Undocumented Students

To help school leaders comply with federal and state immigration laws and ensure that the undocumented students they serve have access to the same educational opportunities as all students.

Although it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the immigrant population in the United States, researchers estimate that 1.8 million undocumented children and youth are now living in the country. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Plyer vs. Doe that because undocumented children are illegally in the United States through no fault of their own, they are entitled to the same K–12 educational opportunities that states provide to children who are citizens or legal residents. For this reason, U.S. public schools may not deny enrollment to any school-age children, regardless of their immigration status. In addition, such students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, special education services, and school sponsored events and activities. Federal law does not require school districts or their employees to report undocumented students to immigration authorities. Doing so would constitute a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act if information in a student’s education records is disclosed without consent. School leaders face the sometimes challenging responsibility of ensuring student safety and protecting student privacy while complying with federal and state immigration laws.

The Impact of Immigration Enforcement on Children and Youth

States that are experiencing large increases in their immigrant populations also are experiencing increased enforcement activities and worksite immigration raids. The Urban Institute and the National Council of La Raza have conducted research in the communities where worksite raids, raids on immigrants’ homes, or operations by local police officers occurred in the past five years and found that on average, the number of children affected was about half the number of adults arrested. In some of the documented cases, school officials were given notification prior to the raids and were able to ensure that students whose parents were detained in the raids had a safe place to go after school. School leaders and teachers reported that they felt “a heavy burden” helping the students maintain a normal school routine while dealing with the aftermath of the raids. The fear created for immigrant parents and students resulted in symptoms of mental health problems that affected students’ academic performance. Months after the raids, however, students seemed to have benefited from normalized school routines and the support and services provided by their schools.

State Laws

In 2010, Arizona passed legislation making it a crime to be undocumented in the state and requiring law enforcement officials to inquire about an individual’s immigration status when they suspect that he or she may be undocumented. Although the law has not yet been fully implemented, officials in school districts with large immigration populations have questioned the role of school resource officers who work in the schools but operate under the direction of law enforcement agencies. Similar bills have also been introduced in Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Florida, Nebraska, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina. In addition, legislation under consideration in Texas would require school districts to ask for proof of legal immigration status and report the number of undocumented students who attend public schools.

Access to Higher Education

Each year, approximately 65,000 undocumented students who have lived in the United States for five years or more graduate from high school. Those youth frequently encounter challenges when applying for college or employment. The College Board estimates that only 5–10% of undocumented students actually attend college. Although federal law does not prohibit undocumented students from attending U.S. colleges or universities, most states do not allow them to pay in-state tuition and they are not eligible for most federal loans, financial aid, and scholarships. The 10 states that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition have not experienced financial burdens, but have increased revenues for colleges and universities because the students would not have attended college or gone elsewhere. According to the College Board, the investment in K–12 education for undocumented students “pays relatively few economic dividends as long as they are limited in their ability to continue on to college and obtain higher-skilled (and higher-paying) jobs that require more than a high school degree.”

Guiding Principles

  • NASSP believes that each child is entitled to an excellent public school education regardless of his or her immigration status.
  • NASSP believes that all students should graduate from high school with the skills to help them succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace.
  • NASSP has endorsed the Common Core State Standards Initiative because the high mobility rate of U.S. students demands that student proficiency be measured against a consistent and rigorous set of common standards and assessments.
  • The Breaking Ranks framework provides school leaders with an approach to improving the performance of each student by engaging in best practices in collaborative leadership, personalization of the environment; and curriculum, instruction, and assessment.


Federal Policymakers

  • Require immigration agents and local law enforcement agencies to collaborate with school officials to mitigate the negative impact of impending immigration raids and small-scale enforcement activities on students.
  • Clarify federal policy regarding undocumented students’ attendance at U.S. colleges and universities.
  • Encourage states to charge in-state tuition for undocumented students.
  • Enact legislation to help young undocumented immigrants—who were brought to the country illegally by their parents —attain U.S. citizenship and encourage them to do so.

State Leaders

  • Establish guidelines for district policy regarding what is acceptable and required as evidence that a student resides in a district and is therefore eligible for public school enrollment.
  • Use the same guidelines for charging in-state tuition for undocumented students used for students moving to the state from another state.

District Leaders

  • Provide school personnel with information on the rights of students who are undocumented and other immigration-related issues and policies.
  • Set clear policies concerning the individuals who are allowed to be on school grounds and under what circumstances.
  • Establish policies and operating procedures to protect the safety of students and the information contained in their education records, including immigration status or place of birth.
  • Respond to immigration agents’ request for data from a student’s education records, by requiring a subpoena or warrant and consulting the school district’s attorney before releasing any information.
  • Collect information about all parents’ and guardians’ employers so that school leaders are able to contact children whose parents are affected at the site of immigration raids or in the case of other emergencies.
  • In the event of a workplace immigration raid in the district, implement a plan to protect the safety of all immigrant students and brief principals and other school staff about their role in ensuring child well-being, coordinate with churches and community organizations to ensure that each student has adult supervision at home, and assure parents that schools will be a safe haven for their children.
  • Develop operational procedures to protect the safety of students, collaborating with community agencies and organizations to ensure that schools will be safe haven for their children.

School Leaders

  • Stay abreast of and comply with your state’s laws on undocumented students and related changes to state or district policies.
  • Require students seeking enrollment to provide no more than the requisite documentation to support public school enrollment.
  • If an undocumented student discloses his or her immigration status, encourage the student to seek legal assistance immediately and connect the student with a reputable legal service agency if requested.
  • Assist undocumented youth as they navigate the immigration process by helping them prepare the appropriate documents and supporting their attendance at immigration-related appointments.
  • When faced with a legal request by an immigration agent to interview a student, seek guidance from the school district’s attorney and officials, remind the student being interviewed that he or she is free to refuse to answer questions, and follow standard procedures and policy regarding notification of the student’s parent or guardian.
  • In the event of student displacement as a result of an immigration raid, ensure that each child knows what to do and whom to call if there is no adult supervision at home and communicate directly with families to assure them that their children will continue to be safe at school, during off-campus school activities, and on school buses.
  • Offer school counseling services to children of parents who have been detained or deported in an immigration raid.
  • Ensure that students are exposed to learning experiences that focus on developing college aspirations and preparing students for entry into higher education to help all students have access to higher education.
  • Provide information about scholarships and other financial aid that may be available to undocumented students.


Borkowski, J. W. (2009, April 4). Federal immigration policy creates challenges for districts. Legal Ease: School Law Notes. Retrieved from www.nsba.org

Borkowski, J. W. (2009). Legal issues for school districts related to the education of undocumented children. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association.

Capps, R., Castañeda, R., Chaudry, A., & Santos, R. (2007). Paying the price: The impact of immigration raids on America’s children. Washington, DC: The National Council of La Raza.

Chaudry, A., Capps, R., Pedroza, J., Castañeda, R., Santos, R., & Scott, M. (2010). Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

College Board. (n.d.). Advising undocumented students. Retrieved from http://professionals.collegeboard.com

Hobbs, T. D., Jacobson, G., & Unmuth, K. L. (2010, December 5). An educated guess on Texas students in the U.S. illegally. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from www.dallasnews.com

Fernandez, V. (2010, June 21). Schools no longer safe in Arizona. New America Media. Retrieved from http://newamericamedia.org

Gonzalez, R. G. (2009). Young lives on hold: The college dreams of undocumented students. College Board. Retrieved from http://professionals.collegeboard.com

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, & Kids in Need of Defense. (2010). Immigration and schools: Supporting success for undocumented and unaccompanied homeless youth. Retrieved from http://www.naehcy.org

Taylor, K. (2008). Immigration and the schools: Policy and the law. A Legal Memorandum, 8(3). Retrieved from the NASSP Web site