California’s undocumented undergrads want on-campus jobs

Fatima Zeferino is lobbying for a state bill known as the Opportunity for All Act. It would allow California’s public higher education institutions to hire undocumented students for on-campus jobs. Photo by Megan Jamerson/KCRW.

Fatima Zeferino hoped the State Assembly members couldn’t see her shaking. The undocumented California State University Long Beach senior testified before them in support of a bill that would allow public colleges and universities to hire students like her for on-campus jobs.

“I was very nervous for sure,” Zeferino recalls the April hearing. “But it was also empowering.” 

Around 60,000 undocumented undergraduate students are enrolled at California community colleges, the University of California, and Cal State University, according to estimates from each system. Assemblymember David Alvarez of Chula Vista introduced AB 2586, known as the Opportunity for All Act, which would give these students a way to legally earn an income on campus. The bill made it out of the Assembly, and is now in the Senate, where it is scheduled to appear before the Judiciary Committee on June 25.

It’s a way to provide equal access to on-campus jobs that addresses the fact that the previous path for a work visa, DACA, has been mostly closed since 2017. Without that federal program, students like Zeferino can’t legally work most jobs, including those on-campus. And she was ineligible for paid on-campus internships, something many students consider an essential experience of their undergraduate education. 

She says there have been real consequences for her. “Being insecure about housing and then even about food, I think was really challenging for me throughout my educational journey,” says Zeferino.

On April 9, she shared her experience with the members of the Assembly Standing Committee on Higher Education, who passed the bill 8-2.

When it comes to immigration issues like this, nothing is straightforward. Representatives for the UC and CSU tell KCRW they support their undocumented students and the intent of this bill, but worry hiring them would violate the federal Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986.

“We have concerns in regards to implementation,” said UC lobbyist Mario Guerrero during the hearing

He told the legislature that the UC believes the bill could give the federal government grounds to revoke funding and open up the institution to costly lawsuits. In a letter submitted to the committee, Guerrero said the institution is also concerned about exposing its undocumented students and their families to the possibility of criminal prosecution and deportation. 

Ahilan Arulanantham, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law and co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy, says denying undocumented students on-campus employment is a problem California needs to address.

“It's discrimination, in violation of state law, to treat some students differently than others based on their immigration status,” he says. 

Arulanantham also doesn’t believe the bill breaks federal law. He co-wrote a legal theory to support this stance, which has the backing of 27 scholars in the field. The theory includes a novel reading of the 1986 federal immigration law. Arulanantham says the text doesn’t specifically mention the states, which he believes allows California to legally implement AB 2586. He says the Supreme Court has a history of ruling that federal laws have to clearly state they apply to the states. This was true, says Arulanantham, for other employment laws like the Family Medical Leave Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Arulanantham also says it would be unprecedented for the federal government to come directly after students and schools for following a state law. He says he did extensive research looking for it and “I've never seen it.”

The government could sue California, though. While the Biden administration has been fairly supportive of undocumented students, Arulanantham says the risk of a lawsuit could increase if Trump gets re-elected.

Advocates like him say the sooner the bill is passed, the better — because every year, a new crop of students begins college. Meanwhile, many of the students leading the campaign for the bill are graduating. “Which is unfortunate because it's another semester of students who don't get their opportunities,” says Arulanantham.

Fatima Zeferino is okay with that. In May, she received her bachelor’s degree in Chicano and Latino Studies, with a double minor in Sociology and Political Science. She’s doing a fellowship this summer through the UCLA Labor Center, using her Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Afterward, she plans to pursue public policy because of her experience at the state capital.

“I really do want to make sure that the university is a lot better than how I found it when I leave,” she says.



Megan Jamerson