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Lesson 2.9

Undocumented Students

How many California students are undocumented?

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Who are undocumented students?

Approximately 146,000 students ages 3-17 who attend school in California reside in the United States without legal authority to do so. In official terms, these students are undocumented. Some prefer the term unauthorized.

The largest portion of this immigration is from Latin America. And if you look at the surge of child immigrants on the California border, this number appears to be growing. Some of these students, brought to America by parents or relatives at a young age, are not aware of their immigration status.

American public opinion about new immigration is divided, but Californians generally feel that people who have settled here should be able to remain. According to a statewide survey in 2021 by the Public Policy Institute of California, 85% of Californians agree that there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the US legally.

How many undocumented students attend public schools?

According to research compiled by the University of Southern California, about one in about every thirty California students is undocumented. This ratio understates the significance of immigration status in the lives of children, however, because about 1 in every 8 children in California schools has at least one parent with unauthorized immigration status.

The 14th amendment of the US Constitution, adopted in 1868 during the Reconstruction era, established that anyone born in the United States is a US citizen. Today, the 14th amendment is of vital importance in the education system.

Is undocumented immigration increasing?

Understandably, statistics regarding immigration status can be a bit squishy, but the best estimates suggest that the number of undocumented people in America has been decreasing since the Obama administration. The pandemic has had unclear effects on enrollment in public schools by undocumented students.

The Pew Hispanic Center provides many useful surveys and sources to help shed light on this complex and changing segment of the California student body.

Education Trust-West Undocumented students in California, based on calculations by the Education Trust-West using data from the Migration Policy Institute. Click this image to view the full PDF.

Can undocumented students attend public school in California? Yes, they must!

Citizenship status is not a condition for enrollment in California K-12 schools. All kids must go to school, regardless of their paperwork.

Citizenship status is not a condition for enrollment in California K-12 schools. In 1982 the US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in Plyler v. Doe that immigration status cannot serve as a condition for enrollment in American public schools. Access to public education in California is open to all resident students, regardless of immigration status. California law requires kids to be in school, regardless of their paperwork.

In 2021, the federal government strained to provide housing for unaccompanied minors in California as the number of new arrivals surged. In San Diego, for example, teachers volunteered to educate new students housed at the San Diego Convention Center. Many of these students have lost years of school. Newcomer schools, specially designed for new immigrants, were developed around the state.

Are there laws to protect undocumented students?

The law requires children to attend school regardless of immigration status, but fear of deportation can make unauthorized families reluctant to bring their children to school. To mitigate this quandary, California law protects student information from being delivered to federal immigration enforcement authorities. The California Department of Education advises local school districts that:

  • "State and federal laws prohibit educational agencies from disclosing personally identifiable student information to law enforcement, without the consent of a parent or guardian, a court order or lawful subpoena, or in the case of a health emergency.
  • Districts must verify a student’s age and residency, but have flexibility in what documents or supporting papers they use. They do not have to use documents pertaining to immigration status.
  • To determine age, for example, an LEA can rely on a statement from a local registrar, baptismal records, or an affidavit from a parent guardian or custodian.
  • To determine residency, an LEA can rely on property tax receipts, pay stubs, or correspondence from a government agency."

Can undocumented students attend college in California?

Yes. Citizenship is not a condition for enrollment in California's system of community and four-year colleges. Undocumented students who are residents of California may attend California public colleges at resident tuition rates, a policy established in 2001.

In 2019, 427,345 undocumented students were pursuing postsecondary education in the US, about 2% of the national total. The rate was somewhat higher in California: 94,030 undocumented college students comprised about 3% of the state total. For up-to-date advice on undocumented students attending college, readers can look to the National Immigration Law Center, The California School Boards Association, and EdTrust-West.

What is the DREAM Act?

The California DREAM Act, signed by then-Governor Brown in 2011, eased access to higher education for undocumented students in California. The law established Jan 1, 2013 as the date when undocumented residents of California could receive state financial aid such as Cal Grants to help cover their college costs. The law also allowed public higher ed institutions in California to provide scholarships and other aid under specific guidelines.

California policies regarding undocumented students frequently differ from federal policies. For example, federal rules exclude undocumented students from federal financial aid, student loan programs, and work-study programs. From the start the pandemic until May 2021, undocumented students could not receive COVID-19 emergency cash assistance from their colleges.

What is DACA?

Many undocumented college students who came to the US as children have protections from deportation under the beleaguered Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which also makes these students eligible for work permits.

The Obama administration created this policy using an executive order. President Trump halted the program, also by executive order. The question worked its way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld DACA in 2020. The ruling was narrow and complex. In 2022, President Biden extended the program.

By removing the risk of deportation, the DACA program created an incentive for undocumented students to pursue college. According to a 2019 survey, a robust 93% of respondents currently in school said that because of DACA, “[They] pursued educational opportunities that [they] previously could not.” 46% of respondents reported already having a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Other research shows that after the enactment of DACA in 2012, eligible students experienced an immediate and persistent increase in school attendance, high school completion, and, to some extent, college attendance.

Updated: April, 2017
September 2017
April 2018
July 2020
April 2021
July 2022


TRUE or FALSE: U.S. citizenship is required to attend a California school.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
amy su November 5, 2020 at 8:50 pm
This is one nation that will give benefits to immigrants that are here unlawfully and or have never contributed to the country.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren August 11, 2018 at 11:30 am
Editing note: The subtitle "Can undocumented students attend college in California?" is used twice. It appears the second one (last section of the article) should be something else.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 27, 2018 at 11:40 am
Thanks for your close reading. We'll make the change.
user avatar
Jeff Camp April 30, 2018 at 12:25 pm has compiled financial advice for Dreamers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 11, 2017 at 10:46 am
Care, Help, Connect
This resource, created by Sesame Street in Communities in collaboration with the First 5 Association of California, helps parents cope with stress and provide safety and security for their children. It includes:

More than 20 ways to help kids feel safe and secure
Self-care tips for parents and caregivers
4 activity pages just for kids
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm
The California Equity Leadership Alliance has a Toolkit for educators to support undocumented students and families. This includes fact sheets, guides and legal resources, reports and policy briefs as we as resources for social and emotional support.

You can find it here .
user avatar
Jeff Camp March 16, 2017 at 4:51 pm
Multiple sources indicate that the number of undocumented persons in California is declining. (Via PPIC)
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 1, 2017 at 10:57 am
The California School Boards Association provides guidance on educating undocumented students and declaring “Safe Haven” school districts.

"The rights and responsibilities of schools districts that educate undocumented students have received renewed attention due to recent developments at the federal level. This has caused many districts to question how they can best uphold their obligation to serve all students, regardless of immigration status."

"In response, CSBA has developed a new legal guidance, a pair of sample policies and a sample resolution addressing the right of undocumented students to an education, as well as the “safe haven” or “sanctuary” designation that has been adopted by some districts. "

user avatar
Jeff Camp February 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm
The Supreme Court decided Pyler v. Doe in 1982 on a 5-4 decision, and the dissenting opinion makes for interesting reading. Chief Justice Burger, while agreeing with the policy choice to provide public education to undocumented students, argued that the issue should have been addressed through legislative action: "[It] is not the function of the Judiciary to provide 'effective leadership' simply because the political branches of government fail to do so."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 11, 2017 at 8:45 pm
School districts throughout California are taking action to protect undocumented students, including providing referrals for legal support. Here is a sample statement to parents from the San Francisco Unified School District
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 28, 2015 at 11:43 am
The US Department of Ed has collected information for Undocumented students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students in a new (2015) web page: Be warned: there's so much blah, blah, blah on this site I almost didn't even comment on it. But if you are interested in research and information about undocumented students and "Dreamers" you'll want to dig through for the useful bits, such as the links on page 20 of Please reply to this comment if you find other gems...
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:28 am
Undocumented parents feel threatened, understandably. Creating a welcoming, non-judgmental environment for them is critical for them to feel like they can participate and communicate with their child's teacher.
user avatar
Manuel RomeroNickname February 8, 2015 at 11:17 pm
Taxpayers pay for education in California - both citizens and undocumented. Undocumented workers are also taxpayers. Every time an undocumented work buys something at a store they are taxed the same as citizens. And keep in mind that the cost of the schooling of undocumented workers was not borne by taxpayers in California. The benefit of the labor of done by undocumented workers is part wages to the worker but also provides a benefit to the employers. If the employers benefit is monetary, then this often becomes profit and is taxed. More details at:
user avatar
CM January 19, 2015 at 10:54 pm
Diversity in California includes students who are undocumented. This is a burden on California taxpayers. Not only are we not getting the return on investment for our children, we are also paying for children of non-taxpayers.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 3, 2015 at 9:44 pm
Not all undocumented adults are non-taxpayers. Many pay taxes using a tax id number. Furthermore, the cost of not educating undocumented children far out weighs the cost of educating them.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 15, 2015 at 8:19 pm
What about those undocumented students whose parents are working, but getting paid under the table?
user avatar
Nicole Jenkins November 15, 2015 at 11:56 am
The parent maybe undocumented but the child ,if born here, is a citizen so there for is entitled to be educated. Even if child is undocumented, i still feel it is never a drain on resorces to educate a child and does not take anything away from my childs education. The parents and even child pay taxes whwn they buy food, pay bills , and live within whatever state they reside. The person who is undocumented is not at fault , they are trying to right thing, work, live , raise a family etc. Its our failed immagration policies that is at fault and only help companies profit margin who use undocumented workers whom they expoilt.
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