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What Places Their Mental Health at Risk? The Struggles of Undocumented Students in Massachusetts

Introduction by: Lisa Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez, University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Bloggers: Olivia Schleyer, MSW candidate, Simmons University and Alessandra Bazo Vienrich, PhD, Rhode Island College

Feb 14, 2023

In this week’s blog MSW candidate, Olivia Schleyer joins Dr. Alessandra Bazo Vienrich, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rhode Island College, to discuss how Massachusetts’ systematic legal violence and educational exclusion is detrimental to the mental health of undocumented students. By reflecting on how the state’s immigration enforcement and higher education tuition policies create chronic stressors for undocumented students, Schleyer and Dr. Bazo Vienrich emphasize the importance of place as a factor that can impact the educational trajectories of these youth. They argue that a more robust literature on the intersection of place, mental health, higher education, and legal status could help create place-based mechanisms that safe-guard the mental health of undocumented students.

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the ImmigrantEdNext website.

By Olivia Schleyer and Alessandra Bazo Vienrich, PhD

In May 2022 the Massachusetts state senate voted to pass the Work and Family Mobility Act, a bill that would make it possible for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. However, the law was repealed, and in November 2022 Massachusetts residents had to vote to remove citizenship requirements from driver’s licenses. As a result, effective July 2023, Massachusetts will allow anyone regardless of immigration status to apply for a driver’s license. This long-awaited change is a step in the right direction for a state that, despite being known as progressive, is not at the forefront in fostering undocumented immigrants’ inclusion. Furthermore, when it comes to undocumented students’ access to higher education, Massachusetts is just catching up with neighboring states like New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island that have actively been working to create pathways of inclusion for undocumented youth and young adults who want to go to college. Unlike them, Massachusetts does not offer in-state tuition for undocumented students and only offers such provisions for immigrant students who are beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Ineligible for state financial aid and federal student loans, thousands of college-age undocumented students in Massachusetts are left on their own to find ways to pursue higher education.

While Massachusetts’ move to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is likely to have a positive impact on immigrants’ education, social life, and finances, the state has a history of policies and practices that harm undocumented and DACA beneficiaries. Aside from its exclusionary tuition policies, for more than a decade immigration enforcement in Massachusetts has negatively affected undocumented immigrants, including children and youth. Combined, the educational exclusion and legal violence stemming from local immigration enforcement can have negative consequences on undocumented students and put their mental health and emotional wellbeing at risk.

While mental health is an important aspect of undocumented students’ wellbeing and can be affected by unique place-based experiences in schools and communities, the literature that engages with legal status, higher education, and mental health does not sufficiently center place as a factor that can moderate undocumented students’ experiences. To try to understand the link between legal status, mental health, higher education, and place, we are developing a publication that focuses on what factors place the mental health of undocumented students in Massachusetts at risk throughout their educational trajectories. In this post we highlight how legal violence vis-a-vis immigration enforcement in their communities and their experiences in educational settings, put the mental health of undocumented students in Massachusetts at risk.

Massachusetts is a state that has historically seen high levels of immigration and is positioned in the literature as a hospitable state for immigration. Nevertheless, it is no exception when it comes to immigration enforcement. Though Massachusetts ended its last 287g agreement in January 2023, this and other local law enforcement partnerships with ICE such as the Secure Communities program and the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), maintained a presence in the state for nearly two decades. Evidence of how immigration enforcement practices in the state have negatively affected undocumented immigrants’ emotional wellbeing can be seen in the March 6th 2007 immigration raid, where ICE apprehended more than 300 workers at the Michael Bianco Inc. factory in New Bedford, MA. This work-place raid left “113 children without parental care and producing significant hardship and stress for the people involved”. Manifestations of immigration enforcement like these have been found to introduce fear to communities and are likely to become a stressor for undocumented students in Massachusetts. Research shows that immigration raids can lead to school absences, something that is likely to contribute to undocumented students falling behind and becoming disengaged educationally. Given what we know about how parental deportation affects young children, it’s important that school counselors in Massachusetts be prepared to help this population.

At the college level, a recent paper by Bazo Vienrich and Torres Stone looked at the experiences of undocumented college students in Massachusetts and North Carolina showing that the high school–to–college pipeline is filled with social, economic, and psychological stressors. The researchers found that even when undocumented students persevered educationally and made it to college, they continued to experience feelings of hopelessness and despair, in part resulting from their experiences with legal violence. These findings on the presence of legal violence in educational settings, and not solely through encounters with immigration enforcement in their communities, offer insights on how experiences with legal violence in various settings can come together to place the mental health of undocumented students at risk.

While ending local partnerships with ICE, granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and offering in-state tuition to undocumented students promises to create a more hospitable climate for immigrants, most states do not engage in these practices. Massachusetts is not unique in its treatment of undocumented students, as most states deny undocumented students in-state tuition, and many have local partnerships with ICE. As such, the risks placed on the mental health of undocumented students in K-12 and in college is likely to remain ongoing and chronic. Institutions of higher education who aim to support undocumented students must look beyond a focus on college access, academic excellence and student retention, and recognize that the mental health needs of undocumented students are equally, if not more, important. Undocumented students’ mental health should also be prioritized in K-12 schools, and studies have shown that while undocumented students report feeling supported by their families and peers, they lack support from teachers and school staff.

For undocumented students in Massachusetts, whose legal status is used to disenfranchise them by systems that should foster their belonging and protection, local and state level policies and practices must be implemented to safeguard their mental health from being put at risk. This should be the case across undocumented students’ educational trajectories, and it is important to equip school personnel, such as school counselors with specific training that engages with the unique stressors this population faces. A more robust literature on the intersection of place, mental health, higher education, and legal status, can serve to identify how place-based factors matter in undocumented students’ educational trajectories in Massachusetts, and could lead to the creation of place-based mechanisms to protect the mental health of these students.

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Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S., Schleyer, O., Bazo Vienrich, A., (2023, February 14).What Places Their Mental Health at Risk? The Struggles of Undocumented Students in Massachusetts. ImmigrantEdNext.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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