income of undocumented immigrant families is 40 percent lower (American Immigration Council, 2010).

The dilemma faced by DREAM Act students illustrates many facets of today’s immigration crisis. Trapped in a system where there is little, if any, means for legalizing their status, intelligent and hard-working youth must confront an uncertain future because of the barriers to continuing their education, working, or joining the military. Moreover, many are unaware of their undocumented status until they graduate from high school and try to apply for college – a harsh reality for those who were too young to have a choice when their families immigrated to the U.S. Furthermore, although the United States may be the only place these young immigrants have known, they now live in fear of deportation from the same country they call home. Since the 1996 stringent immigration changes that eliminated traditional forms of relief from deportation, a generation of youth essentially stuck between worlds has grown up without legal status. Such a denial of status means not only a loss of hope for the individuals, but also a significant loss of productivity for the U.S.

While increasing attention is paid to the legal issues around undocumented individuals in the U.S., there is little to no focus on the psychological experience of these individuals and the impact of their undocumented statuses on their mental health and well-being. Education, finances, and family issues comprise only some of the struggles that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. face. Common psychological stressors these individuals deal with include lack of acceptance from mainstream society, poverty, limited social support, restricted access to health care, and limited knowledge about available mental health resources and services (American Psychological Association, 2012). Although the effects of immigration on psychological health have been well-researched, the more specific effects of being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. on one’s mental health have only recently been explored.

Many undocumented children were brought to the U.S. as infants or small children. It is often not until these children reach middle childhood that they become aware of their legal status. This is partly because up until then, they were too young to understand the complexities of immigration. It is more often the case, however, that their ignorance was fueled by their parents’ own fears and anxiety regarding the negative stigma inherent in being undocumented (Falicov, 2014; Partida, 1996). Suddenly, these young children realize that they and their families are different from other American families. This can result in anxiety, fear and low self-esteem (Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi, & Suárez-Orozco, 2011). Paired with the negative stigma associated with being undocumented, these young kids tend to keep their undocumented status a secret from their peers. They suffer in silence, feeling alienated from their American friends and sometimes distanced or resentful towards the parents, who put them in their current situation.


“I’m not from here nor there,” Alex lamented during one of our sessions. A 19-year-old Mexican man whose parents brought him to the United States when he was only two years of age, Alex was raised in San Diego where he went to kindergarten, learned English, and participated in sports at school. Even though his parents are both Mexican, they feared that if they spoke Spanish to him, he would have great difficulty learning English. Consequently, Alex grew up with English as his main spoken language. Proud that their son had seamlessly adapted to the American culture, Alex’s parents never felt the need to explain his national origin. When he was four years old, Alex’s younger sister was born. The only U.S. citizen in the family, his sister grew up parallel to Alex, enjoying and benefiting from the same public education system, engaging in similar extracurricular activities, and building a close circle of friends.

It was not until Alex turned 15 that he found out he was undocumented. He explained, “I was so excited about taking driving lessons and getting my driver’s permit, just like all my friends. But my parents kept avoiding the subject and being very vague about their reasoning for not enrolling me in Driver’s Ed.” Then one day, during a heated argument, Alex’s parents revealed the truth to him. “You’re illegal,” they said, shamefully. “You’re not a U.S. citizen.” Alex felt “crushed, confused, ashamed, and scared.” He suddenly realized the immense gap that lay between him and his American peers - between him and his American sister. He felt alone.

Growing up with this big secret was a huge weight on Alex’s shoulders. He recalled having to come up with excuses to explain to his friends why he was not going to get a driver’s license or why he could not get a summer job at Starbucks. His weight grew heavier as time passed. He anxiously recalled when, one night at the age of 17, his friends decided to cross the border into Tijuana for a night of fun. “I had to fake getting really sick all of a sudden and asked them to drop me off at home. Can you imagine if I had crossed the border? I would have been stuck in Mexico all by myself!” he said. As his friends began applying for college, Alex, whose grade point average was 3.9, pondered his future given his very limited options. “I couldn’t work, and I couldn’t afford school. So, what was I gonna do?” Settling for community college while his friends made arrangements to attend college in other states, Alex was faced with yet another harsh reality: even in community college, undocumented students have to pay higher tuition. Whereas tuition for U.S. citizens and residents was around $40 per unit, Alex would have to pay about $240 per unit, or six times what his peers would pay. Getting a job to help pay for college was not an option because undocumented immigrants are not allowed to work in the United States. Federal student aid was also out of the question, as it is not available to non-legal U.S. residents. With no other option, Alex then considered the possibility of moving to his birth country – an option that his parents allegedly regarded as “insane.” He admitted, “I barely speak Spanish and I’ve never even been to Mexico! I’m not American, but I don’t consider myself Mexican either.” Alex finally chose to stay in California and enrolled in college part-time, taking only one or two classes at a time, as that was all his working parents could afford.

Alex’s case exemplifies what many undocumented immigrants experience: feeling out of place, lacking a stable sense of identity, and carrying the heavy weight of a stigmatizing secret. Alex’s only hope was to “meet an American girl, get married, and put all this behind me.” Fortunately, he has since been able to qualify and apply for DACA, which allowed him to obtain a driver’s license, a part-time job, and a reasonably priced education. Luckily for him, he also met a very nice American girl.

Considerations for Higher Education

Undocumented students who, despite the obstacles, are able to continue on with higher education are still in need of assistance that could help ease their transition. For these students, support from colleges and universities is paramount to them overcoming some of the anxiety of being scrutinized for their status. Among the recommended strategies for universities to enhance their competence in assisting undocumented students is providing comprehensive and culturally-sensitive training to college faculty and staff (Pérez, Cortés, Ramos, & Coronado, 2010). Additionally, student support counselors can become invaluable resources to undocumented students, collaborating with faculty and other staff involved in student support programs in order to provide information about and referrals to student organizations, alternative financial aid options, and other resources. Furthermore, establishing multicultural support programs and groups on college campuses is especially helpful for providing a safe haven for undocumented students with fear and anxiety about their often-stigmatized identity. This type of advocacy for undocumented students can help to reduce their stress levels and mitigate the exhaustion that results from navigating the many barriers to their educational goals. Thus, ensuring that universities recruit supportive and culturally-sensitive faculty and staff – ideally, those with experience working with immigrant students, as well as those who are bilingual and ethnically diverse – is one of the most helpful ways to alleviate some of the burdens that undocumented students often face.

In addition to cultivating cultural sensitivity among faculty and staff, universities can work towards establishing and strengthening coalitions with community-based organizations that advocate for immigrant rights. Such alliances can instill substantial system-wide changes that help to improve conditions for undocumented students and their families (Pérez, et al., 2010). The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy (META), and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) are some of the hundreds of nonprofit organizations that collaborate with community members and political figures to support immigrants and advocate for their rights and wellbeing. In addition to working with surrounding communities, universities can extend their outreach efforts to high schools, providing valuable information to undocumented students about the matriculation process, as well as about scholarship and dual-enrollment programs, which can greatly alleviate the costs of taking college courses.

Since undocumented students are not eligible for any type of governmental financial aid, they also need assistance finding financial support such as private or non-governmental scholarships. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the University of Southern California Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, and the National Council of La Raza, have compiled extensive lists of scholarships for which undocumented students are eligible. Counselors should disseminate these scholarship resources to undocumented students on their campus (Brilliant, 2000).

From a more clinical standpoint, it is crucial that counselors and school psychologists receive comprehensive, cross-culturally sensitive training on the sociohistorical and socioemotional experiences of undocumented students. Often, the competing pressures of these students’ home, work, and school lives, on top of the burdens of their immigration status, can contribute to a variety of psychological difficulties. In addition to the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that many undocumented students face, some may be unable to express their emotional experiences to their parents, which can lead to harboring anger and resentment towards their family and friends. Feelings of alienation, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder are among the many issues undocumented students often face, and psychoeducational workshops that focus on such topics can be made available to these students, helping to normalize their experiences and encourage greater self-awareness and empowerment among this vulnerable population (Pérez, et al., 2010).


As the immigration debate continues in the United States, there is one group of people that stand directly in the crossfire: undocumented students. These individuals who were brought to the United States as young children, attended public education and have established a social life in this country, are now faced with numerous obstacles as they grow up and experience the ever-widening gap between themselves and their United States-born peers. Undocumented students have, in many ways, become innocent victims of a flawed immigration system.

Understanding the legal and policy contexts through which undocumented students struggle to persist in higher education is a first step in developing the capacity to support these students. With this knowledge, student affairs professionals must become advocates for undocumented students’ rights to support their success in higher education.


Shibley_webDr. Shibley has a private practice in San Diego, where she conducts psychotherapy with adults, couples and families. She specializes in issues around acculturation, immigration, and trauma, working predominantly from a psychodynamic theoretical orientation. She has been conducting psychological evaluations for individuals in immigration proceedings since 2007 and she works collaboratively with attorneys and legal firms throughout California as an expert witness.


Suzan_webSuzan Ahmed, a clinical psychology doctoral student in San Diego, works as a psychological assistant under Dr. Shibley’s supervision. Her clinical interests include psychodynamic theory, attachment issues, working with survivors of trauma and helping give voice to underserved communities. Ms. Ahmed sees adults for individual psychotherapy and conducts psychological evaluations for immigration proceedings.


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