God Loves "Dreamers": Undocumented Youth and Comprehensive Immigration Reform

IMG_0244 It is immoral to deny a university education, and a pathway to citizenship, to the children of undocumented immigrants.  Although this may be a popular position in places like Arizona and Alabama, such a denial of educational opportunity and civil rights is utterly unbiblical and unjust.

A fundamental biblical principle is that no one should be punished for an action for which they had no control  (Deuteronomy 24:16).   To use a biblical analogy, if the parents eat sour grapes the children’s teeth should not be set on edge (Jeremiah 21:39). In the same way, undocumented college students should not be punished for crossing a border when they had no decision in the matter.  

The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this moral truth in 1982 when it ruled that undocumented children could not be denied a K-12 education:

“[V]isiting . . . condemnation on the head of an infant is illogical and unjust. Moreover, imposing disabilities on the . . . child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relationship to individual responsibility or wrongdoing. Obviously, no child is responsible for his birth, and penalizing the . . . child is an ineffectual -- as well as unjust -- way of deterring the parent (Plyler v. Doe, 1982).”

Most undocumented college students were brought to the United States when they were just small children or infants.  In fact, 65,000 such undocumented students graduate from high school each year in the United States.   Many of them are valedictorians and at the top of their class.  Tragically, thousands of these students are denied a college education because of state laws which bar them from the university.  Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina all ban undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities.

Although undocumented students are allowed to attend public colleges and universities in most states, most of them find it very difficult to pursue their education because they are forced to pay exorbitant international student fees or are barred from receiving financial aid.

Some states do make it easier for undocumented students to pursue their higher education by allowing them to pay in-state tuition fees.  In fact, except for Florida and Arizona, most major immigrant receiver states (e.g., California, New York, and Texas) have passed laws which allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition fees if they meet certain residency requirements.  Tragically, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Indiana have explicitly barred undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition.

In addition to allowing students to qualify for in-state tuition, California, Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas are among the few states that give undocumented students access to financial aid.

Outside of California, Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas, undocumented students are denied access to public scholarships and financial aid, and, as a result, very few undocumented students attend college or university on a national level.  Although 2.1 undocumented youth might qualify for the Federal Dream Act, and 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year, it is estimated that only between 7,000 and 13,000 undocumented students are currently enrolled in colleges and universities throughout the United States.

As a professor of ethnic studies at UCLA, I have found that some of my best students are “Dreamers” (undocumented youth).  They are my heroes.  They often work 30-40 hours a week, commute 100 miles a day on public transportation, experience quasi-homelessness, sleep in their cars, and skip meals so that they can pay for their education. Moreover, for those who graduate from UCLA, their professional choices and opportunities to attend graduate school are extremely limited because of their legal status.

I am proud to say that undocumented students at UCLA have spear-headed national advocacy efforts on their own behalf.   In a book titled, Underground Undergrads, they shared openly about their struggles as undocumented students:

“Many…[undocumented students]…have described their experience at UCLA as feeling invisible.  Students like Grecia leave right when class ends to catch a two-hour bus ride back to South Central where she then picks up her younger siblings from school and heads home to help them with their homework. She works with her mother the days that she is not in class at a sewing factory.  Other students live by campus, because they are not able to commute.  With her family over 200 miles away, Arlette must balance her full time class schedule with her heavy work load of up to 32 hours per week to pay for living and academic expenses from her own pocket.  Still, other students like Linett are forced to withdraw indefinitely from UCLA to work full time in low wage jobs in hopes to save enough money for the following quarter.”

To purchase a copy of Underground Undergrads, see: http://www.labor.ucla.edu/publications/books/underground.html

To get a copy of the sequel, titled, Undocumented and Unafraid, go to: http://books.labor.ucla.edu/p/79/undocumentedunafraid

If you or someone you know is an undocumented college student, check out the following website sponsored by the organization IDEAS at UCLA. This website will provide you with many resources to help you in your educational journey:  http://ideasla.org/index/

For all of these reasons, it is a biblical and moral imperative for Congress to pass a version of Comprehensive Immigration Reform which provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth.  This is just and right.  As followers of Jesus, we must do all we can to make sure that this happens.  We must act, pray, and organize.  This is what He would have us do.

To join a larger movement of prayer and action on behalf of undocumented immigrants, connect with Pray4Reform:


The suffering of undocumented youth is not theoretical.  To make this point clear I would like to close this post by sharing about the tragic story of Joaquin Luna.   Joaquin was an 18-year old senior at Juarez Lincoln High School in Mission, Texas.  He had aspirations of going to college and becoming an engineer so that he could improve his family’s life.  Because of the failure of the Dream Act to pass in Congress, Joaquin had lost hope.  On Friday, November 25 around 9 p.m., he dressed up in a suit and tie, kissed his family, and shot himself in the restroom with a small handgun.   Joaquin left suicide letters indicating that he was troubled by his immigration status.  In the words of his mother, Santa Lerma Mendoza, “He was saying he was going to do this because he wasn’t going to be able to continue with his college.”

Suicide is never the right response for any of us, but this tragedy reveals the incredible desperation and lack of hope that many undocumented students feel.   As Proverbs 13:12 states: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”  Tragically, two million undocumented students in the United States are currently trapped in a legal, political, and social limbo with little hope because of the failure of Congress to pass the Dream Act one year ago.

May we pause to reflect upon the terrible tragedy of Joaquin’s passing.   May we dignify his memory by making sure that his story is told, and by doing all within our power to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Despite my personal sadness and grief over the tragic passing of Joaquin Luna, I am comforted by one thing—I know that God Himself will bring justice for my students and the thousands of “Dreamers” in the United States.  Jesus loves them and He promises to do this:   “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20 NIV).

In solidarity with Jesus and His justice for Dreamers,

Robert Chao Romero