Posted on May 21, 2023

UC Regents Take Groundbreaking Step Toward Hiring Immigrant Students Without Legal Status

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2023

The University of California regents, saying they support an equitable education for all, unanimously agreed Thursday to find a pathway to enact a bold policy to hire students who lack legal status and work permits.

The groundbreaking move would reshape the lives of thousands of young people who were brought to the country without papers as children and have lived precariously without legal access to jobs, research positions and career opportunities. California is home to about 1 in 5 of the nation’s college students without legal authorization.

The public university system has been under pressure to challenge a 1986 federal law barring the hiring of immigrants without legal status by asserting that it does not apply to states. A novel theory developed by UCLA law scholars argues that the federal law does not specifically include states — or UC, as a state entity — in its language establishing employer sanctions and therefore does not apply to them.

The regents voted to form a working group to examine that legal issue, along with practical considerations about how to roll out a policy that is already igniting controversy. But they made clear they are committed to their immigrant students and said the working group would complete its proposed plan by November.

“Absolutely, it is our intention to find a way to allow employment opportunities for all our students, regardless of their immigration status,” said Regent John A. Pérez, one of the key leaders in the effort to push a new policy forward. {snip}


UC President Michael V. Drake and Board of Regents Chair Rich Leib also affirmed UC’s commitment to equity. “The University is committed to ensuring that all students, regardless of their immigration status, can pursue and attain a world-class UC education. This should include providing enriching student employment opportunities to all students,” they said in a joint statement.

Students without legal status, along with their allies who have been collectively pushing for the right to work, said they were thrilled.

“This is a historic win for the immigrant rights movement that UC has agreed that undocumented students should have equal access, that we should have a seat at the table,” said Karely Amaya, a UCLA graduate student in public policy who was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico at age 2. She lost out on a campus job that would have given her financial stability and research opportunities because of her status.


UC officials have also weighed the potential for litigation against the university, public backlash and possible legal exposure to faculty and staff who would hire the students. Leib said regents need to make sure they consider the effect on all university members, including campus leaders who will need to implement any new policy.

Critics have warned of ramifications if UC moved forward with hiring those without legal status.

“If officials at the University of California were to knowingly hire aliens not authorized to work under federal law, they would be opening themselves up to both civil and, potentially, criminal penalties,” said George Fishman, a senior legal fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Bonsall) wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom this week asserting that federal law preempts state or local immigration actions and implied that UC would lose its federal funding by adopting the “legally unsound and sweeping policy.”


The ban on hiring noncitizens without work authorization stems from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The landmark law, signed by President Reagan, granted residency to about 3 million people in the country illegally and outlawed the hiring of workers without papers.