The complex intersection of immigration policy and higher education

Higher education has become increasingly global, with learners moving between institutions within and between countries and educational systems. However, recent world events -- from war in Syria to Brexit to a rapidly changing U.S. political climate -- have highlighted the complicated relationship between immigration policy and higher education access.

“AACRAO members are essentially gatekeepers of access to higher education, to achieving your dreams,” says Tolu Olubunmi, Nigerian-born, American-raised entrepreneur and global advocate for migrants, refugees, and displaced people. “Higher education means access to jobs and to diverse opportunities, and I want to help the world understand the important contributions of migrants, refugees, and displaced persons -- like myself.”

A reluctant advocate

Olubunmi is currently undocumented -- a “Dreamer” who came to this country as a fourteen-year-old high school student.  *(At the end of this article, find brief summaries of the DACA/Dream Act timeline with a link to more details.) With neither parent in the U.S., she completed high school and went on to college, graduating from Washington and Lee University in Virginia with a degree in Chemical Engineering. After graduation she lost access to her legal immigration status and became “paperless,” unable to work in her chosen profession and at constant threat of detention and deportation.

In 2008, she began as an unpaid volunteer with the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), working to help change the laws that left her and millions of others living far below their potential. A reluctant advocate, Olubunmi discovered that taking her story to the halls of Congress was a powerful way to put a human face to the “Dreamers” Act and undercut some of the misinformation and stereotypical rhetoric surrounding undocumented immigrants. Since then, she has become a founding board member and communications director for the largest immigrant youth-led organization, the United We Dream Network; served on the Global Future Council of the World Economic Forum; been named by the World Economic Forum as one of 15 Women Changing the World and an Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur, as well as been a featured speaker at the White House, the World Bank, Barnard College at Columbia University, New York University, and the US Congress.

“It’s so important for higher education professionals to understand the situation of young immigrants -- documented or undocumented,” Olubunmi said. “Raising awareness can make institutions more capable of developing internal policies to support the incredible students they get to have on their campus.”

Colleges have a role to play, whatever comes.”

“Being exposed to people, like me, who are directly affected by these issues -- telling my story -- can help people see how these policies really manifest in the lives of individuals directly affected by them,” Olubunmi said. “Do you really know how those policies affect a student’s experience? Are your assumptions grounded in reality?”

The responsibility to understand this reality comes with being a good citizen and a good professional, Olubunmi notes.

“Higher education can’t be divorced from this conversation -- particularly as it pertains to young undocumented immigrants,” Olubunmi said. “Written into the Dream Act or any compromise is likely to be a mandate for those eligible to attend an institution of higher education for at least two years or join the military. Colleges and universities will have a role to play whatever comes.”

March 5: A critical time

Along with her moving personal story, Olubunmi will share deeper look at the current picture for DACA and Dreamers during her talk at the the AACRAO Annual Meeting International Luncheon, Tuesday March 27th in Orlando.

“The luncheon is very timely because the deadline for DACA extension is just two weeks prior, on March 5th,” Olubunmi observed. “Already 15,000 DACA recipients have lost access to work and to their legal status, and there will be a thousand more each day after the deadline passes. There’s likely to be a lot of questions and confusion as things are being implemented and regulations are being rolled out.”

Although there may be a deal on immigration before that deadline, the details and consequences are still likely to be unclear, as immigration policy -- and government in general -- tends to work slowly.

“This isn’t about politics -- it’s about people,” Olubunmi said. “These are issues that affect real lives, and it’s important to understand how it relates to the mission of getting young people access to education and, through that, their dreams.”

To hear Olubunmi and other key voices in international admissions, including colleagues from around the world, register now for AACRAO’s Annual Meeting, March 25-28 in Orlando, Florida. Early registration is open through Feb. 16. Make sure to purchase the International Luncheon ticket (additional fee) when registering.