by Miriam Feldblum

by Miriam Feldblum

How often are you dealing with immigration-related matters on your campus? Even as an increasing number of Americans agree with the statement that immigration and immigrants benefit our country, immigration also has become one of the most salient and divisive political issues nationally. Miriam Feldblum, Executive Director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, tackles this topic in depth for The Center for Higher Education Leadership.

Campus leaders are often and understandably wary of engaging in partisan, politicized issues. Yet, the intersection of immigration and higher education is long-standing. It’s important for higher education leaders to understand how current immigration politics and policies are impacting our students, campuses, and communities, and what we can do to support our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and their families.

Diversity and inclusion

Let’s consider the following trends:

  • Immigration – and immigrant-origin students – has driven a considerable portion of the enrollment and programmatic growth experienced at colleges and universities in recent decades.
  • International students represent the fifth largest U.S. service export, and international students, staff, and faculty have enabled the growth of programs, labs, and classes across the country.
  • Nearly 100,000 undocumented high school students graduate from U.S.-based high schools annually, and many graduating now could not apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) prior its rescission in September 2017.
  • First-generation immigrant students, including undocumented students, second-generation immigrant students, and international students, make up close to a third of all students in post-secondary education nationally.

We have all read news stories about the growing number of small college closures and demographic challenges facing many institutions. At the heart of these challenges is often a story of how the institutions – due to geography, orientation, lack of resources, or an absence of vision and strategy – were not able to successfully recruit and attract the changing student body that makes up higher education: the new demographics that are increasingly first- and second-generation immigrant origin.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Since the 2016 election, immigration matters represent even higher stakes for colleges and universities. Presidents and chancellors are grappling with the myriad ways that current federal and state immigration-related policies adversely impact students, alumni, faculty, staff, and campuses. International students, faculty and staff, and their institutions are forced to deal with increased delays and denials in visa processing, harsh rhetoric, and the unpredictability of new policies. These difficulties and the continuing uncertainty about the ability of international students to stay and work in this country beyond graduation have also been identified as some of the causes leading to the current declines in new international student enrollments.

Since the current administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September 2017, it has remained in a cruel limbo. While federal courts issued a nationwide injunction that remains in effect and allows renewals of DACA to continue, no new applications are being accepted. The administration’s proposed changes to the definition and applicability of who and what will be considered a “public charge” targets lawful immigrants who are eligible to use varied kinds of public benefits; it is already generating new uncertainty and fears for many immigrant students and their families, which impact students’ ability to pursue and persist in higher education.

Why Immigration Matters

The urgency for higher education leaders to respond to harmful immigration policies and practices and to support immigrant and international students, staff, and faculty has been palpable on many college campuses. Many first- and second-generation immigrant and international students look to see whether our campuses and institutions are welcoming, inclusive, and supportive to immigrant and international students. Immigration is not only a personal, pressing issue for undocumented, refugee students or international students, but also for children of immigrants and those in immigrant families. How an institution responds to these issues matters to those considering enrollment in our institutions. Declines in international student enrollments and the associated revenue in turn have strong direct and indirect financial consequences, including the ability of institutions to offer important classes and programs, while loss of revenue is experienced in the surrounding community.

In response to both moral and practical imperatives, a group of 29 presidents and chancellors launched the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, to support and advocate on behalf of undocumented, other immigrant, and international students at the federal, state, and institutional level. Since its inception in December 2017, the group has grown to over 430 presidents and chancellors from across the country.

presidents alliance on higher education and immigration

What you need to know

Now more than ever, administrators at colleges and universities need to think about what their institution is doing in relation to immigration issues, and how are they working collaboratively with each other and other partners at three levels: federal, state, and institutional. Second, now is the time for colleges and their leaders to be creative and courageous, nimble and proactive in the way we support immigrant and international students and campus community members to effect change.

Why three levels of attention and action?

Whether you are at a private or public institution, addressing immigration issues requires engaging in state and national coalitions and external partnerships. Connecting with others increases your capacity, understanding, and resources, helps with institutional transformation, and allows you to more deeply support students and families.

At the federal level

While our higher education associations are our chief lobbyists and key policy voices, presidents and chancellors – and the campus communities – can and must amplify and extend their efforts in the immigration area. For example, institutions or those within the institutions can work collectively to support legislation that provides protection from deportation and a roadmap to citizenship, not only for DACA Dreamer students but also for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) visa holders, many of whom may be staff on campus, parents, students, and neighbors.

They can choose to call for the rejection of proposals to reduce family immigration or refugee admissions. These efforts can include letters, calls, and fly-in visits to Congress, along with national higher education call-in days on campus that can engage students, faculty, staff, and the central administration across campus. For directly impacted students, seeing allies and their campus support them makes a significant difference. In addition, collaborating with stakeholders on campus and partnering with immigration advocates locally and nationally helps to underscore the importance of viewing immigration issues holistically.

At the state level

The policy menu includes the accessibility of in-state tuition, in-state financial aid, grants and loan access, licensure, and driver licenses for undocumented individuals in the state. California is at one end of the spectrum, with some of the most progressive laws in the country, but other states have stepped forward as well. To name three recent examples, in April 2019 Arkansas successfully extended access to in-state tuition and the ability to obtain state nursing licensure to DACA recipients; in May, Colorado extended access to state financial aid to undocumented residents who qualified for in-state tuition; and Oregon passed legislation to extend access to in-state tuition to include graduate programs to undocumented residents. Most states, as you can imagine, are all across the map, with a good number “0 for 3” in terms of in-state tuition, financial assistance, and licensure.

Whether one is at a public or private institution, state policies related to immigration impact your campus, shape the climate for students, and can determine access beyond campus. For example, all students can be affected by state licensure requirements if they are not eligible to obtain licences due to their immigration status. Without the ability to obtain a driver license, an undocumented student may have difficulty  getting to campus, supporting a family, or engaging in a learning opportunity or internship.

At the institutional level

A campus’s rules and policies can act as gatekeepers or gateways, as hostile environments or welcoming places. People and programs can provide needed touchpoints and resources, while the lack of staff or support services can belie any message of support that administrators may send. This means faculty and staff need to be more fully engaged in immigration policies, understand our practices and their impact, and help support campus leaders to do so.

Coalition-building can provide new opportunities

An important role of the Presidents’ Alliance has been to serve as a connector and aggregator so campus leaders can more easily engage in targeted outreach and advocacy to policy makers at all levels, collaborate with students and other stakeholders on their campuses, amplify the collective voice of higher education, and engage in awareness raising about the importance of immigration and immigrant students. In addition, coalitions and partnerships can enable campuses to offer resources not otherwise available, including pilot programs for legal services for immigrant students and communities of practice for supporting undocumented students.

Time to be nimble and proactive

The current challenges also call on institutions to pursue new strategies to support their students and campuses. I would suggest that higher education leaders have to connect more systemically, creatively, and holistically, both locally and nationally, and with multiple kinds of partners – both in the traditional higher education realm and across sectors. For example, colleges and universities have joined lawsuits as plaintiffs and amici to challenge harmful immigration policies, including challenges to the travel ban,  termination of DACA, and the unlawful presence policy that targets international students.

Campuses are addressing a far wider range of immigrant student needs than ever before, including legal services, targeted mental health support, non-employment based paid learning opportunities, and other resources for undocumented students – and are doing so creatively to lower costs and increase effectiveness, utilizing cross-campus collaborations, local partnerships, and national alliances. Colleges can proactively audit their own policies, scholarships, and programs to ascertain if they are inclusive of undocumented students, and if not, why not.

In recent years, a number of colleges opened up programs to DACA recipients or, in the case of some private colleges, classified DACA recipients as domestic students for the purposes of admission and financial aid. With no new DACA applications being accepted, current DACA recipients are in legal limbo until the Supreme Court issues a decision (most likely in 2020). The ongoing federal impasse bodes ill for immigration reform (despite the recent successful passage of the Dream and Promise Act of 2019 in the House in early June), and therefore institutions need to stop relying on the DACA status and extend eligibility to other undocumented students.

Building your institutional toolkit

While many immigration matters cannot be effectively resolved at the individual institutional level, and campus leaders should be willing to engage beyond campus, we need to start with our individual institutions. Building a strong institutional toolkit to address immigration matters and support students on campus is critical and an ongoing task. Your institutional focus must be sustained and student-focused.

You can think about your institutional toolkit in terms of policies, programs, and people. First, policies at all levels matter. Are they gatekeepers or gateways? What actions can you take to improve? Programs on campus above all need to be student centered. For example, some of the top issues for undocumented and international students include legal services, access to mental health providers, and support for post-graduation careers. The research has shown it is vital to be visible and explicit in our welcome and resources, both on websites and in offices. What makes sense on your campus? What is happening on one campus may not play out the same on another, especially in different states.

Finally, people on campus need to come together – whether in standing immigration task forces or working groups – and then look beyond campus. Uplifting the importance of immigration and sharing stories is powerful and necessary. Our colleges and universities are uniquely situated to combine the strength of personal narratives with compelling data, to demonstrate the amazing contributions of first- and second-generation immigrant and international students, alumni, staff, and faculty on campus.

If we are to think broadly about the impacts of immigration across our campuses, and act collaboratively – locally and nationally – to support students and other campus stakeholders, we will be in a position to effect positive change in the short and long term. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the wise thing to do, and it is at the core of our educational missions and communities.

About the author

Miriam Feldblum is co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance.  She previously served as vice president for student affairs and professor of politics at Pomona College (2007-2018) and as special assistant to the president, faculty research associate, and senior director at Caltech (1995-2007), and is a non-resident fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.  She is the author of Reconstructing Citizenship: The Politics of Nationality Reform and Immigration in Contemporary France, has written articles and delivered presentations on immigration and higher education, highly skilled labor in the United States, and has written articles and conducted workshops on supporting undocumented students.


Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).  While immigration is not a factor analyzed in depth by Grawe, he identifies post-1965 immigration trends as a key factor leading to increased population growth and enrollments in higher education.

William R. Kerr, The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

“First-generation immigrant students, including undocumented students, second-generation immigrant students, and international students, make up close to a third of all students in post-secondary education nationally.” This figure reflects research in progress by the Migration Policy Institute in conjunction with the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. For earlier estimates, see New American Undergraduates. Enrollment Trends and Age at Arrival of Immigrant and Second-Generation Students (Stats in Brief, U.S. Department of Education, November 2016, NCES 2017-414), which estimated that first and second-generation immigrant students accounted for approximately a quarter of all undergraduates in 2012.  The estimate did not include undocumented immigrant students or international students.

On the demographic challenges facing higher education, see Nathan Grawe (2018).

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