Undocu/DACAmented Asian Students: Navigating Dual Liminality and Higher Education

Immigration policy is a complex entanglement of federal and state laws, stemming from a history of anti-Asian sentiments that fueled the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although they were referred to as the first “illegal aliens” in the United States, Asian-Americans are largely absent in conversations surrounding undocumented immigrants, a tactic used to center an anti-Latinx rhetoric that criminalizes Central and South Americans. This purposeful invisibilization further marginalizes undocumented Asian immigrants in Asian-American activism to the point where most Asian-Americans are unaware that they exist, despite one in seven Asian immigrants being undocumented. One-dimensional approaches to issues faced by the Asian community run the risk of perpetuating the myth of the “Asian monolith” that we are vehemently working against. Recent movements within the Asian community, particularly those concerning affirmative action, exemplify the widespread ignorance toward Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students and their stakes in the college admissions process. As a group already with few choices for higher education due to legal and financial barriers, affirmative action is crucial to ensuring that undocumented students have a chance to pursue a university degree. In this article, I delve into the specifics of dual liminality and the college admissions process for undocu/DACAmented Asian immigrants, and how the Harvard Admissions case could be devastating for these students.

Undocumented Immigrants and Liminality

In her text Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees, Yen Le Espiritu proposes that refugees act as a paradigm that calls into question the viability and principles of the nation-state, existing outside of and without nationality. They embody the hypocrisy of foreign policy: individuals displaced as a by-product of American militarism become tools to justify the United States’ position as a global sheriff. Where refugee narratives are twisted to push an American brand of freedom, the criminalization of undocumented individuals feeds into an “insular” white nationalism. There is an inherent sense of otherness for undocumented immigrants that denies them the identity of “American,” forcing them into what immigrant studies scholars call “legal nonexistence” or “liminal legality”. Cecilia Menjivar in her text on Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants describes this liminality as an extended state of transition that has come to define the legal position of these individuals. This state of being, she argues, is “neither [a] unidirectional nor a linear process,” one that extends beyond documentation.

While liminal legality rings true for most if not all undocumented immigrants, the experience of liminality is not homogenous. Though academic texts about undocumented Asian immigrants are few and far between, Loan Thi Dao at the University of Massachusetts, Boston conducted a qualitative research study on undocu/DACAmented Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students and their engagement in the immigrant rights movement. According to Dao, undocu/DACAmented AAPI students, in addition to legal liminality, experience a disconnect within their ethnic communities, creating what she calls dual liminality. The youth she interviewed viewed themselves as living contradictions to the Model Minority myth, causing them to distance themselves from a racial identity that seems to exist around the myth’s existence. Instead, they created a collective identity that “understood their marginal status as both based in their immigration status but also as a rejection of what they had internalized to be the essence of an AAPI identity”.

However, as previously mentioned, the Asian experience is not a monolith; South Asians have experienced a racialization in a America vastly different from East and Southeast Asians. Due to the United States’ government’s long history of mass surveillance of Muslim and Arab communities, the South Asian students “identities of ‘undocumented’ and ‘AAPI’ intersected at the point of criminalization through the post-9/11 anti-terrorism programs that included ICE enforcement”. Having had to deal with profiling, immigration enforcement, and criminalization even before realizing their documentation status solidified their community support networks that carried through into their immigration work.

The Harvard Case and Undocu/DACAmented Students

Before getting into the Harvard case and its implications, it is first important to understand the process, legislation, and barriers that undocu/DACAmented students must consider when applying to colleges and universities.

Laws pertaining to undocumented students vary by state. Although Plyer vs Doe ensures that all students have equal access to a K-12 education, it does not ensure that students have access to higher education. Fortunately, there is no federal law that requires students to present proof of documentation or a Social Security number when applying to schools, but the absence of a law does not mean protection. In fact, three states–Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina–explicitly ban undocumented students from some or all public institutions.

Most schools, on the other hand, do not have any policies regarding undocu/DACAmented students. The only stipulation is that undocumented students must pay out of state or even international tuition rates. On top of this, undocumented students do not qualify for federal grants or loans, making it almost impossible for them to afford attending public universities. While twenty states do allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition (seeing that they fulfill a certain list of requirements), only five states offer them any financial aid (6). For many students, the only opportunity for higher education is through need blind, private, and highly selective institutions. This is where the current political climate, especially surrounding affirmative action, comes into play.

Edward Blum and the Students for Fair Admissions are working to exclude the consideration of race from college admissions. The student who reached out to Blum, Michael Wang, believes that he was denied admission into Harvard because of his race, serving as his grounds for getting rid of race-consciousness in admissions altogether. When asked about the prospect of having less Black and Latinx students on campus, Wang’s father stated “are they really working hard like Asians?” Not only does this statement make a sweeping claim about non-Asian minorities, it also makes a broad generalization about deserving and undeserving individuals in the United States. Wang and Chinese Americans that support his case equate “hard work” to merit–if you don’t have the academic standing needed to get into a selective school then you don’t deserve to be there.

Wang’s argument plays directly into the model minority myth that “has long been wielded as a blunt rhetorical weapon, employed to prop up the idea we live in a color-blind meritocracy and to discount the realities of racist exclusion from the body politic.” Not only does this drive a wedge between minority groups, it drives a wedge between pan-Asian solidarity, especially in the case of undocumented Asian students. Not only do they lack structural support, most high schools being ill-equipped to advise undocumented students on their options for higher education, but they are also alienated from their co-ethnic communities. Are these students who have to worry about finances, community organizing, and deportation on top of schoolwork “undeserving” if their academics are not their priority? Simplifying worthiness down to merit without understanding the context in which these students are living in would only serve to further diminish the possibility of a future in higher education.


According to Sylvia Wynter, a prominent Africana philosopher, the only way to move toward ending the liminality experienced by marginalized individuals is by being constantly aware that it exists. It is obvious that the Asian American activists working to end affirmative action are, ironically, looking at the issue solely through the lens of race. By refusing to consider that individuals exist as an amalgamation of identities, Blum and Students for Fair Admissions are putting millions of students’ futures at risk, threatening to undo what Civil Rights activists spent years fighting for.


Written by Valerie Santos