Migrant college students face more stress than their peers, study says

Report: Many college students illegally brought to the U.S. as children have more anxiety than their peers

Recent federal policies to limit deportations and state programs to expand financial aid have benefited college students who entered the country illegally, but those young people still face emotional, educational and money problems, according to a new national study by UCLA researchers.

The report found that those students — often brought to the U.S. as children — have significantly higher levels of anxiety than other undergraduates.

Nearly 37% of the female students who are in the U.S. without the required papers and about 29% of the men reported stress above what is considered clinically healthy, often fueled by worries that their parents or other relatives could be deported, according to the survey. That was at least four times the levels of anxiety in the general college population.

California and several other states have made unauthorized immigrants eligible for lower in-state tuition and state-financed grants. Some other states, however, forbid that and those students remain ineligible for federal grants and loans.

As a result, they attend colleges at lower rates than others, more often enroll part time, take longer to earn degrees and pass up prestigious universities for ones close to home that they perceive as more affordable, said the report by UCLA's Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education.

"They are stigmatized. They are invisible. They are swimming against an extraordinary undertow very difficult to combat," said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and one of the report's authors.

He and other experts spoke Monday at a conference unveiling the study, "In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower," at the California Community Foundation in Los Angeles.

Suárez-Orozco and others said the report, funded by the Ford Foundation, was unprecedented in its scope and efforts to overcome secrecy and fear to obtain solid data across state and ethnic lines. With the help of community and campus organizations, researchers conducted online surveys with 909 students at four-year and two-year colleges in 34 states.

The undergraduates were born in 55 countries, with Mexico and other parts of Latin America most common; students from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe also were included. The students had lived in the U.S. about 15 years on average, and more than 90% said they wanted to become citizens.

The research was conducted in 2014, two years after the Obama administration temporarily halted deportations of some young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The survey was completed before Obama recently expanded the action to some parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

The report says those immigration actions brought relief to eligible students but noted that uncertainty remains because the policies are temporary and many parents do not qualify. Students who are safe from deportation have "a hyper-awareness of the vulnerability of loved ones," a survivors' guilt that can interfere with their education, according to the study.

Among the speakers Monday was Seth Ronquillo, a recent UCLA graduate who was brought to the U.S. illegally from the Philippines when he was 12 and grew up in Van Nuys. At first, he helped finance his UC education with private philanthropy and later benefited from the change in state law that allowed him to receive Cal Grants.

Now working at the UCLA Labor Center on issues involving immigrants' healthcare, he said he hoped the report would make young people "less scared and lonely" when they see that their concerns are shared by many across the country.

Among its recommendations, the study urges colleges to improve counseling for students with immigration status problems, calls on the private sector to increase philanthropy for scholarships and says state and federal officials should reexamine laws that forbid financial aid to such students.

Opponents say proposals to change state and federal laws would wrongly use tax dollars to reward people who broke the law.

Joseph Castro, president of Cal State Fresno, said that at least 500 students on his campus were "undocumented" and that many of them are children of agricultural workers in the Central Valley region.

Castro said that some initiatives at his school, such as an emergency food pantry and scholarships to purchase tablets for online education, are open to all but particularly help those students.

He said that he hoped the federal government "as soon as possible" would allow students who entered the country illegally to receive Pell Grants, which aid low-income families, and that doing so would result in higher graduation rates.


Twitter: @larrygordonlat

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times