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Activists Pressure University Of California To Employ Undocumented Students Who Don't Have Work Permits

A woman makes a hand drawn sign in support of campus employment for undocumented students.
A member of the Undocumented Student-Led Network makes a sign in support of campus employment for undocumented students.
(Courtesy of UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy)
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University of California students are pushing U.C. Regents to approve a proposal that would allow students who are undocumented and don’t qualify for a work permit to be hired on campus.

For many college students, having a job on campus is not only convenient, it helps them graduate.

“Not having a work permit has been tough,” said Abraham Cruz Hernandez, a UCLA undergraduate student majoring in labor and workplace studies.

Cruz Hernandez arrived in the United States when he was 7 years old. He’s undocumented and is not part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects people with similar status from deportation and authorizes them to work in the country.

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“Not being able to work… is another reason why I wasn't able to finish in four years,” he said. He’s in his fifth year at UCLA and the tuition charges and other non-academic costs keep piling up. Not being able to work has severely limited opportunities for him to work with professors on research projects that pay those working on them.

Cruz Hernandez and other students and scholars are part of the Undocumented Student-Led Network. The organization held on-campus and online events this week hoping to reach the U.C. Regents' ears as the policymaking body prepares for their regular meeting later this month. The student activists hope the increased visibility of their cause will put pressure on the Regents to adopt a change to the way the public university system hires people on its 10 campuses.

“If you want undocumented students also to be able to graduate without a mountain of debt, they obviously have to be able to work,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, a UCLA law professor who co-directs the school’s Center for Immigration Law and Policy.

There’s a growing list of undocumented students who are graduating from high schools and don’t meet a 2007 arrival cutoff under DACA that would have allowed them to obtain a work permit.

Did the federal government leave out an important detail in immigration law?

For about a year and a half, Arulanantham co-led a team that studied the federal law that prohibits people who are undocumented from obtaining legal employment, 1986’s Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

Unlike other federal laws that explicitly direct state governments and their agencies to follow the legislation, Arulanantham and his colleagues found no such words in IRCA. The team wrote an interpretation that argues that the omission leaves the door open for states and their agencies to hire people who are undocumented.

If you want undocumented students also to be able to graduate without a mountain of debt, they obviously have to be able to work.
— Ahilan Arulanantham, UCLA law professor

“It's definitely novel. This is not a theory that, as far as we know, has been adopted by any state government thus far,” Arulanantham said.

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A long list of legal scholars across the country, from law schools at Yale and NYU to Stanford and U.C. Berkeley signed on to the findings:

"As law professors with considerable experience in immigration law, we write primarily to affirm that we believe that the legal foundation for hiring undocumented students within UC, as described in the attached memorandum, is sound."

Pressure has been building for decades for legislators to address the arrival to and the presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. By one count, about 27,000 California high school graduates each year are undocumented. Not all of them go on to college but thousands do — and for the ones who reach graduation day the future does not look bright.

“You're going to have a large population of highly educated people,” said Jean Reisz, a USC law school professor, “who have grown up and spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. who won't be eligible to work in the U.S. but also are not going to be going anywhere else.”

Will U.C. Regents decide at their next meeting?

Last October, U.C. Regents chair Richard Leib told the L.A. Times he’d like to see the employment change become reality. It would be a radical departure from current practice.

How To Comment To The Regents

The U.C. Office of the President says it has supported students who are undocumented and the university is weighing that support against “potential impacts and legal risks” for U.C. and those students.

“We are reviewing the proposal and are in the process of determining the appropriate next steps,” said U.C. spokesperson Ryan King by email.

There’s an uphill battle, Reisz said, for this novel interpretation of federal law to stick.

All employers have been bound by IRCA and this new proposal calls into question whether states really are bound by it.
— Jean Reisz, USC law school professor

"All employers have been bound by IRCA and this new proposal calls into question whether states really are bound by it," she said.

But she agrees that state governments and their agencies aren’t explicitly told in IRCA to follow the law but they’ve done so anyway. If U.C. makes the change, it’s likely that legal challenges will come from organizations that oppose expanding rights for people who are undocumented, she said.

Four young adults with light brown skin hold hand-lettered signs
Members of the Undocumented Student-Led Network rally at a U.C. Regents meeting.
(Courtesy of UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy)

California's two other higher education systems California State University and the California Community Colleges, have, at times, adopted policies first enacted by the University of California. Observers wonder if that could happen with this change.

"That is impactful, because we know that those two systems have even higher numbers of undocumented students," said Julia Vásquez, a professor at Southwestern Law School, and the director of the Community Lawyering Clinic.

Vásquez added that the change might also even allow public universities to hire staff who are undocumented.

Vásquez said it’s likely U.C.’s general counsel is vetting the proposal and would likely seek an opinion from California Attorney General Rob Bonta.

“If the UC implements this…” Vásquez said, “they can be leaders.”

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.

Corrected March 6, 2023 at 8:49 AM PST
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of law school professor Jean Reisz.
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