For students without authorized immigration documents, the road to an affordable college education is a complicated one, but the good news is that it’s not a dead end. To maximize your success with college applications, it’s important to understand your immigration status and your rights to education, deferred legal action, financial aid, and employment. Once you have a handle on general information, speak with an immigration attorney should you have questions about your particular case.


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How do undocumented students enter the United States?

The National Immigration Law Center defines undocumented immigrants as foreign nationals who entered the United States one of three ways:

  1. Without inspection
  2. With falsified documents
  3. With a legal nonimmigrant visa, such as a tourist visa, that later expired while the holder was still in the United States

How many undocumented students live in the United States?

Unauthorized immigration is difficult to measure, but recent estimates suggest there are over 11 million immigrants without documents living in the United States. Over two million of those immigrants are classified as students of college age or younger. These millions of people hail from all over the world, with an approximate 78% native to Latin America or Canada and 11% to Asia.

When and why do undocumented students immigrate to the United States?

No matter their countries of origin, nearly all undocumented students were brought to the United States when they were small children. As children at the time of their border crossings, they often don’t realize that their immigration status is illegal until they are well into their high school years. These students live in the country for most of their lives, learn to speak fluent English, and graduate from high schools across the nation.

Do undocumented students have any rights?

With deep roots to their communities, undocumented students often assimilate to U.S. culture long before they start their college applications. Many self-identify as American and consider the United States to be their home. Their immigration status, however, outright denies them from a host of rights and protections. Most notably, federal law currently bars all undocumented immigrants, no matter their background, from a clear path to citizenship and permanent legal residency.

Undocumented immigrants also have difficulty finding jobs. To work legally, they need a valid social security number (SSN) and employment authorization document (EAD). Only an estimated 15% of undocumented immigrants meet the requirements for these work documents.

Every day, more parents move their families illegally to the United States out of desperation. They hope to improve their standards of living, reunite with family members, seek medical care not available to them at home, find safety, and pursue the American dream. Their children, oblivious to the crime they committed when crossing the border, work hard in school and grow up to pay taxes. Despite their best efforts to contribute to society, discriminatory laws stand in the way of their bright futures.

Why are undocumented students sometimes called DREAMers?

Many undocumented students—and their allies—insist that current federal law is unfair: When they immigrated to the United States as children, they were too young to have knowingly broken the law. Now, as young adults unable to apply for residency and citizenship, they feel punished for a crime they did not deliberately commit.

To help these young people obtain legal status, immigration reform has been presented to Congress repeatedly since 2001. Legislation has yet to change. The most famous proposal that would affect undocumented students is the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. If enacted, the 2017 version of the bill would provide a path to conditional resident status, then lawful permanent residency, and eventually citizenship for millions of undocumented young people, including current DACA recipients and those with temporary protected status. These potential DREAM Act beneficiaries are called DREAMers. After graduation from a U.S. high school and either enrollment in college, entrance into the workforce, or enlistment for a term of military service, a DREAMer may apply for residency.

The DREAM Act was last introduced to Congress on July 20, 2017, by Senators Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, Jeff Flake, and Chuck Schumer. It remains to be seen whether this version of the bill will become law.

Page last updated: 09/2017