New UC Center Serves a Most Vulnerable Student Population: A New Trend In Higher Education? by Kevin R. Johnson

Hispanic Community January 2016 PREMIUM
Over the last year, the University of California has been constructing a form of student services never before seen in higher education. In building the University of California Undocumented Legal Services Center, UC is demonstrating how it truly can be on the cutting edge in serving students and the greater community.

Over the last year, the University of California has been constructing a form of student services never before seen in higher education. In building the University of California Undocumented Legal Services Center, UC is demonstrating how it truly can be on the cutting edge in serving students and the greater community.

Announced last November by the UC President Janet Napolitano, the new center has already begun serving the unique legal needs of undocumented students. Housed at the UC Davis School of Law, home of a well-established Immigration Law Clinic and leading immigration law scholars, the center serves undocumented students and their families on UC campuses without a law school. The campuses – Merced, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz – are spread throughout the Golden State.

The student need is clear. Many of them are eligible for deferred action or other types of immigration relief that stabilizes their daily lives and, as a result, helps to improve their academic success. The idea behind extending services to the families of undocumented UC students involves a well-researched phenomenon: students are in a better position to excel in their studies if their families are not at risk of removal. 

Launching the center was a tremendous undertaking. Any project spanning across UC campuses raises many questions and logistical and related concerns. The largest unknown was of critical importance: how many undocumented students were attending the various UC campuses? The Office of the President made efforts to estimate the undocumented population on each UC campus, but it remained uncertain what the size of the population needing legal services would be. 

We now know the answer: several hundred undocumented students are enrolled at each of the campuses of the University of California, despite many financial and other barriers. While many of them are from Mexico or Central America, there are undocumented UC students literally from around the world, including Asia, Africa and Europe. 

UC Davis served as an important model for the new endeavor. Previously, the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic had worked with the UC Davis AB 540 Center – named after the legislative bill allowing undocumented students to pay the same tuition and fees as other California residents – to provide legal assistance to undocumented UC Davis students. This single-campus experience offered helpful lessons in creating the new center to serve multiple campuses.

Another question was who would lead the center. Who had the credibility and skill set to establish a legal services center like none other ever seen in a university system? María Blanco, a noted civil rights and immigrant rights advocate, was willing to bring a wealth of experience, as well as a sterling reputation in the immigrant rights community, as the inaugural director. 

Blanco proceeded to hire several immigration attorneys, including a number of recent law graduates with experience working with immigrant communities and conversant in languages other than English. In short order, she pulled together a highly qualified team to work with diverse populations spread out on campuses throughout California.

But before they could serve students, the attorneys had to deal with a characteristic of the University of California campuses that many of those who have worked with UC have experienced. The campuses in the UC system are diverse with very different institutions, structures, student needs and concerns and cultures and cultural traditions. The attorneys had to navigate the different campus cultures, finding out the people and institutional structures that allow them to most effectively access the undocumented student population on that campus and build the trust necessary to effectively represent the students. The navigating of various campuses and their specific cultures continues to be a challenging and time consuming but necessary exercise.

The attorneys are reaching out to students and leadership on the various campuses to build relationships and trust. The collaboration is helping to create support and recognition for the very specific needs of a growing portion of the undergraduate and graduate UC student body.  In fact, a summit held in April brought UC students, staff and faculty together in Oakland to discuss the issues facing undocumented students: financial, legal, educational and cultural, among others. 

The nature of the work has been a surprise. Attorneys initially expected to focus on assisting students with applications for relief under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was originally created in 2012. The expanded deferred action program, announced in 2014 but delayed by litigation, also was thought to be likely work for the center and its attorneys.  

As it turns out, the legal work has been far more varied than anticipated. Some students and their family members are eligible for a variety of immigrant visas as well as citizenship. Many students want to regularize their immigration status, so they might be able to leave and return to the U.S. as required by study abroad programs just like many other college students are encouraged to do (and, in fact, do). Some students are eligible not to be deported but need legal assistance to identify and collect the information necessary to make their case.

These students have demonstrated a widespread and profound hunger for legal immigration assistance. The cost of seeking quality legal help was preventing them and their families from obtaining services to help them integrate. As of today, the center has served more than a hundred students. This number will grow as the program grows in reputation and word of its services spreads.

Some students and funders have expressed concern that the university may not maintain funding and that the center could be shortlived. In recognition of those concerns, President Napolitano extended the funding for a total of three years.

The UC Undocumented Legal Services Center remains a work in progress, but its efforts are paying off in immeasurable ways for undocumented students. The University of California should be proud of this innovative program that promotes inclusion and helps to protect some of its most vulnerable students. 


Kevin R. Johnson is the Dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies.

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