Each year, approximately 65,000 students graduate from American high schools and find themselves prohibited from pursuing further educational opportunities because of their undocumented immigration status. These students came as minors to this country as a result of decisions made by their guardians, and the United States has been the primary country they have called home. While many undocumented students graduate near the top of their high-school classes, many more are simply good students seeking an opportunity to enter into the employment sector and contribute to civic, community and family life.
As a member of the School of Education faculty, I am struck by the unique circumstances surrounding these students. The law requires that they be educated through high school, citing it as a public benefit. Other laws (and often institutional policies), forbid them from receiving education beyond high school in public institutions, arguing their opportunity would somehow threaten public security or economic and cultural interests.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of undocumented students to receive free public k-12 education in 1982, but it didn’t address access to postsecondary education. Writing for the majority in the Plyler v. Doe decision, Justice William Brennan stated, “Paradoxically, by depriving the children of any disfavored group of an education, we foreclose the means by which that group might raise the level of esteem in which it is held by the majority. But more directly, ‘education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.’ ” Education, Brennan contended, presents the most promising path to avoid the “specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents.”
The existence of such a shadowed population doesn’t befit a country committed to the principles of equality under the law any more than the denial of educational opportunity befits our nation’s great public universities, of which ours is certainly one. Public opinions and politics shift, but we know two facts will hold true: First, the changing demographics of our nation and those within our own state demand the attention of policymakers and institutional leaders on this issue. Second, polls and politicians won’t admit students or provide them the financial aid many need to enroll — institutions will.
A small group of student and administrative leaders has carefully considered the potential of the University providing in-state residency tuition benefits to undocumented students, and the Board of Regents is currently providing this group’s recommendations equally careful consideration. To rank among the leading public institutions of higher education on this issue, however, the University must take its place among peer institutions as one that recognizes this as an issue of equity and opportunity — and consistent with our core values. We live, work and learn in a different state policy environment than our colleagues in California, Texas, Maryland, Illinois and other states who have moved to welcome immigrant and undocumented students. Our fundamental values of academic freedom, educational opportunity and service to the public good, however, are the same. The University must not only hold true to those values, but demonstrate them through a larger, more public discussion that begins with recognizing the existence of undocumented students, understanding their unique life histories apart from the attributed political rhetoric and assuring them opportunity to pursue the educational experiences that will enable them to make their full contributions to our state and nation.
The U.S. Congress is poised to debate a bill that will provide a path to citizenship for many of the students who have been described as “undocumented,” a term that will soon pass into history as being more foreign and indifferent than the young people it has categorized. We’re a community that’s capable of examining assumptions, interrogating ideas and managing the implications derived from what we learn. Our students are already leading the movement for tuition equality at the University. The time has surely come for faculty, staff and other leaders of our university to engage this issue in a public way that exemplifies our roles and responsibilities as educators and citizens.
John Burkhardt is a School of Education professor.