“I Don’t Have that Number”: Understanding and Working with Undocumented Students

By Phil Kitchel posted 08-10-2022 04:56 PM


By Blanca E. Vega

The article “ ‘When I Would Hurt’: Undocumented Students’ Responses to Obstacles Faced During the College-Choice Process,” by Vega, B.E., Kenny Nienhusser, H., & Carquin-Hamichand, M.S., is in the current edition of The Educational Forum and is available for free during the month of August 2022.

“I asked my mom, ‘I need this number because I need to apply for financial aid.’ She said, “We don’t have that number.” . . . So I spoke to the counselor and I told her that I don’t have that number. That’s when she told me that because I don’t have that number, it means that I’m here illegally. I don’t apply for financial aid. I don’t apply for help. You know how embarrassing it was for me, right? It was really embarrassing, and that’s when I got really scared. After that, I was scared to go to the movie theater, to McDonald’s, to the mall, to go outside, because it’s when I started noticing the news and they were arresting people at work.”

Amalia reflected on the moment she learned she did not have a Social Security number. While her mother simply conveyed the information, the counselor she went to for support not only gave her incorrect and incomplete information, she also called her a derogatory term. In just one interaction, Amalia’s physical, behavioral, physiological, and emotional wellbeing changed. She went from shock to embarrassment to fear. She went from being a person who went to the movies to someone who now had to shrink herself from social spaces.

In my article, “When I Would Hurt”: Undocumented Students’ Responses to Obstacles Faced During the College Choice Process, in the current issue of The Educational Forum, I describe the behavioral and psychological experiences undocumented students endure related to the college-choice process. In this research, we explored the ways these behavioral and psychological consequences influence the decisions students make during the college choice process, which affects life opportunities such as furthering their education, career choices, and even social relationships.

Undocumented students face several legal barriers during the college-choice process. Although these obstacles are commonly understood through a federal lens, obstacles also vary by state. For example, undocumented students in South Carolina are banned from applying to public institutions of higher education, while students in New Jersey have access to state financial aid and in-state tuition benefits. Meanwhile, states like Louisiana are among the many states that provide no guidance on this issue.

Amalia’s experience is unfortunately a common one for the 98,000 undocumented students who are eligible to apply to postsecondary schools (Zong & Batalova, 2019) but find legal and social obstacles in their pursuit of higher education. Educational agents are crucial to the postsecondary access of undocumented students. They are integral to building healthy and just postsecondary environments. As such, I make the following recommendations to support undocumented students and their college dreams:

  1. Recognize the physical, emotional, physiological, and behavioral aspects of the whole person, especially undocumented students. For example, society—including educators—will simply not see undocumented students, because these students do not openly share their status. Sharing their status could bring them harm. Educators must learn how undocumented immigrant status may influence students’ feelings and behaviors toward education.
  2. Normalize working with undocumented students in our educational spaces. This means you do not have wait to work with one or two undocumented students in educational environments to then learn about their needs and experiences.
  3. Become knowledgeable of your state politics as it relates to undocumented students. “When I Would Hurt” suggests that educational agents often deliver wrong information about services and policies related to undocumented students. This can be reversed by understanding your state policies and verifying them with institutional and local officials.
  4. Create local advising networks within your schools to support your students. Creating an advisory board within your school that specifically addresses the needs of undocumented students will not only help build your knowledge around this issue, but also demonstrate that you care about your students.
  5. Work with agencies and partner with them to expand access for undocumented students. This is crucial. Working to expand access for undocumented students will not only help students, but also help educators make fewer mistakes with this population.
  6. Work with agencies to learn about options for undocumented students. This can range from learning about financial-aid options to emotional support groups.
  7. Create safe environments for undocumented students so that they do not feel fear, shame, or further marginalization. I believe all the points addressed above are good steps in this direction.

Dr. Vega was born and raised in New York City, the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants. She earned her EdD from the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and is currently Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Montclair State University. Her scholarship broadly focuses on the role of higher education and student affairs administrators in building more equitable environments. Her primary area of research situates racism as one of multiple barriers that can impact higher education experiences and success—not just for students, but also for administrators and faculty. Dr. Vega continues to explore Latinidad in higher education and HSIs as racialized organizations.