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Andrew Rice is a senior copy editor for BestColleges. He has over 10 years of experience editing a variety of content types, including academic and technical manuscripts, breaking news, and articles covering trends in higher education. He's also work...
Updated on December 20, 2023
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Susana M. Muñoz, Ph.D., is an associate professor of higher education leadership at Colorado State University. Her scholarly interests center on the experiences of minoritized populations in higher education. She has been honored by the White ...
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Why It's Important

The American Immigration Council estimates that about 408,000 undocumented students were attending postsecondary institutions in the United States as of 2021.1 This population represents roughly 2% of all postsecondary learners.

Among these students, almost half are DACA-eligible — meaning they either hold Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status or would have been eligible for the DACA program before it was partially ended in 2021. A court ruling closed the program for those seeking to apply for the first time, but it continues for individuals who currently have or formerly had DACA status.2

In 2023, Upwardly Global conducted focus groups with college administrators and surveyed community college practitioners in the U.S. Most respondents said their school needs to do more to support immigrant and refugee students.3 One of the small ways you can do this is by using thoughtful and respectful language when discussing individuals who belong to this demographic of students to avoid hurtful and unfair stereotypes.

Your Language Matters

Immigration Status

  • Do not refer to any individual as an “illegal,” “illegal immigrant,” or “alien.”
  • These descriptions dehumanize individuals and strip their identity down to a legal status.
  • The word “illegal” can describe an action, but never use it when describing a person.

Don't Use

Do Use

Illegal (to refer to a person), illegal immigrant, alien

Undocumented immigrant, aspiring citize

Do Use

Undocumented immigrant, aspiring citize

Learn More

For more information and resources related to undocumented students, visit our College Resources for Undocumented Students hub.

Learn More

Undocumented Students

Many agencies and organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education and the National Immigration Law Center, use the term “undocumented student.” This phrase describes a foreign national student who 1) entered the U.S. without inspection or proper documentation or 2) has overstayed their visa.4

Although this phrase is generally acceptable, it can be a misnomer because most students do have some form of documentation — it just might not be the required legal documentation.

Take care when using the phrase “undocumented student” to ensure it is not used in a derogatory manner. Like any learner, undocumented students should have the right to pursue a higher education.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

Undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children shouldn’t be described as having immigrated or crossed the border illegally — the DACA program gave many of these individuals temporary legal status.

As a general rule, avoid using the phrase “DACAmented.” Be careful when using the word “DREAMer.” Although some students may refer to themselves this way, others may find the term offensive. Be sure to respect someone’s individual right to self-identify however they wish.

Language Fluency

Avoid using the term “nonnative speaker” when describing someone whose first language is not English. A speaker’s language ability should be measured in terms of their fluency — not where they were born or raised.

Don’t assume that because someone is an undocumented student they aren’t fluent in English. Many DACA and undocumented students in the U.S. have lived and attended U.S. schools for most of their lives.

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  1. American Immigration Council. (2023, August 2). Undocumented college students: How many students are in U.S. colleges and universities, and who are they?
  2. Immigrants Rising. (2023, September 14). DACA updates.
  3. Upwardly Global. (2023, September). Unlocking potential: Enhancing community college services for immigrant and refugee students.
  4. United We Dream, National Immigration Law Center, First Focus, & A Union of Professionals. (2016, June). Immigrant and refugee children: A guide for educators and school support staff.