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Undocumented Students And The Current State Of Affairs

Undocumented Students and the Current State of Affairs

By Abel Montoya
Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee Member

Professionals working with undocumented students face a unique set of challenges, especially when it comes to providing guidance on applying and paying for college.  These students oftentimes are confused about what they can and cannot do, in part due to the changing immigration landscape. Understanding this landscape from a counselor perspective will go a long way in directing the student to the best source or individual.

Who is considered an undocumented student? Students are considered undocumented if (a) they arrive in the US on a visa and remain in the US after the visa expires or (b) if they enter the US without a visa, to which Homeland Security refers to as entering “without inspection.” For undocumented students as a whole to get on a path to US residency, immigration reform can only occur at the federal level, i.e. the US Congress passes a bill which is then signed by the President. Think Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just Bill.”

The term “Dreamers” is coined from this bill, and undocumented students sometimes (but not always) refer to themselves as Dreamers.

The last time immigration reform occurred was in 1986. Since then, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced in Congress in 2001, but did not pass. It has since been brought up several times but has yet to pass Congress. The term “Dreamers” is coined from this bill, and undocumented students sometimes (but not always) refer to themselves as Dreamers.

Although states are limited in what they can do, Illinois has passed two pieces of legislation that directly impact undocumented students in the state. Illinois Public Act 93-0007, commonly referred to as the Acevedo Bill, was enacted in May, 2003. This statute enables students who meet certain criteria to be assessed in-state or in-district tuition at Illinois public universities or community colleges, respectively. To qualify for this tuition assessment, a student needs to, among other things, graduate from an Illinois high school, live in Illinois for three or more years, reside with a parent or guardian while attending high school, and provide an affidavit to the public university stating that they will apply for US permanent residency as soon as the student is eligible. This is significant, since some other states have enacted legislation that specifically prevents undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition in spite of residing in that state.

It’s important to note that the Illinois DREAM Act does not qualify students for any state aid (i.e. no MAP grant).

In August, 2011, the Illinois DREAM Act (not to be confused with the federal DREAM Act proposal) was enacted. It allows families in Illinois to participate in the state’s 529 educational savings plans regardless of the student’s citizenship status. The act also established the Illinois Dream Fund Commission, which is charged with securing private funds for purposes of awarding scholarships to undocumented students. It’s important to note that the Illinois DREAM Act does not qualify students for any state aid (i.e. no MAP grant).

Back at the federal level in June, 2012, President Obama drafted an Executive Memo to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is a division of Homeland Security, directing them to make eligible specific individuals for “deferred action” on their immigration status and to qualify them for a work permit, which includes a social security number. This program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Individuals approved under this program must renew their applications every two years. To date over 740,000 individuals have received DACA approval. They can now lawfully work in the US, and with their social security number apply for a driver’s license, open a bank account, and do other activities that were once prohibited to them. It is very important to note that even though this is at the federal level, it is not immigration reform, meaning it can be cancelled or changed at any time by the President of the United States.

Based on statements made during the recent presidential election campaign, many expect DACA to be eliminated after president-elect Trump takes office on January 20, 2017.

Based on statements made during the recent presidential election campaign, many expect DACA to be eliminated after president-elect Trump takes office on January 20, 2017. However, no one is certain as to when this might happen and whether DACA will be eliminated immediately or phased out. This has caused a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for students and families, but organizations such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), among others, have been providing guidance and support for students and their families during this time.

In the months to come we will have a clearer picture of the options available to undocumented students and their families. In the meantime, understanding the basics and being a resource for undocumented students will go a long way in helping them navigate this ever-changing landscape.

Here are a few of the questions that people have asked in the past:

  1. Is there a centralized location where I can find information on how individual colleges work with undocumented students?

Yes! There’s a college advising guide for working with undocumented students on the IACAC website.

  1. If a student is born in the US, but the parents are undocumented, is the student eligible for financial aid?

Yes, only the student’s citizenship status determines the student’s eligibility for federal and state financial aid. The immigration status of the parent(s) does not matter for purposes of the FAFSA.

  1. Are undocumented students required to apply to college as international students?

No, students submit an international application so that they can get the necessary paperwork to obtain a visa at the US embassy in their home country to physically enter the US. This isn’t applicable to an undocumented student’s situation.

  1. Since DACA students have a social security number do they qualify for financial aid?

No. To qualify for federal financial aid, a student needs to be a US citizen or eligible noncitizen (i.e. US permanent resident or have another very specific visa type).

  1. Should a student with DACA fill out the FAFSA?

It’s not recommended.

Students with DACA should contact the college(s) to which they are thinking of attending to determine how to best proceed. If a student fills out the FAFSA, please note that an EFC will not be calculated; the student will not qualify for federal student aid or aid from the state of Illinois.

If the student chooses or is asked by the college to complete a FAFSA, it is imperative that the citizenship question is answered correctly by selecting “No, I am not a citizen or eligible noncitizen.” Answering the citizenship question incorrectly on a federal form, like the FAFSA, can have serious ramifications if the student is ever on a path to US residency or citizenship.

  1. Can public universities give scholarships to undocumented students?

Yes, as long as the money is from private sources (i.e. not from state or federal monies). There is currently a Student Access Bill under consideration in the Illinois General Assembly which would give more flexibility to Illinois public universities and colleges on how they award institutional aid; however, undocumented students would still not be eligible for MAP in the current version of the Student Access Bill.

  1. Where can undocumented students find scholarships?

There are numerous places where they can conduct a free scholarship search (never pay money for a scholarship search!), such as It’s also recommended that they look locally in their community (i.e. local business); the applicant pool will be smaller, which translates into a better chance of receiving the scholarship.

  1. What are “notarios”?

“Notarios,” which is Spanish for notaries, are individuals that students should avoid for purposes of filing any type of immigration petition or dealing with immigration issues. In Mexico, “notarios” have a specialized training and authority, which they do not have in the US. Instead, students and their families should contact a qualified immigration attorney.

  1. Where can my student find a qualified immigration attorney?

ICIRR has a list of qualified immigration attorneys in the Chicago area. For individuals in downstate Illinois, they can contact the Immigration Project, which also conducts programming throughout central and southern Illinois.

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