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  • Human Rights Research Center

University of California’s (UC) Decision on Undocumented Students

June 4, 2024

In January 2024, the University of California Board of Regents denied a proposal allowing undocumented students to work on campus. Michael Drake, the UC president, said that the proposal “…is not viable at this time and, in fact, carries significant risk for the institution and for those we serve.”[2] He argued that if this proposal was passed, UC students and employees could be at risk for deportation or civil and criminal prosecution, and the university could lose federal contracts and grants.[5] Though not the majority opinion of California’s UC campuses and their students, this decision has affected tens of thousands of undocumented students and their livelihoods.

According to 29 respected immigration and constitutional professors from around the country, including Dean Erwin Chemerinsky from Berkeley Law and Dean Kevin Johnson from UC Davis Law, “…state entities are not bound by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the 1986 law that bars undocumented workers without work authorization from being able to legally work in the U.S.”[4] This theory shows the already existing legal authority of the University of California to hire undocumented students for employment. However, it is still just a theory.

To put the issue in perspective, the LA Times estimated that about 44,000 students who attend California colleges do not have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections, with approximately 4,000 of these students attending UCs.[5] California is home to 20% of the nation’s college students who lack legal authorization.[5]

Even with the promise to defend their students, the UC's decision only reflects empty words. With federal courts halting new applicants for the Obama-era DACA program, undocumented students are put between a rock and a hard place.[6] UC students all deserve equal educational rights, but undocumented students’ access to the same opportunities as their peers was tragically denied by the very university they trusted to support them.

This has fueled retaliation against academic freedom and social inequalities. There are federal and California state policies that provide added relief to undocumented students; however, unfortunately, there are no current active solutions for this issue. Even so, giving up is not an option. As Jeffry Umaña Muñoz, a fourth-year student at UCLA and Undocumented Student-led Network (USN) leader who was illegally brought to the United States from El Salvador said, [4][5] “We have not been defeated…This attempt to kill this movement has just lit a fire under it. Nothing about us, without us, is for us. We alone know what it means to be undocumented and denied equal access to opportunities on campus.”

Current Federal Policies Affecting Undocumented Students [2]

Plyler vs. Doe

In 1982, this Supreme Court ruling determined that K-12 education is a fundamental and protected right and will be provided to all children in the United States, regardless of citizenship or residency status.

Family Educational and Privacy Act (“FERPA”)

This federal law protects the privacy of student records at educational institutions, including elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”)

Announced on June 15, 2012, this policy grants temporary administrative relief from deportation to undocumented young people. Individuals who are granted DACA are considered to be lawfully present in the United States and are eligible for work authorization and a social security number. DACA is a temporary program that can be renewed but falls short of granting undocumented young people a pathway to citizenship On September 5, 2017, the Trump administration attempted to end DACA. A series of lawsuits that were filed against the administration for terminating the program unlawfully has resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to restore the DACA program. However, a July 2021 ruling in another lawsuit filed in the Texas district court has limited the DACA program yet again. Only DACA renewals are currently being accepted at this time. Since September 2012, 912,137 people have applied for this temporary benefit.

Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) Health Care Reform

Unfortunately, undocumented immigrants (including DACA recipients) were excluded outright from federal healthcare reform. However, all Californians with low incomes between the ages of 26 and 49 can now enroll in Medi-Cal—the state’s Medicaid program—regardless of their immigration status.

Current California State Policies Affecting Undocumented Students [2]

Assembly Bill (“AB”) 540 as expanded by Senate Bill (SB) 1141

This law allows certain non-resident students who complete at least three years of full-time attendance or the part-time equivalent at a CA high school, adult school, or California Community College (credit & noncredit), and degree requirements to receive reduced in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

California Dream Act

This law, composed of AB 130 and AB 131, allows qualifying AB 540 students to access state and institutional funds to finance their college/university education. Students are able to access non-state funded scholarships directly through their colleges and state-funded financial aid.

AB 1024

This law permits the California State Supreme Court to admit as an attorney any applicant that fulfills the requirements for admission to practice law, regardless of immigration status. AB 1024 makes California the first state to grant law licenses to undocumented aspiring attorneys if they meet all other eligibility requirements.

SB 1159

This law requires all 40 licensing boards under the California Department of Consumer Affairs to consider applicants regardless of immigration status. In effect, SB 1159 allows undocumented individuals to obtain professional licenses.

AB 2184

This law requires cities in California to accept a California driver’s license or identification number, individual taxpayer identification number, or municipal identification number in lieu of a social security number if the city otherwise requires a social security number for the issuance of a business license.

SB 183

This law extends existing protection regarding equal rights and opportunities in postsecondary educational institutions in California from being subjected to discrimination on those bases of immigration status.



Undocumented Student: A foreign national who: (1) entered the United States without inspection or with fraudulent documents; (2) entered legally as a nonimmigrant but then violated the terms of his or her status and remained in the United States without authorization; (3) has Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (“DACA”) status or has previously had DACA; or (4) is otherwise currently in the process of legalizing.[3]



1. Clendenin, J. [UC undocumented students and supporters rally at UCLA]. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Retrieved May 20, 2024. Los Angeles Times.

2. Florido, A. (2024, January 26). The University of California denies campus jobs for undocumented students. NPR.

3. Immigrants Rising. (2023, October). OVERVIEW OF UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS.

4. UCLA School of Law. (2023, May 18). Undocumented student leaders secure first victory in opportunity for all campaign as UC announces its support of removing hiring restrictions for undocumented students. UCLA School of Law.

5. Watanabe, T. (2024, January 26). Citing risks, UC won’t hire its immigrant students without legal status, work permits. Los Angeles Times.

6. Zinshteyn, M., & Echelman, A. (2024, May 15). College campuses can’t hire undocumented students. how that might change in California. CalMatters. 


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