Why it's important
The Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration estimated more than 450,000 undocumented students were attending postsecondary institutions in the United States as of April 2020.1 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 or formerly had DACA status.2
It is important to use thoughtful and respectful language when discussing individuals who belong to this demographic of students to avoid hurtful and unfair stereotypes.
- 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.
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.3
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 Arrival
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.” 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.
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.
Lauren Albano is the assistant director and designated school official at Seattle University's International Student Center, where she advises international students and alumni on maintaining F-1 status. She holds a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Irvine, and a master's degree in student development administration from Seattle University.View Our Editorial Guidelines
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- Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. (2020, September 1). Report: Undocumented students in higher education: How many students are in U.S. colleges and universities, and who are they? https://www.presidentsalliance.org/report-undocumented-students-in-higher-education-how-many-students-are-in-u-s-colleges-and-universities-and-who-are-they/
- Immigrants Rising. (2021, July 27). DACA updates. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://immigrantsrising.org/daca/
- 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. https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/ICE-Raids-Educators-Guide-2016-06.pdf