Undocumented Student Terminology

“Undocumented” or “unauthorized” refers to students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States, who do not hold a visa to reside in the U.S., and who have not applied for legal residency in the U.S. These individuals are not “illegal.” Not only is the term “illegal” inaccurate, it is dehumanizing. As Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, famously stated, “No human being is illegal.” When referring to an individual who is residing in the United Stated without authorization from the federal government, we would encourage you to drop the “i-word” in favor of terms such as “undocumented” or “unauthorized” immigrant.


Undocumented youth are also often referred to as “DREAMers”. This moniker came out of the DREAM Act movement. The Development Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act is proposed legislation first introduced in 2001. It recognizes that people brought to the U.S. by their families at a young age should not be penalized for the rest of their lives, or relegated to a permanent underclass of American society without access to higher education. There were many iterations of the bill, but all of them would give temporary legal status with a 6-year pathway to permanent legal residency to young undocumented immigrants, as long as the individuals were brought to the United States at a young age, were attending or attended college or served in the military, and passed criminal background checks and reviews. Between both chambers of Congress, different versions of the DREAM Act were re-introduced multiple times over the course of ten years, but despite bipartisan support, it never passed. It has been estimated that about 2 million young people would have been eligible for the DREAM Act.

Mixed Status

Many people also live in households that are considered “mixed status”. A mixed status family is one in which at least one member is residing legally in the United States and at least one member is not. Often, this includes children born in the United States to unauthorized immigrant parents. There are more than 16 million mixed status households in the United States.