Report: Over 450,000 Illegal Immigrants Are Enrolled in US Colleges

April 21, 2020 Updated: April 21, 2020

More than 450,000 students—about 2 percent of all college students in the United States—are illegal immigrants, according to a new report (pdf) released Thursday, April 16, 2020.

The report is a combined effort between New American Economy (NEA), a New York-based immigration research and advocacy organization, and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an association of college leaders seeking supportive policies for immigrant and international students.

According to a press release, the report shows “for the first time how many undocumented students are enrolled at colleges and universities across the United States.”

Based on data drawn from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), the report estimates that about 454,000 students across the nation do not have legal immigration status. Almost half of them—approximately 216,000—are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was created in 2012 to grant protection for those who were brought to the United States as children illegally. The program has provided them with protection from deportation and it has made them eligible for renewable work permits.

In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would not continue to support DACA. The Supreme Court is expected to decide by June 2020 on the legality of DACA.

Based on data from a few years earlier, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) reached slightly higher estimates on the total number of illegal immigrants and DACA-eligible students enrolled in high school or college in the United States. MPI’s estimate based on “the pooled 2012-16 American Community Survey (ACS)” was 497,000 illegal immigrants 18 to 24 enrolled in school, and in a separate 2017 report (pdf), they found that 241,000 DACA-eligible students 15 to 32 were enrolled in college.

The NEA and President’s Alliance report found that most of the illegal immigrants enrolled in colleges and universities came to the United States as children or adolescents. Almost half (47 percent) of all undocumented college students were brought to the country before age 12, and 39 percent arrived between the ages of 13 and 21. The rest (14 percent) came when they were 22 or older.

The geographical distribution of those students roughly matches that of the overall illegal immigrant population, the report suggests. Illegal immigrants in higher education are concentrated in a small number of states, with a majority of students coming from five states. The top five states are California (92,000), Texas (66,000), Florida (42,000), New York (33,000) and Illinois (21,000).

The report finds that an overwhelming 82 percent of all illegal immigrant students are enrolled in two- or four-year public colleges, while only 18 percent attend private colleges. Among the DACA-eligible student population, 84 percent are at public institutions, while close to 16 percent are private institutions.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, the report states that nearly half (46 percent) of all illegal immigrant students in higher education are Hispanic or Latino. Asian and Pacific Islander students account for approximately 25 percent. The remaining 15 percent are Black, 12 percent are White, and 2 percent are classified as “others.”

The report argues that “far more undocumented students enroll in higher education than was previously thought.” Additionally, it argues undocumented students are enrolled in important areas such as STEM fields, business, and health care, where they will potentially make important long-term contributions to the American economy.