The Urban Institute estimates that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year. In most respects, these young people are already important members of our society. After completing an education in our primary schools, they envision their futures here and internalize American values. They also represent a considerable number of our population.
Rather than valuing them as important societal resources, current policies restrict their options and curb their potential. Without full legal rights, these graduates are barred from the very means that have ensured high levels of economic and social mobility to other immigrants throughout U.S. history. The undocumented students’ efforts to adapt and contribute economically are met with legal obstacles. Their situation is made even more difficult by confusing and conflicting laws that allow them to legally attend U.S. schools, but deny them opportunities to work, vote, receive financial aid, and drive in most states. This denial is enough to set them on a path of poverty and frustration.
A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitles undocumented students to a free education from public K‐12 schools. However, neither Congress nor the courts have figured out what to do once these students decide to attend college. Most public universities classify undocumented youth as ‘international students’ and charge them three to seven times more in tuition. Given the limited economic resources of most undocumented high school graduates, the rising tuition rates and high overall cost of higher education are prohibitive. As a result, only a small fraction of these young people are able to pursue their education beyond the twelfth grade.
For most Americans, it is extremely difficult to afford a college education without financial aid, but undocumented students face even more obstacles. For them, the combination of limited family resources and exclusion from federal and state financial aid severely limits their ability to pursue higher education. Undocumented students cannot legally receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. U.S. laws also prohibit undocumented students from participating in many federally-funded programs designed to assist low‐income students.
At some point, doors stop opening altogether for these young men and women. Whether it is a series of blocked opportunities within the labor market or the end of educational opportunities, there comes a time when they run out of options. These moments contradict everything we teach in school and send a message that the dreams of the undocumented will not be realized and that all of their hard work was in vain.
This also means a significant loss of potential for the U.S. Without the incentive and means to continue their education, undocumented youth cannot afford higher learning, and the U.S. is losing out on their productivity, entrepreneurship, and creativity, as well as tax revenue from their potentially higher earnings. Providing viable pathways to legalization can help lift these young people out of poverty, integrate them into adult society, and give them opportunities to compete for financial aid and jobs.