We Need More Data on Undocumented AAPI Students in Higher Education

We Need More Data on Undocumented AAPI Students in Higher Education

By Jason Koh

AAPI Student Graduation

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the rich history, diverse cultures, and significant contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the United States. At the end of a month celebrating community achievements, it’s important to also recognize the hurdles faced by AAPI students, particularly DREAMers, in accessing higher education.

In 2021, AAPI students of immigrant-origin, both 1st and 2nd generation students, constituted over 24% (1.3 million) of all students enrolled in higher education institutions across the country, and extensive research and a wealth of literature detail the obstacles these students face and the support systems needed to help them succeed.

However, there is a lack of comprehensive data on the experiences and challenges faced by AAPI DREAMer students specifically. In 2022, there were around 407,899 undocumented students enrolled in higher education, with AAPI DREAMers making up about 25% of this population. Like other undocumented groups, AAPI DREAMer students encounter significant legal and financial obstacles in their pursuit of higher education. However, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities are diverse and not monolithic, facing a range of distinctive challenges due to cultural differences, language barriers, and racial and economic disparities. One such challenge is the intersection of the model minority myth with the students’ undocumented status. This myth, deeply entrenched within U.S. society, obscures the marginalization experienced by undocumented AAPI students and hinders their access to support by perpetuating stereotypes that erroneously suggest Asian Americans achieve educational and economic success solely through cultural values and hard work. Without accurate data on their experiences with applying to higher education institutions, access to support services, and post-graduation employment pathways, it’s difficult to fully understand the extent of the barriers these students face.

I recall my own college experiences as an undocumented AAPI student, where there were virtually no resources to support students in my position. Additionally, the cultural expectations placed on AAPI students like myself discouraged us from seeking any aid. The stigma within AAPI communities of sharing our lack of status also isolated us. Had it not been for DACA and actively seeking out AAPI immigrant rights organizations such as NAKASEC or the Minkwon Center, I am uncertain that I would be where I am today.

The lack of robust data on undocumented AAPI students in higher education hinders efforts to effectively advocate for their educational success and ensure the equitable allocation of resources to support them. This is particularly important given the significance of the Dream Act, first introduced in 2001 and inspired by Tereza Lee. Often referred to as the first DREAMer, Tereza is a Brazilian-born South Korean who moved to the U.S. with her parents in 1985 when she was two years old. 

Tereza and my experiences highlight the critical need for better data and support for undocumented students, especially given the lack of progress in Congress to provide a pathway to permanent protections for undocumented students in the U.S., and some of the unique challenges that face AAPI undocumented families or those with mixed status.

Asian Pacific DREAMers aren’t alone in being underrepresented in the data. UndocuBlack students make up 14% of the undocumented student population, and there is also little data on the challenges they face. As pointed out in Dr. Felecia Russell’s book, “Amplifying Black Undocumented Voices in Higher Education,” without visibility, undocuBlack students are rarely the beneficiaries of advocacy efforts and become targets of overcriminalization. Refugee students are also impacted by a significant lack of data concerning their pathways to higher education.

With over 100,000 undocumented students graduating high school in the next 3 years, it’s imperative that we work to collect and analyze accurate data on undocumented AAPI students in higher education. By shining a light on their experiences and needs, we can work towards creating more inclusive and equitable educational opportunities for all.

Updated: June 12, 2024