Activists urge colleges to use immigration to diversify schools after end of racial preferences

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A group of university presidents and immigration activists said Wednesday that colleges should turn to immigration to pursue their diversity goals as they struggle with the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down affirmative action in school admissions.

The groups released new research showing that students from immigrant families account for nearly a third of students on America’s campuses and drove 80% of colleges’ enrollment growth over the last two decades.

Students from immigrant families are also far more likely to be minorities, with White students making up just 17% of the population, compared to 70% of students from U.S.-origin families.

That means colleges can use immigration markers as a way to bolster minority enrollment even without explicitly looking at race, said the researchers from the American Immigration Council, the Migration Policy Institute and the Presidents’ Alliance for Higher Education and Immigration, which is a coalition of college and university leaders.

“In a new era of decision-making when race may no longer be considered directly as a factor for admission, universities and colleges will need to look more closely at their prospective students if they intend to maintain their commitment to serving diverse communities,” the Migration Policy Institute said.

“Institutions that take into account a broader understanding of assets and talents, such as resilience and intercultural competencies arising from immigrant experiences, and a wider range of factors, including overcoming adversity due to immigrant status, will be better positioned to identify and attract a diverse and talented student population.”

In its June ruling, the Supreme Court said giving an advantage to students based solely on race is unconstitutional, though the majority did say that schools could use other markers, such as people who faced adversity because of their race.

Some advocates have seized on that idea, but immigration also could serve as a proxy for diversity, the researchers suggested Wednesday.

“The lion’s share of the immigrant-origin student population is comprised of minorities,” they said.

Latinos account for 44% of immigrant-family students, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were 24%, and Black students were 13%.

Or, viewed another way, of all White students, just 10% are immigrants or children of immigrants. Among Black students it’s 28%, for Latinos it’s 68% and among Asian-Americans it’s nearly 88%.

Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said there’s a problem with using immigration as a way to diversify schools: By definition, it leaves out Native Americans and Black descendants of enslaved persons.

“There has always been a conflict between immigration and affirmative actions, but this would be the ultimate turning that on its head and turning affirmative action almost against the group it was originally designed to help,” he said.

He also said there are costs to relying on immigration to fill existing seats and expand student bodies. Among them are competition for spots at elite schools and financial aid packages.

“Of course America is going to offer educational opportunities in college to children of immigrants,” he said. “But the question is, in doing that, what are the other implications, and they haven’t really thought much about that.”

The new report looked at data from the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey.

Researchers said colleges have become dependent on immigrant-origin students for enrollment growth, with 31% of all students either immigrants themselves or having a parent or parents who were immigrants.

That’s driven largely by California, with the nation’s largest post-secondary school system, where 54% of college students are from immigrant families. New York, Florida and New Jersey all hover around 45% of students coming from immigrant families, and in another six states at least a third of students come from those families.

“Given the growing campus presence and economic potential of immigrant-origin students, it is crucial to pay greater attention to this population,” the researchers said.

Delving deeper, they found that 56% of first-generation immigrant students — about 1.1 million people — aren’t citizens. Some are permanent residents, others are refugees or asylum-seekers and some are here as illegal immigrants.

Some 6% of immigrant-origin students, or 408,000, were illegal immigrants in 2021.

That’s down slightly from 2019, when 427,000 college students were in the country without permission. The researchers blamed the COVID-19 pandemic but also continuing legal uncertainty over DACA, the Obama-era program that gave illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children a tentative legal status.

DACA students account for about a third of the illegal immigrant student population.

The researchers said illegal immigrants face barriers to higher education. They are barred from federal financial assistance and in some states are blocked from in-state tuition or state financial aid.

The researchers said schools should work to help legal immigrants apply for citizenship and push to legalize those in the U.S. without authorization.

“Investing in increasing higher education access for all students, including those of immigrant origin, is essential for the future well-being of U.S. communities and the U.S. economy,” the Migration Policy Institute researchers said.

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