‘A Cautionary Tale’

In Undocumented and in College, Laura Nichols ’90 explains how past and present converge in post-DACA America.

‘A Cautionary Tale’
Students embrace before the Multicultural Center on campus.

Laura Nichols ’90 didn’t expect the research from her book Undocumented and in College: Students and Institutions in a Climate of National Hostility to be quite this relevant again. In fact, she kind of hoped it wouldn’t be.

From 2010 to 2012, Nichols, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, was part of a Ford Foundation study exploring the issues and complexities facing undocumented students in higher education. The foundation believed there was a lack of a moral voice within higher education regarding undocumented students and saw Jesuit institutions as a possible solution. Nichols and professors from two other Jesuit institutions interviewed and collected data from undocumented students at Jesuit universities nationwide to learn what it was like to study without legal status.

But with the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in June 2012, many of the problems undocumented students faced were either solved or lessened. Students were given a renewable two-year reprieve from the risk of deportation to finish their education and the chance to work legally.

Fast forward to September 2017. Nichols’ book was published by Fordham University Press and President Donald Trump announced plans to repeal DACA. Suddenly, Nichols and the problems highlighted in her book aren’t a thing of the past but a warning of what might come.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Nichols says of the analysis her book presents. “DACA disappears and our students will be right back where they were before.”


Undocumented and in College describes a landscape of fear and uncertainty for undocumented students. During interviews, Nichols encountered exceptional students, many of whom spent the entirety of their K–12 education in the United States, carrying a secret that could unravel their life.

Nichols recalled one student whose family received a visit at their front door from someone they believed to be an agent for Immigration Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The family immediately abandoned the home they owned and moved in the middle of the night.

“They just disappeared and left because they were just petrified,” Nichols says.

The family told Nichols that they think a neighbor who didn’t like them turned them in. Another student was traveling on a train during spring break and began getting questioned about his legal status by one of the train employees.

Nichols says researching this book broadened her understanding of the vulnerability undocumented students face. Something that most of us take for granted—like transportation by bus, air, or rail—is not something you can take for granted if you’re undocumented, Nichols says. “You could get stopped and that could change everything.”

Undocumented and in College adds context to the story of students’ lives, putting narrative to numbers. For example, Nichols knew about the prevalence of mixed-status families—where some have legal citizenship status but others don’t. But what did that actually look like within a family? In some cases, Nichols interviewed undocumented students who had younger siblings who were naturalized and had legal status.

“They had different opportunities than their brother or sister—‘You can apply for federal and state financial aid and I cannot,’” Nichols says.

More wrenching still, some undocumented students faced the splintering of their families. They were forced to choose between staying together with family and staying in the United States.

“There were some students whose older siblings had decided to go back to their home country and once they did that, that was it,” Nichols says. They may never see those family members again. “You think about it, you can’t go visit grandma when she gets sick.”


Nichols says the challenges and anxiety undocumented students encounter on college campuses should come as no surprise. When you have a broken federal immigration system—there has been no comprehensive immigration reform since the 1980s—schools and young people get stuck in the middle. “Then colleges and universities try to make up for the problems by doing what we do best, which is educate and provide opportunities for students,” Nichols says.

But these schools—particularly Jesuit universities—could be part of the solution, Nichols believes. The Ford Foundation research focused on Jesuit institutions not only because they’re part of a strong network spanning different states and regions—offering a diverse and representative sampling—but also because they are traditionally committed to helping immigrant populations.

“Jesuit universities have a history in helping new immigrants adjust to the United States and providing a chance at social mobility,” Nichols says. “Many of our institutions were founded to help Catholic immigrants from Europe who came and faced discrimination, live out the American dream.”

Nichols says there is work to be done, but the framework is there—and the Ford Foundation agreed.

“They realized if there’s any group of institutions who could say something about the issue of students who are undocumented, about dreamers, the Jesuit network is one that could,” Nichols says.

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