Citing risks, UC won’t hire its immigrant students without legal status, work permits

Students and supporters gathered to support UC students without legal status
UC undocumented students and their supporters rallied at UCLA to urge university officials to hire them even without work authorization.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

University of California regents declined Thursday to move forward on a bold plan to hire immigrant students who lack legal work authorization, crushing the hopes of thousands of young people seeking to escape precarious futures without adequate access to jobs and research opportunities.

UC President Michael V. Drake told regents he would not recommend a plan to challenge federal law barring employment of those without legal status because the potential consequences would be too risky to UC students, families and staff. UC students could be subject to deportation, employees could risk civil and criminal prosecution if they knowingly participate in hiring practices deemed impermissible under federal law, and the university could lose federal contracts and grants, he said.

A novel theory developed by UCLA legal scholars asserted that the 1986 federal law in question does not apply to states — or state entities such as UC — because the statute’s language does not explicitly mention them. Drake said UC would not test that theory at this time, although regents voted to reconsider the policy in one year.


“We have concluded that the proposed legal pathway is not viable at this time, and in fact carries significant risk for the institution and for those we serve,” Drake said. “I know that many in our community will be disappointed that we are unable to take immediate action. ... I would like nothing more than to do so, right here, right now, because it is the right thing to do.”

He said that UC would expand support for such students and continue to advocate for legal changes to allow them to legally work.

Regent John A. Pérez, in an emotional dissent, said he had never been “more disappointed” as a board member, and called on his colleagues to lead with courage. Students in the audience, some with mouths taped shut to symbolize their hunger strike over the issue, reacted with fury, calling out, “Cowards!” and other epithets after the 10 to 6 vote, with one abstention.

The University of California enrolled a record number of California undergraduates in fall 2023 and cut out-of-state students to accommodate surging local demand for seats.

Jan. 19, 2024

“I am very, very angry and disappointed,” said Jeffry Umaña Muñoz, a fourth-year student at UCLA who was illegally brought to the United States from El Salvador at age 2 and had a campus job lined up if the regents had approved the plan. He said he has suffered from financial hardship — with a $3,000 unpaid campus bill that could block him from receiving his degree — but vowed to keep fighting.

“We have not been defeated,” he said. “This attempt to kill this movement has just lit a fire under it.”

About 580,000 students without legal status obtained work permits and other benefits under the Obama administration policy Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, but a 2021 Texas court ruling bars federal officials from processing any new applications.


Today, about 44,000 students without DACA protections attend California colleges; about 4,000 of them attend UC. In 2023, an estimated 100,000 immigrant youths graduated from high school without legal status or DACA benefits — including about 27,000 in California. The state is home to about 1 in 5 of the nation’s college students who lack legal authorization.

UC regents agreed unanimously last May to find a pathway to hire such students but said Thursday they have not yet been able to do so.

Rich Leib, chair of the UC Board of Regents, said he had been “absolutely determined to get something done on this issue” but concluded that it was not the right time to move forward. “I’m just very disappointed we were not able to find a pathway. ... I’m going to pledge myself to get this resolved.”

Ahilan Arulanantham, co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, said outside legal experts and human resources specialists assessed the legal risk and implementation challenges and found them to be relatively minor.

“We answered every question, but they kept moving the goalposts,” he said of UC officials. “Ultimately the university has to decide whether it wants to eliminate this inequity or not.”

Regents delay decision on website opinion expressions

The UC system’s governing board also delayed action until March on a controversial move to ban most opinion, such as criticism of Israel, on university websites and other official “channels of communication.” Pérez and others said more input is needed.


In public comment during the regents’ three-day meeting, scores of students demanded that UC divest from companies profiting from the Israel-Hamas war and condemn what they describe as Israel’s “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza. On Oct. 7, Hamas militants unleashed the worst attack in Israel’s history, killing about 1,200 people and kidnapping about 250 others. Israel has retaliated with massive airstrikes on Gaza and a ground invasion that local health officials say have killed 26,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

Some students and faculty members also denounced the effort by some regents to ban most opinion on university websites as a blow against free speech and academic freedom — primarily fueled by a desire to silence criticism of Israel.

Faculty members across the University of California system have launched an unprecedented organizing drive to protect campus supporters of Palestinians who have been harassed and threatened, especially since the Israel-Hamas war exploded.

Dec. 21, 2023

Regent Jay Sures, vice chairman at United Talent Agency, has pushed for a ban, saying he has been troubled by “abuse” and “misuse” of departmental websites featuring anti-Israel sentiment and other opinions that do not reflect official university views. He said he supports free expression on UC website spaces clearly marked as “opinion pages,” but not on landing pages, which should display official information such as course offerings and campus events.

Some faculty members have told regents that they disagree with political statements posted on campus websites, but keep quiet to avoid potential negative impacts on their careers.

“The last thing that I or any of my fellow regents want to do is quash free speech or academic freedom,” Sures said.

Christine Hong and Sean Malloy of the UC Ethnic Studies Council, however, said the proposed website policy was one of several moves by Israel supporters to silence pro-Palestinian views.


“The farcical regents debate over website policy can only be understood as part of their larger campaign to repress Palestinian solidarity,” Malloy said. “Whether it is attacks on ethnic studies, disciplining faculty members, or gagging speech, the regents have made it clear that they will use their power to support Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza and attack students, faculty, and staff who are mobilizing for Palestinian human rights.”

Last year, Sures excoriated the ethnic studies council for criticizing a statement by UC leaders condemning Hamas “terrorism” in the Oct. 7 attack. Sures said the council’s letter was full of “falsehoods, inaccuracies, and antisemitic innuendos” and “seeks to legitimize and defend the horrific savagery of the Hamas massacre of October 7.”

The UC San Diego ethnic studies department, for instance, posted a statement grieving the loss of lives on both sides and supporting calls to end Israel’s occupation and dismantle “the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.” UC Santa Cruz’s critical race and ethnic studies department posted a call for academic institutions to “act now to end Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza.”

The UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies also posted a statement condemning the “horrific terrorist attack” by Hamas and mourning deaths on both sides.

James Steintrager, UC Academic Senate chair, said a systemwide faculty committee reviewed the website issue in 2021 and concluded, in consultation with university attorneys, that departments had the right to weigh in on political and social issues, although they cannot endorse candidates. The Academic Senate provided guidelines, such as making clear the statement represented faculty members or groups and not the university itself and ensuring that minority or dissenting views are not squelched.

Steintrager urged regents this week to delay action until any website proposal could be reviewed by faculty leaders across the UC system.