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Without comprehensive federal policy regarding postsecondary access and educational benefits for undocumented students, colleges and universities must reconcile their institutional values and professional norms within their states’ local legal context. Institutions interpret ambiguous wording by creating specific policies that may expand or deny access through admission, financial aid, and/or in-state tuition to undocumented students. The following is a history of federal policies that affect undocumented students. 

  • The 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe overturned a Texas statute that prohibited undocumented children from receiving free public elementary and secondary education.   Although the ruling established a precedent for undocumented children in k-12 schooling, it does not extend postsecondary opportunities for undocumented immigrants.
  • In accordance Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996), current federal law prohibits states from granting undocumented immigrants certain   postsecondary educational benefits on the basis of state residence unless equal benefits are made available to all U.S. citizens. In response to the ambiguous language of IIRIRA, various states have enacted laws that extend in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students with eligibility criteria that does not explicitly include state residency.
  • The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) states, “An alien who is not a qualified alien is not eligible for aony Federal public benefit  [including] any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which  payments or assistance are provided to an individual, household, or family eligibility unit by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States" (8 U.S.C. §1611).
  • The Development Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) is a policy that, if passed, would provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants  who, among other criteria, came to the US under the age of 16, graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED equivalent, and served in the military or attended college for at least  two years. The act would repeal §505 of IIRIRA to enable undocumented students to receive in-state tuition. Despite numerous efforts since the bill was first introduced in 2011, the  DREAM Act has repeatedly failed to pass into law.
  • President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in August 2012.  Under DACA approved recipients are safe from deportation, have the opportunity to  apply for a work permit, social security number, and in most states a driver’s license. Unlike the Federal DREAM Act, DACA does not offer a pathway to citizenship and must be renewed  every 2 years.

The Issue section provides up-to-date information on the undocumented student movement, state-by-state policy context of the issue as well as a policy timeline.