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Lesson 2.9

Undocumented Students

A million students in America lack something really basic. It’s…

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Image: Mural CC Robert Silz

Perhaps one in thirty students in California's public K-12 schools resides in the United States illegally. In official terms, these students are "undocumented." (Some prefer the term "unauthorized.") Some of these students, brought to America by parents or relatives, are not aware of their immigration status.

Many additional students who (under the 14th amendment to the US Constitution) are themselves US citizens by birth have at least one parent whose immigration status is unauthorized.

© 2012, Pew Research Center © 2012, Pew Research Center

Understandably, statistics regarding immigration status can be a bit squishy. The web site of the Pew Hispanic Center includes many useful surveys and sources to help shed light on this complex and changing segment. Although only one in about every thirty California students is undocumented, about one in eight lives in a household with one or more undocumented parents.

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 fact, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1982 in Pyler 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.

California law protects the privacy of undocumented students in a number of ways. To read between the lines in today’s political environment, these measures serve to protect 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.”

Citizenship is also not a condition for enrollment in California's system of community and four-year colleges. But until the law changed in 2001, undocumented students had to pay out-of-state tuition rates at these public institutions, even if they had graduated from a California high school.

The California DREAM Act, signed by Governor Brown in 2011, further changed the role of immigration status in access to higher education 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. Federal financial aid rules still exclude undocumented students from federal financial aid, student loan, and work-study programs.

Many undocumented college students who came to the US as children have protections from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which also makes these students eligible for work permits. The Obama administration created this policy by executive order, and it can be overturned. The future of this protection is uncertain under the Trump administration. Many college presidents have called for continuation of the program. California Universities have pledged to support their undocumented students.


True or false: Students who are immigrants must present documentation of legal residency in order to attend California public schools.

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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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 R 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.
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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