Graduate school is a difficult period for many students, as they juggle personal, academic, professional, and financial responsibilities and as they prepare for future careers. But for the roughly 45,400  undocumented graduate students (also referred to as Undocugrads) enrolled in professional and academic master’s and doctoral programs throughout the U.S., navigating graduate school while being undocumented presents an additional set of challenges and an uncertain professional future. On the Berkeley campus, the number of Undocugrads facing these challenges is unknown, although there are an estimated 4,000 undocumented undergraduate and graduate students enrolled throughout the UC system. 

One set of major challenges facing Berkeley Undocugrads relates to work permits and employment. In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program started providing temporary relief from deportation and a renewable two-year work permit to eligible undocumented immigrants who met stringent requirements. While not all Undocugrads were eligible for DACA, this program became a key policy that granted work permits to many Undocugrads. Unfortunately, in 2017, the DACA program was rescinded, although ongoing litigation has kept the program alive. More recently, in October 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit deemed the program illegal. The court ruling allowed current program beneficiaries to renew their temporary work permits but barred first-time applications. Thus, the future of the DACA program and many Undocugrads’ access to work permits remains uncertain. 

The consequences of not having a valid work permit can have long-lasting professional development consequences in the lives of Undocugrads. For example, non-DACA Undocugrads cannot be hired either as Graduate Student Instructors (GSI) or Graduate Student Researchers (GSR). Consequently, non-DACA Undocugrads are ineligible to receive either the salary or the tuition and fee remissions that often come with a GSI or a GSR position. Students’ ineligibility to work has a lasting domino effect in addition to its immediate financial impact. Without a work permit, Undocugrads face substantial barriers to acquiring teaching and research experience, putting these students who want to pursue an academic career path at a disadvantage. 

Moreover, Undocugrads are ineligible for most financial aid, fellowships, and funding opportunities available to other students. Most notably, regardless of DACA status, Undocugrads are excluded from federal financial aid. Being excluded from federal aid has an immediate financial impact on the lives of Undocugrads who often struggle to make ends meet. The lack of funding also creates substantial emotional and mental stressors for Undocugrads. The stress of possible deportation and financial insecurity can take a toll on one’s academic progress and on one’s physical and mental health.

As a result of relentless student-led activism by Undocugrads and their campus allies, UC Berkeley has begun addressing some of the unique needs of the members of this student population. Activism efforts led to the creation of an Undocumented Graduate Student Specialist position on campus within the Office for Graduate Diversity, which is one of the few positions throughout the UC system that is specifically tasked with supporting Undocugrads. The current Undocumented Graduate Student Specialist, Jessica Mena Flores, supports current and prospective Undocugrads and collaborates with different campus partners including the Undocumented Student Program to help provide legal and mental health support and to centralize information pertaining to on and-off-campus fellowships. The Office for Graduate Diversity also provides a collection of resources available to Undocugrads on their website. More recently, thanks to the generosity of private donors, the Office for Graduate Diversity and Berkeley Graduate Division began providing financial support through stipends to Undocugrads. Aiming to support Undocugrads’ professional development goals, GradPro offers the Undocugrad Check-in Group, an individualized online weekly accountability and goal-setting support group. 

There are also a number of ongoing efforts to improve the resources and opportunities available to Undocugrads as they navigate graduate school. For instance, a coalition of University of California (UC) students and legal scholars recently launched a campaign called Opportunity for All, urging the UC system to allow UC Campuses to hire Undocugrads who do not have a work permit. A letter written by the campaign argues that state entities,  including the UC system, are not bound to federal laws which make such hiring illegal. Despite this and other ongoing efforts, Undocugrads continue to face unique challenges as they navigate their professional development and career paths. While many of these challenges relate to federal and state law, the Graduate Division remains committed to work aimed at improving support and resources for members of this student population throughout their graduate studies and professional development.


Martha Ortega Mendoza is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Berkeley School of Education and self-identifies as a first-generation student who comes from a working-class background. Martha’s doctoral research seeks to document and uplift the voices of undocumented graduate students. Currently, Martha serves as a Professional Development Liaison (PDL) at GradPro.