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Visit additional Resources on Working with Undocumented Students 

by Leonor L.  Wangensteen
University of Notre Dame


The steady rise of undocumented students in U.S. higher education is gaining widespread, national attention under the spotlight of immigration reform in a tense political landscape.  These immigrant youth, or DREAMers[i], must learn to navigate a complex web of challenges in finding access to higher education, complicated by their non-citizen status, national and state laws, institutional policies, and various levels of campus support.  The college dream became more accessible for undocumented youth who qualified for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)[ii], an immigration policy now set to expire in March 2018.  Undocumented students have also benefitted from multicultural campus programs and resources created as a result of heightened awareness of the need to better understand and support shifting campus demographics.  However, more can still be done to support undocumented students.  Intentional integration of culturally responsive approaches to undocumented student services and advising can produce effective outcomes for student success in and beyond college. 

The aim of this essay is, first, to synthesize key findings in research on the political, cultural, and contextual variables that impact the undocumented student experience in college and, second, to propose best practices to support undocumented college students.  Using culturally responsive advising theory and critical race theory, it becomes evident that academic advisors and student service specialists should avoid one-size-fits-all and prescriptive advising approaches to undocumented student support, and instead, cultivate integrative, holistic, and student-centered care. 

Policy and Legal Contexts
Recent demographics from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Research Center show there were 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants[iii] in the U.S. in 2012, or 3.5% of the nation’s population, from which approximately 2.1 million were K–12 aged students (Baker & Rytina, 2012; López, & Radford, 2016).  Data from Educators for Fair Consideration indicate that out of the 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school nationwide annually, only 5–10% continue to college, resulting in an estimated 7,000–13,000 students currently enrolled in U.S. higher education (Educators for Fair Consideration, 2012). 

The landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe guaranteed free and equal access to the U.S. K–12 public education system for undocumented, immigrant children.  Since the Plyler ruling covered only K–12 education, undocumented students, immigration advocates, public leaders, and political figures rallied for a more comprehensive immigration reform plan.  The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, is a bipartisan legislation first introduced in Congress in 2001 that would ultimately provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth (American Immigration Council, 2011).  After more than 16 years of failed attempts to pass DREAM Act versions, today’s Dreamers continue to fight for legal protections that would allow fearless pursuit of education, career, family, and the American dream. 

As interim relief for stagnant immigration reform, the Obama administration issued an executive order in 2012 called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2014), but the 2014 expanded DACA and DAPA programs never made it through a Supreme Court standstill[iv].  Even if DACA was never a path to citizenship, nearly 800,000 beneficiaries over the past five years received protection from deportation, employee authorization, and access to a social security number and state identification or driver’s license to youth.  The Migration Policy Institute released new findings based on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data that show significant benefits of DACA on education and employment.  The DACA recipient profiles reveal they “are almost as likely as U.S. adults in the same age group (15–32) to be enrolled in college (18 percent versus 20 percent), but less likely to have completed college (4 percent versus 18 percent)” (Zong, Ruiz Soto, Batalova, Gelatt, & Capps, 2017).  While DACA increased immigrant youth impetus and access to higher education, the lower than average graduation rates perhaps expose a U.S. education system not fully prepared to brace an influx of this non-traditional student population.

Under the new Trump presidency, the undocumented immigrant community is facing a shocking upsurge in anti-immigrant rhetoric and threating changes to immigration policies[v].  Most recently, the White House announced that the DACA program is being rescinded and will no longer accept applications or renewals.  By March 5, 2018, an average of 915 people per day will begin to lose their DACA benefits (Zong et al., 2017).  Previously optimistic about the capacity to carry their education to a professional industry, DACA students now fear that the loss of their work authorization, valid identification, and deportation protections will leave them vulnerable, isolated, and unable to contribute to a country they know as home. 

Obstacles to Higher Education
The changing landscape of immigration policy has had significant effects on access to higher education for undocumented students.  While no federal or state laws prohibit the admission of undocumented students to colleges and universities, national and state policies constrain what financial aid offices can offer undocumented students.  The cost of college attendance is exacerbated for these students due to their ineligibility for federal aid, work study, and grants.  Taking immigration policy into their own hands, at least half of the states have passed their own legislations that reduce some of these financial burdens (National Immigration Law Center, 2015).  Still, varying institutional policies and lack of transparent information and open evidence of welcome is disconcerting.

In a survey of over 900 students, Suárez-Orozco and her research team found “the reputation of the college regarding how welcoming the campus climate was to undocumented students played an important role in their college choice” (Suárez-Orozco, et al., 2015, p. 445).  More specifically, these students look for “undocufriendly” campuses that provide affordability, institutional allies, peer support, and safe spaces.  The end to DACA and the unpredictable future of immigration policies places educators in a critical position to help protect their students’ constitutional rights, to empower them to continue their education and leadership, and to instill hope for generations of immigrant youth.  Educational institutions have tremendous power to be reliable sources of information, stability, and comfort to students and their families. 

Social and Psychological Circumstances
A culturally responsive student support and advising approach considers social and psychological conditions that affect this particular student demographic (Carnaje, 2016; Gay, 2010; Mitchell, Wood, & Witherspoon, 2010; Museus, 2014).  Undocumented immigrant families face constant economic, social, and legal challenges that can erode their well-being.  Without proper documentation to work legally, and with little or no education, many unauthorized adult immigrants experience job insecurity, low wages, and labor-intensive work while struggling to protect and raise their families.  Not qualifying for many public benefit programs, such as the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid, makes it difficult to meet the most basic human needs.  “Traditional consequences of poverty” affect these communities through “vulnerability to crime, distrust of law enforcement, hunger, poor and unfair housing conditions, high unemployment, increased health concerns, and underperforming schools” (Gildersleeve & Ranero, 2010, p. 23).  The continuous threats of immigrant raids, deportation, involuntary separation of family, racial profiling, and political unrest can produce issues in privacy, mistrust, isolation, and depression (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). 

Undocumented children brought to the United States at a young age have no control over their circumstance.  They are vulnerable to systemic exclusion and substandard conditions in public education with language barriers, culturally irrelevant curriculum, less rigorous instruction, and discontinuity in education (Gildersleeve & Ranero, 2010).  Not all school settings are sites of conflict, however.  Student stories also bring to light fond memories of education in schools that provide a sense of belonging, caring adult support, stability, friendships, and security (Gonzales, 2016; Perez, 2009).  As immigrant youth develop into adulthood, they increasingly experience the psychological impacts of being a cultural—but not a legal—citizen, and begin to personally confront the limits of their status.  They may feel like they are living in limbo, not fully belonging to their birth country or the country in which they are raised.  This compromised sense of belonging cannot be resolved without a clear path to citizenship and the full spectrum of life opportunities shared by citizen peers (Gonzales, 2016; Suárez-Orozco, et al, 2015).

Immigrant domestic life has its own particularities beyond cultural and language differences.  It is not uncommon that immigrant families live together with extended family members, all contributing to surviving harsh living conditions.  Many times, families are comprised of mixed legal statuses; some members are undocumented while others are legal residents through marriage, have temporary working visas, are DACA-eligible young adults, or are U.S.-born citizens.  Each individual has his or her own legal restraints and privileges, and therefore has unique familial obligations. 

Given the constant political, legal, social, and psychological challenges, it is no wonder only a very small percentage of undocumented students actually pursue and successfully complete U.S. post-secondary education.  Those who do make it to college have overcome great odds, have built above-average resiliency, and pursue education with the dream to better their circumstance. 

Promising Practices for Undocumented Student Support
The solution to creating an undocufriendly college is never just providing access and affordability, but rather, re-imagining and rebuilding a campus culture that acknowledges, accepts, and integrates students from diverse backgrounds.  This may require some shifting of campus structures and policies to be truly inclusive, all the while aligning with institutional values and mission.  Critical race theory (CRT) can inform culturally responsive and strength-based support for undocumented students by addressing structural racism and bringing attention to students’ various forms of accumulated cultural wealth and life experience.  Tara J.  Yosso (2005) explains that CRT “shifts the research lens away from a deficit view of Communities of Color as places full of cultural poverty disadvantages, and instead focuses on and learns from the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged” (p. 69). 

College-bound undocumented students tend to be very motivated, hard workers who honor their families’ sacrifice and hardship, and carry a great weight of responsibility to sustain their family.  They are brave groundbreakers, paving their way through forces that counteract their goals.  Many are activists who know that their personal fight serves a larger purpose of collective struggle toward social and racial justice.  In consideration of Yosso’s Model of Community Cultural Wealth as a framework, a culturally responsive advisor can help students translate their unique skills and assets to the new college environment, empowering students to navigate with their own capital (Yosso, 2005).  An advisor who demonstrates sensitivity to cultural and developmental backgrounds, and who dedicates time to building trust and integrity with these students, can be a life-changing resource and help increase their progress toward graduation and a career. 

Create a welcoming college campus.  College campuses can begin to create an undocufriendly reputation by openly acknowledging and welcoming undocumented students as valued members of the community.  It is the responsibility of the institution to generate policies and practices that integrate underrepresented students, allow for their self-representation (rather than a forced identity), and cultivate a greater sense of belonging (Strayhorn, 2012).  Diversity education and training for all faculty, staff, and students is vital to fostering a spirit of inclusion of all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, social or economic class, nationality, and immigrant status.  There is a growing number of U.S. colleges and universities with exemplary undocumented student programs and online resources that promote inclusion and belonging, such as UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program, the University of Texas Austin’s Longhorn DREAMers’ Project, Loyola University Chicago’s Undocumented Student Resources, and Harvard College’s student-led organization, Act on a Dream. 

Create a network of support.  It is beneficial to establish a cross-campus network of institutional agents to create specialized support for undocumented students.  These campus specialists can act as advocates and allies by listening and becoming familiar with students’ needs and goals and provide one-on-one contact at critical points in their academic journey.  Specialists also serve as a voice for this marginalized group and have the power to recommend administrative and policy changes that would improve the quality and success of undocumented student education.  In cases where colleges do not know who and how many undocumented students attend, administrative and ally contact information should be displayed in high-traffic campus spaces.  Specialists can collect student success data and anecdotal student stories to demonstrate how investing in these students matters and to enhance leadership buy-in. 

Create safe spaces to enhance peer and ally support.  Colleges can create safe spaces in dorms, student centers, study halls, special events, and even virtual spaces where students, peers, and allies can feel comfortable, build a positive sense of self within a larger community, cope with bias, and work together to improve school climate.  It is helpful to identify empathetic faculty and staff members who want to be actively involved in supporting these individuals.  Organized safe spaces, ally networks, and faculty and peer mentorship programs contribute to a welcoming campus environment.  “UndocuAlly” training models and educator toolkits are available through TheDream.US and 

Ensure confidentiality and campus safety.  An undocufriendly campus can provide accurate, up-to-date knowledge on legal and institutional policies and opportunities while keeping students’ background and legal status confidential and within FERPA regulations.  Incoming students should be informed about the institutional agents in their network of support and should always be asked for permission before sharing any information.  University administrators can devise crisis planning, including releasing students from financial obligations in the chance that a student or family member is detained or deported.  Also consider campus safety protocols and front-line staff training for cases such as federal enforcement agents coming to campus. 

Provide outreach and resources.  Undocufriendly recruitment efforts can include welcoming messages to attract this demographic and encouraging students to participate in pre-college programs, campus visits, merit-based scholar programs, and other opportunities.  It is important to provide clear information on scholarships that are open to all students, regardless of immigration status.  Once the student is admitted, early outreach and support tailored to the student and family can drastically decrease the stress of this transition.  A handbook listing of on and off-campus resources may be convenient.  For example, UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program uses a green, yellow, and red light coding system to identify the level of accessibility and support of institutional resources and procedures for undocumented students (Canedo Sanchez & So, 2015). 

Access to legal support is critical for undocumented students and their families.  A widespread consensus in immigration law networks recommend that undocumented individuals, including DACA recipients, should undergo a legal screening to understand individual legal options, potential status changes, or other forms of immigration relief.  If institutions cannot directly provide legal services, they can guide students to trustworthy, off-campus resources.  They can also inform students of special financial assistance programs—such as Lending Circles for DREAMers and Self-Help Loan for DREAMers—that provide small loans or scholarships to cover immigration procedure fees.

To stay informed of constantly shifting policies, advocacy campaigns, networking opportunities, scholarships, and other financial aid resources, advisors and students can consult nationally recognized organization websites such as Educators for Fair Consideration and United We Dream.  Personal blogs including communicate stories written by peers across the country that immigrant youth may find valuable in validating identity and experience and reducing feelings of isolation.  DREAMers Roadmap is a free mobile app that gathers undocufriendly scholarship opportunities.  Advisors can also help students protect themselves and know their rights if approached by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents by providing information such as United We Dream’s deportation Defense Card.

Promote civic engagement.  Civic engagement can promote a sense of empowerment, identity, and connectedness within a larger population.  Undocumented college students can “serve as powerful role models in our communities, paving the way to higher education for siblings, cousins, neighbors, and friends” (Eusobio & Mendoza, 2015, p. 13).  Moreover, students and allies can help bridge gaps between college institutions and their surrounding communities, building long-lasting partnerships that kindle reciprocal benefits.  Faculty-led working groups, guest speakers, and celebrity advocates can provide research-based evidence on immigration issues, unite experts across campus, and increase effective campus dialogue that can supplement administrative work. 

This essay explores insights and best practices gathered within the last decade from both research and practitioner scholarship for effective campus support of undocumented students in U.S. higher education.  A culturally responsive advising approach, grounded in critical race theory in education, can inform a model of holistic student support that benefits all students, without marginalizing disenfranchised and underrepresented groups.  It is in all of our best interests to facilitate equal access, affordability, and academic support embedded in an undocufriendly campus culture that stands in solidarity of equal rights and respect for human dignity. 



American Immigration Council. (2011). Public education for immigrant students: States challenge Supreme Court’s decision on Plyler v. Doe. Retrieved from’s-decision-plyler-v-

American Immigration Council. (2012). Who and where the DREAMers are, revised estimates: A demographic profile of immigrants who might benefit from the Obama administration’s deferred action initiative. Retrieved from

Baker, B., & Rytina, N. (2013). Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012. Retrieved from

Canedo Sanchez, R. E., & So, M. L. (2015). UC Berkeley’s undocumented student program: Holistic strategies for undocumented student equitable success across higher education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(3), 464-477.

Carnaje, E. G. (2016). Advising across race: Providing culturally-sensitive academic advising at predominantly white institutions. The Vermont Connection, 37(4), 37-47.

Educators for Fair Consideration. (2012). Fact sheet: An overview of college-bound undocumented students. Retrieved from

Eusobio, C., & Mendoza, F. (2015). The case for undocumented students in higher education. Retrieved from

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Gildersleeve, R. E., & Ranero, J. J. (2010). Precollege contexts of undocumented students: Implications for student affairs professionals. New Directions for Student Services, 2010(131).

Gonzales, R. (2016). Lives in limbo: Undocumented and coming of age in America. Oakland: University of California Press.

Mitchell, R. W., Wood, G. K., & Witherspoon, N. (2010). Considering Race and Space: Mapping Developmental Approaches for Providing Culturally Responsive Advising. Equity & Excellence in Education, 43(3), 294-309.

Museus, S. D. (2014). The Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model: A new theory of college success among racially diverse student populations. In M. B. Paulsen (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (pp. 189-227). New York: Springer.

National Immigration Law Center. (2015). Undocumented student tuition: Overview. Retrieved from

Perez, W. (2009). We ARE Americans: Undocumented students pursuing the American dream. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

López, G., & Radford, J. (2016). Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States. Retrieved from

Suárez-Orozco, C., Katsiaficas, D., Birchall, O., Alcantar, C. M., Hernandez, E., Garcia, Y., Teranishi, R. T. (2015). Undocumented undergraduates on college campuses: Understanding their challenges and assets and what it takes to make an undocufriendly campus. Harvard Educational Review, 85(3), 427-463.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.

The White House. (2017). President Trump’s first 100 days. Retrieved from

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2014). Frequently asked questions: DHS DACA FAQs. Retrieved from

United We Dream. (2016). Split decision on DAPA and expanded DACA, what you need to know. Retrieved from

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

Zong, J., Ruiz Soto, A. G., Batalova, J., Gelatt, J., & Capps, R. (2017). A profile of current DACA recipients by education, industry, and occupation. Retrieved from



[i] The term DREAMers is widely used amongst undocumented youth and immigration reform activists and makes reference to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors legislation that was first proposed in 2001, but never passed Congress.  The term is a self-identifier within the political DREAMer movement and projects a sense of courage, hope, and active fight toward social justice and equality for the U.S. undocumented youth population (American Immigration Council, 2012; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2014).

[ii] The DACA executive order, passed in 2012, and set to rescind March 2018, granted qualifying undocumented young adults, between the approximate ages of 15–30, temporary lawful presence in the U.S., and access to a temporary work permit, driver’s license and social security number that can be renewed every two years.  Unlike the DREAM Act, which was never passed, the DACA program was not a pathway to citizenship (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2014).

[iii] According to the Department of Homeland Security (2013), “The unauthorized resident immigrant population is defined as all foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents.  Most unauthorized residents either entered the United States without inspection or were admitted temporarily and stayed past the date they were required to leave” (p. 1).

[iv] On June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the injunction for DAPA and expanded DACA, in a 4 to 4 tie in the case of United States v. Texas.  These programs would have provided temporary relief from deportation and work permits for 4.5 million undocumented immigrants, beyond those who qualified for the 2012 DACA (United We Dream, 2016). 

[v] President Trump’s “First 100 Days” agenda includes increased immigration enforcement, plans to build a wall along the U.S. and Mexico borders, and multiple attempts for travel bans orders (The White House, 2017).

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