Given the recent actions of the U.S. House of Representatives concerning bills that attempt to overturn President Obama’s actions on immigration, undocumented college students are living in uncertain times. In mid-January, the House of Representatives voted 237-190 to overturn President Obama’s recent policies that expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process (known as DACA). The new policies also allow for additional immigrants to receive temporary relief from deportation. In a narrower vote, the House voted 218-209 to overturn the DACA policies that President Obama put into place in 2012. These bills are now on their way to the U.S. Senate.
In 2012, President Obama issued the Executive Order that provided for the DACA process to be put in place. This policy has had a profound effect on the lives of our undocumented college students, allowing many of them to become gainfully employed, qualify for state drivers licenses, and to gain some measure of relief from the fear of being deported at any given time. Students who have successfully gone through the DACA paperwork process currently have a two-year window in which they are allowed to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation (soon to be expanded to 3 years). At this point, students have to re-apply every two to three years to maintain their status.
In November of 2014, President Obama further extended his policies with the Immigration Accountability Executive Actions, an expanded DACA program, and a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, being referred to as DAPA. These policies may allow students who are not covered under DACA to remain in the U.S. temporarily for specific periods of time, expands some of the allowances of DACA, and may also allow the parents of many first-generation American students to gain employment authorization, driver’s licenses, and live without the daily fear of deportation.
There are many requirements and elements to these policies and Student Affairs professionals who work closely with undocumented students should familiarize themselves with these details. Important websites include the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services site and the National Immigration Law Center site
With the constantly changing landscape of immigration policy, rules and regulations, and potential changes in the law, undocumented college students are faced with undue stress, frustration, and sometimes fear as they face an uncertain future. Student Affairs professionals have a responsibility to make sure to attend to the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of our undocumented student population as they go through this point in history.
Mental Health Issues
Given the stresses of the changing immigration landscape, undocumented college students are bound to experience mental health issues related to stress, worry, and fear. In a study conducted by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at UCLA, researchers found that undocumented students have a much higher level of anxiety than the general population and that “concerns related to finances, fear of deportation and a sense of isolation weigh heavily on undocumented students." Following the release of the UCLA report, Kaitlin Mulhere reported that the results were particularly pronounced for women, where 36.7% of female undocumented students reported a level of anxiety that is above the cut-off for anxiety disorder. That number compares to 9% in the general population.
For the Student Affairs profession, issues of college student mental health are at the forefront, particularly given President Obama’s call in 2013 to “launch a national conversation to increase the understanding and awareness about mental health” and NASPA’s partnership with the American Council on Education and the American Psychological Association to address issues of college student mental health. Given what we know about the mental health issues of our undocumented students, it is imperative that we address these issues.
Emotional Health Issues
The UCLA Study also found that among the students who had gone through the DACA process, 90% worried about the deportation of family and friends. Another factor for undocumented students, even those who have successfully completed the DACA process, is stress and feelings of depression about the future. With federal and state policy and law changing so rapidly, it can be difficult for undocumented students to stay positive about what their future might hold.
In an entry appearling in the 2012 Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education, William Perez, a faculty member and scholar at Claremont Graduate University (CA), notes on page 2 that, “Emotional concerns for undocumented college students include fear of deportation, loneliness, and depression." Perez’s research has found that undocumented college students are often reluctant to form close relationships with others, fearing the discovery of their undocumented status. My own work with students has taught me that undocumented students are very reluctant to reveal their status to faculty or administrators unless the student knows the person to be someone safe to talk with.
Spiritual Health Issues
One of the more neglected aspects of college student development is the spiritual development of our students, including the exploration of meaning-making and faith. In her profound work, “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams”, Dr. Sharon Deloz Parks defines faith as “the activity of seeking and discovering meaning in the most comprehensive dimensions of our experience" (pg. 10). Deloz Parks explains that, as human beings, we are:
…unable to survive, and certainly cannot thrive, unless we can make meaning. If life is perceived as utterly random, fragmented, and chaotic – meaningless – we suffer confusion, distress, stagnation, and finally despair. The meaning we make orients our posture in the world and determines our sense of self and purpose (pg. 9).
In their national study on Spirituality in Higher Education, Drs. Alexander and Helen Astin and Dr. Jennifer Lindholm explored the concept of Equanimity meaning a capacity to maintain one’s sense of calm and centeredness, especially in times of stress. One of the findings of the Astin, Astin, and Lindholm study is the following: growth in Equanimity enhances students’ grade point average, leadership skills, psychological well-being, self-rated ability to get along with other races and cultures, and satisfaction with college.
Given what we know about faith, meaning-making, and centeredness, and the effect that these qualities have on the college experience, I believe that as Student Affairs professionals we need to pay attention to the spiritual health of our undocumented students. Particularly in a time where the public policy connected to the future of our undocumented students lives is in rapid flux, it is our responsibility to check in with our students, monitor how they are doing, and find ways to shape the institutional climate so that we may support their educational goals.
Even in light of the challenges of being an undocumented college student, and even with the ever-changing public policy outlook, undocumented college students demonstrate an uncommon resiliency and strength. William Perez’s (2012) research has demonstrated that undocumented students often utilize family, friends, and college personnel as resources that provide encouragement, and that students are able to “construct an identity that empowers them to believe in their self-worth…” (pg. 3).
What may be true is that Student Affairs staff and administrators do not have a clear idea of the lived, daily experiences of their undocumented student body. It is critical that we identify this student population, create a dialog that is caring, open, and safe, and find ways to meet the needs and celebrate the success of our undocumented college students.