chapter  14
23 Pages

Navigating Institutional Structures: The Politics of Supporting Undocumented Students in Higher Education


Everybody is kind of scared to touch this issue. And you still wonder why. Because it’s the site, this political debate at the institutional level. We are the site of political debates. . . . So, on the one hand, we have the real tragedy of students: the real precarious existence of undocumented students, the sheer numbers, and really how little institutional support there is. On the other hand, we have this political debate that has colored the so-called “access” to scarce resources. (Interview, Gabriel, May 26, 2010)

In this statement, “Gabriel,” a professor at “Sunny Research University” (SRU),1 captures both the challenges and consequences that confront the eff ort to build institutional support for undocumented students in higher education. Discrimination rooted in xenophobia and racism shapes the boundaries of citizenship and, consequently, determines entry points into higher education, resulting in the reluctance of colleges and universities to fully embrace undocumented students as members of the institution. Contrary to an idealized notion of education as the great equalizer, educational systems “may in fact contribute to the creation and maintenance of a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Hjerm 2001). Practices that exclude undocumented students in higher education are legitimized by laws that not only deny these students fi nancial aid but also help “sustain a climate of antipathy and suspicion toward undocumented students and immigrants of color” (Rincón 2008, 62). Colleges and universities operate in a legal context that criminalize those who hire, house, aid, transport, or educate undocumented immigrants (Rincón 2008; Vargas 2012), which magnifi es the actual or perceived constraints of providing the undocumented with postsecondary educational benefi ts. Such interlocking policies are what Das Gupta (2006) would term space-taking practices, because they eff ectively exclude students from educational institutions based on identity categories-in this case, citizenship. However, as the fi ndings from this chapter demonstrate, students and their allies in university administration work together to remake these policies, fi nding space around the margins.