UC Irvine-led study reveals nuance to the experiences of undocumented students across California

Laura Enriquez, assistant professor of Chicano/Latino studies
Laura Enriquez, assistant professor of Chicano/Latino studies, is the lead for a UCI-led study profiling undocumented students.
(Courtesy of Steve Zylius / UCI)

Numbers, whether in the form of pay scales, revenue or surveys, tend to move the needle when it comes to policies and practices. That’s what a UC Irvine-led study aims to do — provide insightful findings to help university administrators meet the needs of undocumented students.

The report, published this month, surveyed about 1,300 undocumented undergraduates who attended UC and Cal State school systems during spring 2020. The results take stock of how undocumented immigration status disrupts their educational experiences and wellbeing.

Although more than two-thirds of undocumented students have a 3.0 GPA or higher, they are struggling outside of the classroom. Those students’ main concern is meeting financial obligations, with 96% reporting worrying about not having enough money and about half at least sometimes going without materials needed for their studies.

Enriquez, the report’s lead study author, started researching undocumented students when she arrived at UCI as an associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies. She published her results in 2015 through the Undocumented Student Equity Project.

Since the initial wave of data from 2015, Enriquez and Annie Ro, UCI assistant professor in public health, have been focused on undocumented students’ mental health conditions, needs and experiences.

In the 2020 study, 31% of student respondents to the online survey reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression at a level that warranted clinical treatment. During the academic year, 72% felt they needed to see a professional to deal with their mental health, emotions or nerves. Only 48% of respondents said they sought support.

“This is a really sensitive period for a lot of mental health disorders for young adults, generally, and college students, especially,” Ro said. “Given the age, mental health is a really important outcome to look at.”

Enriquez said campuses have initiatives addressing mental health needs in general, however undocumented students might not utilize those services because of mental health stigma, not wanting to reveal their immigration status to therapists or not having access to a therapist who is aware of immigration-related issues.

Some of the proposed solutions in the study suggest universities should provide funding for experts to train mental health counselors, increase collaboration between undocumented student services and mental health counseling centers and perform campus-specific evaluations on possible barriers to mental health support.

Research members of UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Study Equity
Research members of UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Study Equity
(Courtesy of Nalya Rodriguez / UCI)

Ro pointed out that other than being the largest study of its kind in terms of diverse student participation across both UC and Cal State systems, the report also shows nuance and agency in undocumented students.

The majority of students actively seek support from undocumented student centers, legal services and food banks.

Although members of this student population don’t have the right to vote in elections and aren’t eligible for many government support services, researchers found 29% participated in an organization that tried to solve a social problem, 41% spent time participating in community service or volunteer activity and 79% reported talking to people to persuade them about voting for or against certain politicians or political issues.

“That’s part of the narrative that we have about undocumented youth activism — that they’re active ... I didn’t realize how pervasive that number would be. It’s really important to recognize the political power there,” Enriquez said.

The study was a collaboration with UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity initiative and the Undocumented Student Equity Project. The team included colleagues from UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Merced and eight Cal State campuses, including Fullerton.

A second report, focusing on UC students only, will compare the findings to U.S. citizen students with undocumented parents and U.S. citizen students with legal immigrant parents. It’s expected to be published next month.

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