A young woman with duck tape over her mouth that says "Feed Me Opportunity"

University of California votes to not allow undocumented students to work on campus, for now

Undocumented students have been lobbying the University of California for the right to work legally on campus for more than a year. They argue that the UC's 4,000 students who are not US citizens still need a way to earn a paycheck and get the same kind of academic work experiences that their peers do. But, federal immigration law prohibits hiring anyone without work authorization. And last week, UC regents voted against changing hiring rules. From San Francisco, KQED's Madi Bolaños reports.

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The Regents of the University of California, the campus' governing board, voted Thursday to suspend consideration of a proposal that would have authorized the university to hire undocumented immigrant students who do not qualify for federal work authorization.

“We have concluded that the proposed legal pathway is not viable at this time and, in fact, carries significant risk for the institution and for those we serve,” UC President Michael Drake announced at the regents meeting.

Students sitting in purple shirts, hugging each other and covering their faces crying.

Students with the Opportunity for All campaign cry in reaction to the University of California Regents' vote to suspend consideration of a proposal to allow the university to hire undocumented students at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center on Jan. 25, 2024.


Martin do Nascimento/KQED

If it were approved and found in violation of federal law, Drake said the university could be subject to civil fines or criminal penalties. The UC president also said he feared it would put billions of dollars in research grants at risk.

Organizers of the campaign for undocumented student employment expressed outrage and sadness at the announcement.

“Why do we have the system of separate-but-equal when we have undocumented students struggling, and we have in our hands ways to help them,” said Karely Amaya Rios, a graduate student of public policy at UCLA and lead organizer for the Opportunity for All campaign, which lobbied the regents to consider the hiring proposal. 

The proposal relied on a legal theory developed by the UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy and backed by 29 prominent legal scholars at other universities across the nation. It suggests that the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a federal law that bars employers from hiring undocumented people without legal work authorization, does not apply to employment by state governments. That’s because the US Supreme Court has ruled that “if a federal law does not mention the states explicitly, that federal law does not bind state government entities,” according to the UCLA scholars.

A woman in a purple shirt points her finger at a male in a suit in front of her

UC student Karely Amaya Rios (left) confronts UC Regent Member Ana Matosantos (right) on her vote in favor of suspending consideration of a proposal to allow the university to hire undocumented students at a UC Board of Regents meeting at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center on Jan. 25, 2024.


Martin do Nascimento/KQED

Under this legal theory, the University of California could hire undocumented immigrant students for campus jobs, such as graduate researchers and teaching assistants.

“The only real [legal] risk the university has is the federal government can sue in court to try to stop the program from running,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, a UCLA Law professor who helped advance the legal theory. “Nobody is going to jail or getting fined.” 

He argued that the regents have a moral obligation to expand work and education opportunities to all students. Instead, the regents offered an alternative plan that would expand educational opportunities modeled after the California College Corps program. The program exchanges tuition remission for volunteer work. 

There are 44,000 undocumented college students in California, including nearly 4,000 enrolled in the UC system. 

Each year, an additional 14,000 undocumented students graduate high school in the state, but none can apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), an Obama-era work authorization program for unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States with their parents as children.  

Three people sitting at a table in formal attire

UC President Michael Drake (center) announces the UC Board of Regents voted not to consider a proposal to allow the university to hire undocumented students at a UC Board of Regents meeting at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center on Jan. 25, 2024.


Martin do Nascimento/KQED

There are currently 545,000 people covered by DACA. But, in 2021, a federal judge in Texas ruled the program was unlawful and ordered the Biden administration to stop accepting new applicants. The administration has appealed.

The state of California and the UC system have taken numerous steps over the years to support undocumented students, offering them in-state tuition, access to financial aid and free legal support. In 2017, the University of California sued the Trump administration to prevent it from terminating DACA, a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.  

The student-led Opportunity for All campaign launched in the fall of 2022. It gained widespread support from both students and faculty. 

In a letter to the regents, faculty members urged the campus leaders to make good on their 2023 promise to implement a plan that would expand educational opportunities to all UC students regardless of immigration status. Nearly 500 faculty members vowed “to hire undocumented students into educational employment positions for which they are qualified for once given authority to do so by the UC.”

Last May, the UC Regents created a working group to consider the proposal and provide a path for implementation to university President Michael Drake. But after months of meetings, including with the leaders and legal scholars of the Opportunity for All campaign, the regents missed their self-imposed November deadline, with Drake citing legal concerns.

A man in a suit hugging a woman wearing a purple shirt

UC Regent Designate Regent Josiah Beharry consoles a student at a UC Board of Regents meeting after the board voted not to consider a proposal to allow the university to hire undocumented students at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center on Jan. 25, 2024.


Martin do Nascimento/KQED

“The legal considerations are numerous, and after several discussions with the stakeholders involved, we’ve concluded that it is in everyone’s best interest to continue to study the matter further,” Drake said during the Nov. 17 regent meeting.

Those legal concerns included pressure from the Biden administration to reject the proposal, according to reports from POLITICO

Additional pushback came from conservative legal scholars and one Republican lawmaker, who argued the university could risk losing federal funding.

In a statement, UC officials said the university “engages with local, state and federal partners on numerous issues concerning public education and for maintaining compliance with existing federal law.

Student advocates say they believe the university is afraid of being sued by Donald Trump if he were to be reelected president.

“The UC is hiding behind an election year and is hiding behind the threat of right-wing extremism,” said Jeffry Umaña Muñoz, an undergraduate student at UCLA and lead organizer of the Opportunity for All campaign, “when they have the power and the authority to stand up against it and send a strong message, not just here in California, but across the country, that right-wing extremism, that xenophobia can be defeated.”

Umaña Muñoz said he already participates in the California College Corps. He says it’s not an equitable alternative to employment.

“It forces students to have to negotiate with financial aid on how much resources they're eligible for,” Umaña Muñoz said.

He says the Opportunity for All campaign will continue pushing for employment for all undocumented university students.  

An earlier version of this story appeared on KQED.

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