As the autumn semester begins, thousands of college students are back on campus preoccupied with class schedules, roommates, and pursuing their majors. But undocumented students at our nation’s universities are focused on more pressing concerns. Because they are ineligible for federal financial aid and vulnerable to deportation, the school year is fraught with fear and very real choices between buying food and paying tuition.
Why should we care about these undocumented students? Many of these young people have already demonstrated extraordinary intelligence, drive and ambition. Here at UC Berkeley, where undergraduates are drawn from the top 4 percent of the state’s high school graduates, about 400 undocumented students are enrolled. A physics course on our campus this semester is being taught by a brilliant young Latino physicist who was formerly an undocumented immigrant.
Presidential candidates for both parties have recognized that the U.S. is slipping in comparison to our international competitors. For the good of our country, we simply cannot afford to waste the incredible talent that undocumented students represent 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
However, despite the extraordinary academic achievements of many undocumented students, being accepted to a university is only the first of many hurdles along the path to a college degree. While immigration reform would remove many of the barriers these students face in continuing their education, absent action from Congress there is still much we can do to facilitate access to higher education and financial aid for these professionals in waiting.
A recent study conducted by the International Human Rights Law Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law revealed the precarious situation of many of the undocumented students on our campus here at Berkeley.
Nearly all students in the study reported annual family incomes of less than $50,000, with the vast majority of households living near or below the federal poverty level. Despite their dire financial circumstances, undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid.
As a result, undocumented students face serious deprivations. Nearly three-quarters of undocumented students reported skipping meals or reducing the size of their meals while studying at U.C. Berkeley. Almost a quarter of undocumented students surveyed reported a period of homelessness or lack of stable housing during their time enrolled at the university.
Given these realities, undocumented students have employed different strategies to pursue higher education. For some, withdrawing from school to work and re-enrolling in a later semester is the only way to make it to graduation day. Others work multiple jobs, sleep in classrooms when there is no money for rent, or engage in personal fundraising campaigns to make tuition payments.
While the resilience and determination of these students is admirable, the challenges they face are simply unacceptable. Through the tireless efforts of undocumented students and their allies, some states have tried to fill the gap left by federal education policy.
Eligibility for in-state tuition rates and access to limited forms of state and private financial aid are among the recent gains on behalf of undocumented students. Such programs, including those in California, have been a lifeline for undocumented students.
But other states are trying to block access to higher education and roll back the few opportunities that do exist for undocumented students. States must ease the way for undocumented students to continue their studies, not impose a glass ceiling. Similarly, the federal financial-aid regime must catch up to the reality of undocumented students and allow them to tap in to federal financial aid, including student loans.
Financial-aid fixes alone cannot resolve what is essentially a problem of immigration policy. Congress has done next to nothing to develop a plan for comprehensive immigration reform to address the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. Even the DREAM Act — a bipartisan bill first introduced in 2001, which would provide a path to legalization for many undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children — has stalled time and time again.
In our nation of immigrants, education has always been the key to transforming dreams into new horizons. We need to facilitate access to higher education, not create obstacles for the future doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals that our country needs.
We need these extraordinary young people as much as they need us. When our young people succeed, our country succeeds. Reforms to education policy and the immigration system are not only the right thing to do but are essential to the future of our nation.
Robert Birgeneau is chancellor emeritus of UC Berkeley and the Arnold and Barbara Silverman Distinguished Professor of Physics. Allison Davenport is a clinical instructor at UC Berkeley School of Law.
This article was originally posted on The Berkeley Blog.