Location Choices of Undocumented Migrants: Does Access to Higher Education Matter

Usha Nair-Reichert
Team Members
Richard J. Cebula and Mpaza Kapembwa
About This Project

By Gita Smith 

Is access to higher education an important consideration when undocumented migrants choose where they want to live in the United States? Usha Nair-Reichert, Associate Professor of Economics at Georgia Tech explores this question in a study, “Location Choices of Undocumented Migrants: Does Access to Higher Education Matter?”

Usha Nair-ReichertThe research, co-authored with Richard J. Cebula and Mpaza Kapembwa, uses six years of data between the years 2000 and 2012 to examine the impact that differences in state-level higher education policies make on the location choices of undocumented migrants. The authors expand the role/interpretation of “economic opportunities” by introducing an intergenerational component where access to higher education elevates the future income potential of both the current generation and the next generation of an undocumented migrant family in the U.S. In the case of high school age children who are undocumented, their parents may be willing to move to states that have better access to education for undocumented migrants and thus improve the economic prospects of the next generation.

In addition to state-level higher-education access policies, network-based migration may also explain the location choice of undocumented migrants. The economic and non-economic costs of migration are lower in U.S. states with larger existing migrant networks and therefore can influence the location choice of undocumented migrants. Other factors that impose a push-or-pull effect on choice of location include state taxes, state cost of living, the state unemployment rate, etc.

States vary significantly in how affordable and accessible higher education is for undocumented immigrants. Some states charge out-of-state tuition (the 2020 national average tuition and fees is $6,768 for in-state students and $17,692 for out-of-state students) while others ban undocumented students from universities altogether. Nair-Reichert and her co-authors examine states with both favorable and unfavorable higher education policies towards undocumented migrants.

The authors find that greater access to higher education has a positive effect on the percentage of undocumented immigrants residing in a state, suggesting a “higher public education magnet” effect. They conclude that the size of migrant networks moderate the impact of both favorable and unfavorable state-level educational policies in the U.S. on location choices of undocumented migrants. Among states with favorable higher education policies, undocumented migrants prefer those states with larger networks, despite the likelihood of greater competition for admission to public institutions of higher education. However, undocumented migrants are reluctant to locate in states that have both large networks and unfavorable educational policies. This is possibly because the fear of attracting additional restrictive regulations dominates the positive cost-saving effect of large networks.

This research provides a nuanced story about the impact of state-level education policies on location choices of undocumented migrants. A key takeaway is that it is important to examine the concerns about favorable educational policies attracting a flood of undocumented migrants in conjunction with other factors that may influence the impact of such policies. 

Read the full paper