As of June 2020, 11,472 students were enrolled in a higher education program in California state prisons, according to a report from the Campaign for College Opportunity.
That same year, 1,615 immigrants or refugees were transferred from California’s prison system to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a 2022 report from Prism.
It is hard to estimate the crossover between these groups, or how many people participated in prison education programs before deportation. But one thing is clear: As carceral education gains momentum in the U.S., with more colleges and universities opening up programs to incarcerated students, and as the deportation of individuals convicted of crimes remains a constant in U.S. immigration policy, there is a large opportunity for universities and civil society to connect the dots.
What if someone who started a college or technical degree in a U.S. prison could finish that degree from Mexico? What if deportation didn’t mean an end to all educational opportunities, but rather a readjustment of them?
A transborder group of scholars and activists is trying to answer these questions with solutions.
One of the leaders of this group is Ricardo Zepeda, who is studying his PhD at the University of Guadalajara and researching the integration of deported people into higher education systems. When Zepeda talks, it’s clear he’s the type of person who’s up for imagining big but also has his feet cemented on the ground. (“That would be fantastic…but who’s going to pay?”)
Zepeda’s work trying to create pathways for formerly incarcerated scholars builds off the work of GDL-SUR, a nonprofit run by addiction counselor Roberto Hernández, who was deported after incarceration. Hernández opened GDL-SUR’s doors in 2010 to serve deportees “who have lived in the United States and have a binational culture, have belonged to gangs or have served a period in jail and do not have strong family networks”—people who face stigma and whose records may exclude them from other assistance programs. GDL-SUR’s Casa de Vida focuses on substance abuse rehabilitation, psychological counseling, and medical services, and works to connect people with jobs and housing, as well as to sort out IDs and jump through other bureaucratic hoops.
Once people have basic needs taken care of, the need to connect to educational opportunities kicks in. But there are, Zepeda said, several challenges to ensuring access to education after deportation—particularly for formerly incarcerated people. For one, there are language barriers, as not everyone who is deported has Spanish proficiency, especially academic proficiency. While governments and universities in Mexico have made progress in recognizing credits earned abroad, getting validation can be tricky, particularly for people who studied in prison. What’s more, getting accepted into one of Mexico’s public universities as a first-year student can be competitive, as entrance is often determined by a challenging exam.
This is where the need for creative collaboration comes in. What if a U.S. university offered formerly incarcerated students access to an online degree program, supplemented with language instruction, for the first two years after deportation? The student could then, theoretically, transfer into an in-person program at a Mexican university in the third or fourth year, when entrance tends to be less competitive. In a dream world, a student could graduate with dual degrees—or at least have an educational experience enriched by universities on both sides of the border.
A program like this is a distant dream, and activists are, in most cases, starting from zero. In many ways, the ball is in the court of universities, governments, and foundations to begin building these pathways.
Deported and formerly incarcerated students from all backgrounds are also key in the process, and Zepeda sees them as crucial to generate momentum behind these sorts of programs. “There are so many forced migrants, that we could definitely create that student group in universities,” he said.
On the U.S. side, Zepeda works with a group of formerly incarcerated or system-impacted scholars and activists including Danny Murillo and Ryan “Flaco” Rising, both of whom spent time in California’s prison system. U.S. colleges and universities that serve incarcerated students should create resources for deported people, and actively work to connect them with programs that would accept them post deportation, said Murillo, who is a fellow at the Michelson 20MM Foundation and the co-founder of Berkeley Underground Scholars. The Underground Scholars program, which has chapters across UC campuses, is dedicated to creating a “prison-to-university pipeline” by providing services and support to formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students. Murillo and Rising are working to create an “underground scholars transnational committee,” to organize and expand across borders.
“There needs to be more of a intertwined connection amongst U.S. universities and universities in Mexico,” said Rising, who is getting ready to start a PhD in criminology. Rising highlighted the need for a “warm hand-off system,” which would require identifying scholars prior to deportation—and perhaps building a database.
Such a database would require wading through ethical questions (who can use the data, and for what purposes), but also more fundamentally logistical ones—we don’t currently have comprehensive data on the path from prison to deportation, and the complex web of organizations involved creates a sort of black box.
According to data from TRAC, a clearinghouse and research center for immigration data run by Syracuse University, ICE issued an average of 10,042 detainers per month in fiscal year 2020. ICE detainers request local jails, prisons or police departments to hold someone for an extra 48 hours, so the immigration agency can then take custody of the person to initiate deportation proceedings.
Reporters and aid groups on both sides of the border have documented the “deported to death” phenomenon—individuals are often returned to their home countries and thrown into the mouth of the danger they were once fleeing. Individuals deported after prison or jail face additional stigma and barriers to integration, and may be particularly susceptible to being recruited by organized crime.
There are strong grassroots efforts to help these individuals, but they need to be scaled up and institutionalized. The Education Justice Project at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, for example, offers four need-based scholarships of $10,000 Mexican pesos (approximately US $500) to people formerly incarcerated in Mexican or U.S. prisons and/or deported from the US to Mexico (immediate family members of deportees are also eligible). The scholarships support education programs in the U.S. or Mexico. The project also offers a guide of resources post-deportation, which includes information for people looking to continue education. These efforts link up with a network of organizations in Mexico, like Otros Dream en Acción or Dream in México, which work to provide resources to people post-deportation. In 2017, in response to migration policy and rhetoric under former President Donald Trump, and in particular threats against Dreamers, the Mexican government and universities like UNAM, IPN and the Universidad de Guadalajara mobilized to make it easier to revalidate credits from U.S. high schools and universities, and in some cases, provide these students with special support.
These efforts are notable, but also politically convenient, driven by a straightforward common enemy—Trump—and a universally sympathetic beneficiary—Dreamers. Facilitating educational opportunities for formerly incarcerated people post-deportation is more difficult, as it requires turning pernicious stereotypes about who ends up in jails and prisons, and why they end up there, on their heads.
Initiatives that connect prison education programs to cross-border educational opportunities post-deportation would evidence that we really do believe in second chances and in the idea that deportation shouldn’t be a death sentence.
The question is, do we?
* Mia Armstrong is a journalist who formerly taught writing in Arizona prisons. Opinions are her own. Twitter: @MiaAArmstrong