[Journals]: Undocumented, young immigrants face obstacles, uncertain futures

May 10, 2012

Undocumented Latino youth who migrate to the United States face futures clouded by limited rights and the constant fear of deportation, according to a new report from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Irvine.

 

Many don’t fully realize the constraints of their status until they become older teenagers and young adults, the report finds.

 

“Rites of passage common to American youth — getting a driver’s license, traveling, working and applying to college — are either denied, unattainable or dangerous to pursue for undocumented immigrants,” said Leo Chavez, professor of anthropology at University of California, Irvine. “It’s at this point that many undocumented Latino youth realize society sees them as discardable, as easily castaway. Yet, rather than merely give up, many become involved in campaigns to change the law.”

 

In a paper, “Awakening to a Nightmare,” which appears in an early preview site for the June issue of Current Anthropology, Chavez and co-author Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, shed light on both tangible outcomes and lived experiences of undocumented Latinos in Orange County, Calif., who came to the United States as children.

 

Using in-depth interviews and phone surveys, the researchers obtained detailed information on income, work, education, residence, family, discrimination, immigration status, political engagement, use of medical services and health of undocumented immigrants in comparison to documented immigrants and citizens.

 

Survey participants included 805 Latino and 396 white men and women with both listed and unlisted phone numbers. Interview participants included 80 Latino men and women.

 

“Much of today’s scholarly and policy debate focuses on outcomes, but our research shows that shrinking rights for undocumented immigrants and increased enforcement efforts narrowly constrain everyday life and cause a great deal of stress for undocumented youth and young adults,” Gonzales said. “Even mundane acts of driving, waiting for the bus and traffic stops can lead to the loss of a car, prison and deportation.”

 

According to one interviewee:

 

“I know I can do so much more, but I can’t because … I can’t choose where I live.  I can’t choose where I work. And the worst thing is that I can’t choose my friends. In high school I was able to do that. I can’t anymore. I can’t even hang out with my high school friends anymore ,and that hurts a lot. Yeah, they want to do grown-up stuff. I can’t do anything that is 18 and over. I can’t do anything. I can only hang out where little kids hang out. I can’t hang out with them. I can’t travel with them.  I can’t go out to dinner with them.” 

 

In addition to social constraints, survey data revealed that 24 percent of undocumented Latinos surveyed who immigrated to the United States as children had a family income of $35,000 or higher, compared with 68 percent of legal Latino residents from the same age group. Similarly, only 30 percent of undocumented young Latinos had 13 or more years of schooling compared to 50 percent of their legal resident counterparts.

 

“As adults, these young people wind up making less money, are less likely to own their homes and have less schooling — discrepancies which are directly linked to their immigration status,” said Gonzales.

 

For many, political and civic engagement has provided an outlet for frustration and a potential path for change, particularly through the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM Act). First introduced in Congress almost 11 years ago, the proposal seeks to reconcile the untenable circumstances confronting undocumented immigrant youth, said Gonzales. A majority of those interviewed acknowledged having taken part in marches and demonstrations in support of the DREAM Act, risking social ramifications and possible deportation by exposing themselves publicly.

 

“For them, they believe the risks are worth it for a chance to advocate for legislation that would allow an opportunity for residency, even citizenship,” Gonzales said.

 

“As political debate continues to ensue over who deserves to be American, the young people we surveyed and interviewed are struggling to find ways to make something out of their lives,” said Chavez. “Until Congress acts, undocumented youth will continue to live with uncertain futures.”

 

The Ford Foundation and the UC Irvine Center for Research on Latinos in a Global Society funded the study.

(Photo by Miguel Gutierrez, Jr.)

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