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UC signals support for hiring of undocumented students; vote will follow six-month study

Students make their way through the Sather Gate near Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Berkeley, Calif.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Eric Risberg
AP Photo
Students make their way through the Sather Gate near Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Berkeley, Calif.

The University of California on Thursday took a first step toward allowing the hiring of undocumented students for jobs across the 10-campus system, a move that follows months of pleas from those students.

The action by the system’s board of regents Thursday does not immediately authorize the employment of undocumented students. Instead, UC plans to create a working group, proposed by President Michael V. Drake, that will spend the next six months considering the proposal.

Regent leaders insisted Thursday that their intention is to ultimately permit the hiring of undocumented students, but said they want time to carefully consider the issue, including legal strategies. If implemented, UC would be the first known institution to argue that a federal statute barring the hiring of undocumented immigrants doesn’t apply to state entities. Doing so could attract a legal challenge.

“It is our intention to find a way to allow employment opportunities for all our students regardless of their immigration status,” John Pérez, a regent and former chair of the board, told reporters after the vote.

First, though, the regents want to ensure they have “the best case to do that” legally, said Richard Leib, the current chair of the board who will be responsible for creating the working group, which will be made up entirely of regents.

“I think people would enjoy having a decision right away, but it would be irresponsible from our standpoint,” he said.

The working group will complete its report by Nov. 30, at which point it will direct Drake on how to move forward.

Since last fall, a coalition of undocumented students and their allies, including legal scholars at UCLA, have called on the system to authorize the hiring of undocumented students who don’t have protections offered under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA offered permission to work for tens of thousands of young people, but the Trump administration ended the program in 2017 and no new applications have been accepted since then, leaving many undocumented students in higher education ineligible to work.

Undocumented student leaders with the Opportunity for All Campaign, the coalition that advocated for the policy change, said they consider Thursday’s vote a victory. Students had lobbied the regents with a demonstration Wednesday, the second day of the three-day regents meeting, on the campus of UCLA, where the meeting was held. The students and their allies held signs calling for UC to allow the hiring of undocumented students as they took turns speaking and then marching across the campus.

“What we were going for was full implementation, but I still consider this a win,” said Carlos Alarcón, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at UCLA. “They’re creating a working group to come up with a plan of how the UC will implement and there’s a deadline of November. That is very important to us, so we can hold them accountable.”

Alarcón said the campaign’s goal over the next several months will be to engage the regents and make sure the working group is considering the input of undocumented students.

Historically, states have followed a 1986 federal statute, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, that bans the hiring of undocumented immigrants without legal status and have required proof of legal status for employment. But in the view of UC’s undocumented students and their allies, UC is free to hire undocumented students because the statute doesn’t apply to state entities like UC. The legal theory was developed by UCLA’s Center for Immigration Law and Policy.

If the idea were to ultimately be adopted, it could impact thousands of students at UC. There are more than 4,000 undocumented students across the 10 campuses. It’s not known how many are without DACA protections, but it’s at least hundreds and likely many more, according to a spokesperson for the Opportunity for All Campaign.

Without the ability to work at UC, undocumented students not only have a harder time affording college, but they are also shut out of critical opportunities that further their educational experience, such as internships and research jobs.

“We have a moral obligation to try to do what we can because it is ridiculous,” Leib said. “We are the University of California. We’re educating people. What are we educating them for? In part, to get into the workforce.”

If UC were to ultimately allow the hiring of undocumented students, it could have national implications, Pérez predicted. He compared it to UC’s decision to drop the SAT and ACT as admissions requirements, a policy that many other universities across the country later adopted.

“We are often at the cutting edge of big national conversations. I think this will be much in the same way,” he said.

Michael covers higher education. Prior to joining EdSource, he was a reporter in Washington, D.C. He received a B.A. in journalism from Syracuse University.
EdSource believes that access to a quality education is an important right of all children. We further believe that an informed, involved public is necessary to strengthen California’s schools for the benefit of the state’s children, its civic life, and its economy.