About AB540 Students

Research Report | Research Initiative  |  Reports & News |  Undocumented Students in the US



An estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant youth who graduate from the nation’s high schools every single year. A growing number of these graduates aspire to continue their education. Like other students from low-income families, they are often disadvantaged by lack of resources, role models, and information. Unlike other low-income students, they cannot work legally to help pay for their education and are ineligible for the most common sources of aid, federal Pell grants, student loans, and work-study support, as well as state scholarships. Additionally, in most states they have to pay out-of state tuition at public colleges and university.

California is among the eleven states that allow public universities to charge in-state tuition rates to all students who meet residency requirements and have graduated from high school in the state, regardless of legal status. The law that allows them to do so is AB540, and undocumented students refer to themselves as AB540 students.

Who are these students? Undocumented students are surprisingly diverse. One estimate of undocumented students enrolled in the ten University of California campuses during 2008-09 indicated that 49% were Latino, 45% were Asian, and 6% white, black, or other.

Several studies highlight the significant difficulties AB 540 students experience while struggling to stay in school and survive an isolating and sometimes hostile campus climate.  Students experience an institutional invisibility on campus, living in a gray area between the extremes of legal and illegal. While the university, by admitting them and offering them in-state tuition, grants them de facto recognition as members of the community, their experience off campus, where they lack standing, also impacts their campus life. They cannot get a job at chain stores and eateries near campus; they cannot drive a car; sign a voter initiative; or drink in a bar -- in short, do things that other students take for granted.   They also have to hold in suspense the question of what they will do once they graduate from college, since under current law they can’t work legally. Students can subsequently experience a high level of economic stress as well as stress from social isolation resulting from the experience of being “closeted” because they keep their undocumented status a secret to protect themselves. Financial uncertainty and constant fear of legal and social reprisals can profoundly impact students’ school work and overall well-being.

Additionally, undocumented students have expressed the impact that “racist nativism,” or racism specifically targeted against undocumented immigrants, has on their lives.  Racist nativism rests on a racialized belief system about who “belongs” in the US in general, and at public schools in particular. According to the UCLA study referenced above, students have made connections between the recently intensified climate of racist nativism in the US and the failure of educational institutions to acknowledge the presence of undocumented students on campus, effectively provide resources specific to their needs, and advocate for policies that would mitigate financial, social, and emotional barriers to academic success.  Students reported that racist nativist beliefs “became apparent when their needs were not met, support was not provided and information was not allocated by their colleges and universities” and they also “described or alluded to feelings of fear, criminality, and invisibility.”   

Further, there is a profound connection between the struggle of undocumented students and the crisis of public education in general.  Although education is identified as an explicit social right and human right in documents such as the EU bill of rights, the US has not uniformly adopted such a clear right.   Lack of adequate funding for public schools can be interpreted as violation of children’s right to education.

Despite their vulnerability, undocumented students have not allowed their lack of formal recognition to deter them from acting in the political realm. Students in Texas, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, and many other states have organized locally and nationally to lobby legislatures, educate the public about pending legislation, and publicize their political opinions.

For more info, see:

Perez Huber, Lindsay; Malagon, Maria C.; and Solorzano, Daniel G. “Struggling for Opportunity: Undocumented AB 540 Students in the Latina/o Education Pipeline.”  UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, CSRC Research Report. No. 13, May 2009.

Perez Huber, et al. & Solórzano, Daniel, Walter R. Allen, and Grace Carroll. (2002).  “Keeping Race in Place:  Racial Microaggressions and Campus Racial Climate at the University of California, Berkeley.”  Chicano Latino Law Review 23 (Spring): 15-112.