Roberto Gonzales, a sociologist and assistant professor of education at Harvard University, characterized the transition of young, undocumented immigrants from childhood to adulthood as traumatic and disorienting in his talk Thursday at Boston College.
Gonzales discussed his latest book, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America, in which he draws upon the 12 years he spent researching the lives of 150 undocumented young people who, before they were 12 years old, migrated to Los Angeles from Mexico with their families.
The event, which shared the same title as his book, was sponsored by the Center for Human Rights and International Justice and was the third installment of the Center’s four-part “After Obama: What is the Future of our ‘Nation of Immigrants’?” conversation series.
Gonzales said that his study was intended to try to answer a critical question: What happens to undocumented immigrant children as they grow up and make the transition to adulthood? Hundreds of lengthy interviews with his respondents helped him discover how larger processes played out in the individual lives of undocumented children as they grew up, he said.
The exact number of undocumented immigrants in the United States is disputed, but the best available data put the figure at around 11 million, 2 million of whom came to America as children, according to Gonzales.
While their parents are largely living in the shadows, undocumented children essentially live American lives, he said.
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that undocumented children could not be denied public education. This decision now allows over 65,000 undocumented youth to graduate from public high schools across America each year, Gonzales said. Immersed in American culture, most youth become fluent in English, while their Spanish withers, he said.
“The dawning of adolescence brings a growing awareness of their status and what this identity means for them.”
—Roberto Gonzales, a sociologist and assistant professor of education at Harvard University
Largely unaware of their illegal status, they spend their days among citizen children in school, form relationships with their peers, and internalize beliefs about democracy, meritocracy, and the American Dream. But every year that they moved farther into American culture, they moved closer to eventually reentering their parents’ reality, he said.
As their citizen peers are experiencing rites of passage such as getting drivers licenses, applying for summer jobs, and preparing for college, undocumented young people are forced to face a jarring reality—that they, and their parents, are living in the U.S. illegally, he said.
After graduating high school, undocumented youth find themselves hitting dead ends, as they are unable to drive a car, gain employment, or receive aid for college. As of 2012, none of the 150 young people that Gonzales followed was on a career path that matched their educational background.
Gonzales spoke of the idea of the “master status,” a sociological concept that describes a particular trait that overwhelms, or trumps, other traits, such as personal achievements, political or religious beliefs, gender, or other identities.
For the young people he spoke to, their illegal status was their defining characteristic. No matter what they achieved, or how hard they studied, these young Americans were always burdened by this “lead weight.”
Undocumented youth are forced to watch their citizen peers move forward with all of the opportunities that they believed they would one day have. They must wrestle with the realization that they now face the same narrowly circumscribed range of options that their parents faced, as they move from somewhat protected to unprotected status, according to Gonzales. For undocumented youth, their transition to adulthood represents a transition to illegality, and their hopes of an American Dream fade as they enter a nightmarish future.
“The dawning of adolescence brings a growing awareness of their status and what this identity means for them,” Gonzales said.
Featured Image by Yi Zhao / Heights Staff