Improving Access to Higher Education Opportunities and Legal Immigration Status for Undocumented Immigrant Youths and Young Adults

  • Date: Nov 01 2011
  • Policy Number: 20117

Key Words: DREAM Act, Immigration, Access, Human Rights, Higher Education

Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools.1 The 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v Doe guaranteed undocumented children the right to public elementary and secondary education. Justice Brennan noted in his majority opinion “the importance of education in maintaining our basic institutions and the lasting impact of its deprivation on the life of the child.”2 While children younger than 18 years have some legal rights, the moment undocumented students leave high school they are severely limited by their legal status. Foreign-born young adults with undocumented status are excluded from financial aid, the legal workforce, the right to vote, and, in some states, acceptance into state-sponsored higher education institutions. In most states, those students allowed entrance into higher education are considered international students or nonresidents and charged 3 to 7 times higher tuition than legal residents or US citizens.1

The lack of financial aid for undocumented students makes the price of higher education largely prohibitive and severely limits their opportunities for upward social mobility.3 Although they can legally attend most colleges, it is estimated that only 5% to 10% of undocumented high school graduates continue to higher education.4 These young adults are effectively prohibited from obtaining credentials and occupational skills to secure their future economic stability or contribute to the productivity of our nation. 

The undocumented “generation 1.5,” immigrant children who migrate before the age of 12 and receive most of their schooling and socialization in the United States,5 face many structural barriers to attaining higher education and completing secondary education.6 Nationally, 40% of undocumented young adults complete high school and fewer than half have attended college.6

Fortunately, there is pending legislation to relieve the financial barriers for high-achieving undocumented youths. In addition, however, more research needs to be conducted on the role of language, family poverty, legal status, mobility, and school structure on secondary and postsecondary educational attainment for generation 1.5.1,6


Acknowledging that access to affordable education is a basic human right and benefits the greater society, Senator Richard Durbin and others originally sponsored the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001 to provide pathways to legal immigration status for eligible undocumented youths and young adults. Despite failing in 2010 congressional sessions, Senator Durbin and other supporters reintroduced the DREAM Act in 2011.7

Under the DREAM Act, individuals can apply for legal permanent immigration status if they are younger than 30 years, arrived in the United States before age 16, have lived in the United States continually for the last 5 years, and have earned a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED) or have been admitted to an institute of higher education.8,9 Individuals that have committed a felony offense or more than 2 misdemeanor offenses are ineligible for benefits of the DREAM Act; those who previously received orders of removal from the United States when they were 16 years of age or older are also ineligible for benefits.9

Applicants who meet all of the DREAM Act’s qualifying criteria would receive 5 years of conditional nonimmigrant status, with permission to work in the United States, receive federal student loans and work study funds, and travel outside of the country. After completing 2 years of higher education or serving 2 years in the US Armed Forces, applicants would be eligible to renew their conditional status for another 5 years. After 10 years of conditional status, applicants could apply for legal permanent residency.9

Beneficiaries of the DREAM Act

Analysts estimate that 775,000 undocumented young adults would immediately gain conditional legal status through the DREAM Act.8 Hundreds of thousands more could qualify for conditional status under the law’s age and residency requirements but lack a necessary high school diploma or GED.10 Students currently in elementary school and high school would be the largest group of DREAM Act beneficiaries. Approximately 934,000 people younger than 18 could qualify for legal residency status under the DREAM Act if they obtained a high school diploma or GED.10

Health Benefits of the DREAM Act

The DREAM Act could have a positive effect on the health and well-being of those who qualify for the program. In general, individuals with higher levels of education tend to have healthier behaviors and enjoy healthier lives.11 For example, while 35% of 4-year college graduates exercise at least 3 times a week, only 20% of high school graduates exercise at the same level.12 Those with 4-year college degrees also report fewer health risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, current smoking, and physical inactivity than do high school graduates.12 Schoeni points out that 3 in 4 college-educated adults report being in very good or excellent health, compared with only 40% of adults with less than a high school education.13 The average life expectancy for a 25-year-old with a college degree is 7 years higher than for a person with only a high school diploma.14

Education is the single most important modifiable contributing factor to health status. Education leads to higher income, which, in turn, is associated with better health.11 Knesebeck asserts, “Education is the key to one’s position in the stratification system. It shapes the likelihood of being unemployed, the occupational class, and the income level.”15(pp1344–1345) By opening pathways for beneficiaries to obtain a college degree, the DREAM Act creates opportunities for undocumented young adults to earn more income. For example, the average yearly income for a female with a bachelor’s degree is $45,400, whereas the average yearly earning for a female with only a high school diploma is $33,000.16 DREAM Act participants who obtain a college degree will have a better chance of earning a higher income and, in turn, will have improved access to healthy foods,17 medical care,18 and opportunities to live in safer environments.19

The DREAM Act will also remove the stressful burden of becoming “illegal” for thousands of undocumented youths as they turn 18 and become adults. Gonzales perceptively notes, “As undocumented youth transition to adulthood, they move from a protected to unprotected immigration status, from inclusion to exclusion, from de facto legal to ‘illegal.’”20 Undocumented youths experience fear and stigmatization as they begin to realize the limitations of their adult illegal immigrant status.20

The stigmatization that comes from undocumented youths’ illegal status negatively affects their health and well-being. It is understandable that undocumented youths may be discouraged from seeking medical care for fear of providers demanding the disclosure of their immigration status.21 Beyond the issues of health care utilization, their new “illegal” status is often disempowering and socially isolating. As Gonzales points out, “Their entry into a stigmatized identity has negative consequences for their educational and occupational trajectories, as well as for their friendships and social patterns.”20 The DREAM Act will give a pathway to citizenship for some of these affected youths, thus lifting the burden of stigmatization caused by their immigration status. 

Opposition the DREAM Act

Despite the clear health advantages afforded those who obtain a college degree by participating in the DREAM Act, some argue that passing the DREAM Act will cause an increased burden on taxpayers and therefore oppose it. Indeed, states spend a combined total of $224 billion annually on higher education.22 For each student who elects to enroll in a state-supported college or university, states pay anywhere from $220 to $1900 each year.22

On the other hand, the DREAM Act will likely generate significant tax revenue for state and federal governments. The DREAM Act does not call for state-subsidized colleges or universities to expand their enrollment to accommodate DREAM Act students. It may not affect the overall amount states spend on higher education, but rather would likely increase the pool of applicants vying for enrollment. Secondly, state-supported higher education is an investment in the economic future of young people. Tax revenue from undocumented youths who participate in the DREAM Act will provide states with a sizable return on their investments over time. A recent study estimates that 825,000 undocumented youths obtaining legal status under the DREAM Act legislation would generate $1.4 trillion in income over a 40-year period.8 Ultimately, states are making a sound investment by supporting high-achieving youths who participate in the DREAM Act.8

Undocumented youths are caught in a system that provides little, if any, opportunity to legalize their immigration status and improve their lives through higher education. While the DREAM Act certainly does not resolve the need for comprehensive immigration reform, passing this legislation will inarguably improve the opportunities and circumstances for hundreds of thousands of young people every year.

In the absence of federal policy, the State of California passed legislation similar to the DREAM Act in 2011, improving access to financial aid for undocumented immigrants attending public universities and community colleges.23

The present policy statement was developed to complement 10 existing American Public Health Association (APHA) resolutions regarding immigrant health and education and immigration reform. APHA policy statement 20101, “Public Health and Education: Working Collaboratively Across Sectors to Improve High School Graduation as a Means to Eliminate Health Disparities,” states that “public health and education are inextricably intertwined, and a lack of education is one of the social determinants of health.”24 The following policy statements recognize that health services should be accessible to immigrants regardless of documentation status: 20061, “Addressing the Needs of Immigrants in Response to Natural and Human-Made Disasters in the United States”; 9401, “Ensuring Access to Health Services for Undocumented Immigrants”; 9501, “Opposition to Anti-Immigrant Statutes”; 9601, “Maintaining the National Commitment to the Nation’s Health”; and 8223, “Avoiding the Public Health Consequences of Anti-Immigrant Racism.”25–29 

APHA also calls for immigration reform in policy statements 9924, “Health and Human Rights Violations at the US-Mexico Border”; 9009, “A Call to Reject English-Only Legislation”; 2005-4, “Occupational Health and Safety Protections for Immigrant Workers”; 20092, “Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the US-Mexico Border”; and LB-10-02, “Public Health Impact of US Immigration Policy”30–34.

Therefore, APHA—

  1. Calls upon the Congress to pass legislation to improve access to higher education opportunities and legal immigration status for undocumented immigrant youths and young adults;
  2. Calls on schools, colleges, and graduate programs in public health to promote research documenting the structural constraints shaping young undocumented immigrants’ opportunities for higher education and upward social and economic mobility.


  1. Abrego L, Gonzales R. Blocked paths, uncertain futures: the postsecondary education and labor market prospects of undocumented Latino Youth. J Educ Students Placed Risk. 2010;15:144–157.
  2. Brennan J. Opinion of the Court, Plyer v Doe: 457 US 202. Appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Supreme Court of the United States. Decided June 15, 1982.
  3. Rumbaut R, Kimaie G. Immigration and adult transition. Transit Adulthood. 2010;20(1):43–66.
  4. Passel J. Further Demographic Information Relating to the DREAM Act. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute; 2003.
  5. Rumbaut R. Ages, life stages, and generational cohorts: decomposing the immigrant first and second generations in the United States. Int Migr Rev. 2004;38(3):1160–1205.
  6. Gonzales R. On the wrong side of the tracks: understanding the effects of school structure and social capital in the educational pursuits of undocumented immigrant students. Peabody J Educ. 2010;85(16):469–485.
  7. Bruno A. Unauthorized Alien Students: Issues and “DREAM Act” Legislation, in CRS Report for Congress. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service; 2010.
  8. Ojeda RH, Takash PC, Castillo G, Flores G, Monroy A, Sargeant D. No DREAMers Left Behind: The Economic Potential of DREAM Act Beneficiaries. Los Angeles, CA: North American Integration and Development Center, University of California, Los Angeles; 2010.
  9. Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2010, bill S.3827, 2010.
  10. Batalova J, McHugh M. DREAM vs Reality: An Analysis of Potential DREAM Act Beneficiaries. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute; 2010. 
  11. Beckles G, Truman B, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Education and incomes: United States, 2005 and 2009. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2011;60(suppl):13–17.
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Declining prevalence of no known major risk factors for heart disease and stroke among adults—United States, 1991–2004. MMWR Mortal Wkly Rep. 2004;53(1):4–7.
  13. Schoeni R, Dow W, Miller W, Pamuk E. The economic value of improving the health of disadvantaged Americans. Am J Prev Med. 2011;40(1):S67–S72.
  14. Meara E, Richards S, Cutler D. The gap gets bigger: changes in mortality and life expectancy, by education 1981–2000. Health Aff (Millwood). 2008;27(2):350–360.
  15. Von don Knesebeck O, Verde P, Dragano N. Education and health in 22 European countries. Soc Sci Med. 2006;63(5):1344–1351.
  16. Day JC, Newburger EC. The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau; 2002.
  17. Larson M, Story N, Nelson M. Neighborhood environments: disparities in access to health foods in the US. Am J Prev Med. 2009;36(1):74–81.e10.
  18. Andersen R, Newman J. Societal and individual determinants of medical care utilization in the United States. Milbank Q. 2005;83(4) (online only).
  19. Bennett G, McNeil L, Wolin K, Duncan D, Puleo E, Emmons K. Safe to walk? Neighborhood safety and physical activity among public housing residents. PLoS Med. 2007;4(10):e306.
  20. Gonzales R. Learning to be illegal: undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood. Am Sociol Rev. 2011; 74(4):602–619.
  21. Ku L, Matini S. Left out: immigrants’ access to health care and insurance. Health Aff (Millwood). 2001;20(1):247–256.
  22. Direct General Expenditures per Capita of State and Local Governments for All Functions and for Education, by Level of Education and State: 2006-07 and 2007-08. Washington, DC: US Dept of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics; 2009.
  23. McGreevy P, York A. Brown signs California DREAM Act. Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2011. Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/09/local/la-me-brown-dream-act-20111009. Accessed October 30, 2011. 
  24. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 20101: Public Health and Education: Working Collaboratively Across Sectors to Improve High School Graduation as a Means to Eliminate Health Disparities. 2010. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1395. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  25. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 20061: Addressing the Needs of Immigrants in Response to Natural and Human-Made Disasters in the United States. 2006. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1325. Accessed May 27, 2011. 
  26. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 9401: Ensuring Access to Health Services for Undocumented Immigrants. 1994. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=67. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  27. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 9501: Opposition to Anti-Immigrant Statutes. 1995. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=96. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  28. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 9601: Maintaining the National Commitment to the Nation’s Health. 1996. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=118. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  29. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 8223: Avoiding the Public Health Consequences of Anti-Immigrant Racism. 2010. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1027. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  30. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 9924: Health and Human Rights Violations at the US-Mexico Border. 1999. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=195. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  31. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 9009: A Call to Reject "English Only" Legislation. 1990. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1220. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  32. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 2005-4: Occupational Health and Safety Protections for Immigrant Workers. 2005. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1318. Accessed May 27, 2011.
  33. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement 20092: Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the US-Mexico Border. 2009. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1385. Accessed May 27, 2011. 
  34. American Public Health Association. APHA Policy Statement LB-10-02: Public Health Impact of US Immigration Policy. 2010. Available at: http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1409. Accessed May 27, 2011.