Undocumented status prevents adolescents from fully entering adulthood, researcher says

Olivia Gomez, Staff Writer

While some students are fretting over their driving tests, others are kept awake at night by the thought of never making enough money to support their families. For adolescent undocumented immigrants, the latter is an everyday reality.


Students, faculty and community members gathered the night of May 4 in Ice Auditorium to hear Roberto G. Gonzales. Most of the seats on the main level were full and some people sat in the balcony.


The Harvard University assistant professor came to discuss his book, “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America,” which catalogs the results from his 12-year study of 150 undocumented immigrants.


Gonzales’ book, which got him an American Educational Research Outstanding Book Award, has earned him a reputation as a “leader in his field,” Ochoa said. The sociologist’s 2002 study is the most comprehensive study of undocumented immigrants and archives what happens to undocumented children as they move into adulthood.


He argued that the children’s undocumented status became the characteristic that defined them to the rest of the world. The social stigmas they faced often led them to change their behavior, especially in public, which in turn changed how they identified.


“As documented children make transitions to adolescence, they move from a protected to unprotected status, from inclusion to exclusion, from de facto legal to ‘illegal,’” he said. This state of illegality is marginalizing.


The 10 years he spent working with youth in Chicago between college and graduate school allowed him to see how immigration and education affect families in their daily lives, Gonzales said. There, he noticed for the first time how some Latino adolescents began to hit obstacles that their (documented) friends were not.


Gonzales told the story of Alex, a child who showed a talent for art and aspired to attend an art school. When he was in the eighth grade and filling out applications, he was asked to write his social security number. It was then that his mother explained to him that he did not have one because he was undocumented.


When Gonzales gathered help and tried to get Alex admitted, the student was called an “illegal Mexican” and rejected. Alex then went to his local high school, where only 50 percent of the students graduate. He later tried to get his driver’s license and was denied. He wanted a job but was again restricted by his status. Before his freshman year ended, he dropped out and joined a gang.


Alex’s decline following his rejection from art school based on his status mirrors other adolescents’ struggles. Gonzales gave examples of students who could not get their driver’s licenses and stopped spending time with friends, students who were faced with supporting their families on minimum wage, and students whose stress became physically painful.


In his study years later, Gonzales encountered a mix of children. Some were unaware of  their undocumented status, while others did know but did not understand what it meant until they faced similar forms of exclusion.


Several factors contribute to the undocumented master narrative. Gonzales cited time, a lack of congressional activity and technological advancements like surveillance cameras, among other things, that function to make legal immigration to the U.S. and integration into society difficult.


In 2012, he found that some “high achievers,” who had at least two years of higher education, and “early exiters,” who did not graduate high school, faced the same employment restrictions because of their undocumented status.


But Gonzales insisted that his lecture be not entirely gloomy. He held a question and answer segment in which he legitimized the act of coming out as an undocumented immigrant as a cathartic experience for some people.


Afterwards, many audience members went downstairs to Jonasson Hall for refreshments and an informal book signing. Gonzales’ book was available for purchase at a small table outside of the auditorium.


Voto Latino, a Latino youth empowerment group based in Washington, D.C., also had a table. Club members handed out stickers, postcards and mini flyers for the Linfield Inclusion Rally on May 6, which Voto Latino is co-sponsoring.


Gonzales’ work has been featured in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and several other news publications. He is also a recipient of the American Sociological Association’s Award for Public Sociology in International Migration.


Lives in Limbo was sponsored by Academic Affairs, the President’s Office, Nicholson Library, Unidos Bridging Community, Global Languages and Cultural Studies, LCAT and the Diversity Advisory Committee. The event was also livestreamed on Facebook.