A generic student writing in a notepad face blurred

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Although most undocumented students at California’s public universities experience disruptions to their education and well-being due to immigration status concerns, more than two-thirds have a 3.0 or higher GPA, according to a new study led by the University of California, Irvine. The findings are the first to be reported under the UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity initiative, launched in 2019 and supported by a $270,000 UC Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives grant.

Laura Enriquez headshot
“Academic performance conceals the struggles undocumented students face on a daily basis,” says lead study author Laura Enriquez, UC Irvine associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies. “Administrators recognize that these students have unique needs but must have better information in order to meet them. Our findings aim to fill that gap.”
Credit: Luis Fonseca/School of Social Sciences

“Academic performance conceals the struggles these students face on a daily basis,” said lead study author Laura Enriquez, UC Irvine associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies. “Administrators recognize that these students have unique needs but must have better information in order to meet them. Our findings aim to fill that gap.”

The goal of the survey was to gain deeper insights into the educational outcomes and welfare of the estimated 13,500 undocumented students enrolled across the University of California and California State University campuses. Researchers based their conclusions on responses from 1,277 of them to questions about mental health, food security, academic performance, campus climate, school resources and immigration policy.

Nearly all of the respondents — 96 percent ­— said their chief concern was their ability to meet financial obligations. Class distractions and losing study time due to worries about immigration status were next, reported at 76 and 64 percent, respectively. About half the participants experienced weekly anxiety thinking about the deportation of a parent or guardian, and more than a third were nervous about their own possible deportation. Food insecurity was another issue for the majority, 59 percent. These stresses appear to play out in mental and physical health consequences, with 70 percent indicating that they felt the need to get professional psychological help and 28 percent reporting fair to poor physical health.

“The good news is that students are seeking support,” Enriquez said, “with more than 98 percent having accessed at least one campuswide resource — the food pantry being the one most often used. Services specifically for undocumented students were also utilized by a majority of them, 74 percent.”

However, 44 percent reported receiving inaccurate information about university procedures, and 31 percent said they sometimes or often heard other students express negative feelings about undocumented immigrants. Respondents also reported disparity between those with no legal status and those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, with positive expressions about undocumented communities focused on the latter group.

“Our results show that universities must continue to advance policies and practices that will promote equity and inclusion for these students,” Enriquez said. “Most critically, campuses must increase funding and services — through collaborative programming and joint staff positions in key campuswide resources, such as academic support, mental health counseling and basic needs, to facilitate access and use.”

The research team included colleagues from UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Merced and eight CSU campuses. A second report, to be published in 2021, will provide a comparison of these same metrics among undocumented students, U.S.-citizen students with undocumented parents and U.S.-citizen students with legal immigrant parents.