U. CHICAGO (US) — Undocumented young adults raised and college-educated in the U.S. are often unable to rise above the menial labor of their parents with no prospects of working in their chosen professions.
“This is a population of young people who, because of their legal integration through the school system, learned to work hard and pursue the American dream,” says Roberto G. Gonzales, assistant professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago.
“Many of them grew up believing that being able to speak English and having an education should be able to get them more than their parents.”
A new study, published in the journal American Sociological Review, documents the life histories of 150 undocumented young adults, most of Mexican origin and about equal numbers of men and women—who had come to the United States before age 12. Respondents live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and are 20 to 34 years old.
The findings illuminate how current immigration laws don’t adequately accommodate the ever-increasing number—now at 2.1 million—of children and young adults who are brought to the U.S. and need to navigate their adult lives without legal status.
“Through the U.S. public school system, undocumented children are integrated into the legal framework of this country,” Gonzales says. “But as they reach adulthood, they are cut off from the means to live the lives for which school prepared them.”
Most immigrants have to first deal with their undocumented status between the ages of 16 and 18, when they seek part-time jobs, driver licenses, or admission to college which requires a Social Security number, or a verification of immigration status.
Many live their entire childhood unaware that they are not U.S. citizens and are confused, angry, frustrated, scared, and stigmatized when they become aware of it. Social habits change out of fear of who to trust, career plans halted, and arrest and deportation become constant threats.
Returning to their native country is not a viable option for most of the respondents, because they lack important social and professional connections, job options, Spanish fluency, and familiarity with the culture and customs of their birth country, Gonzales says.
Slightly more than half the respondents chose to go to college as a way to stay legally protected by the school system and to try to improve their career options.
But college doesn’t help broaden job options. None of the 22 respondents who graduated from four-year universities, or the nine who held graduate degrees, was able to legally pursue their chosen careers.
By their late 20s, respondents reported coming to grips with their illegal status, focusing on what they could do rather than what they couldn’t.
Educators and policymakers have important roles to play in helping undocumented youth transition into adulthood, Gonzalez says.
“The problems facing undocumented children and young adults underscore the need for a more diverse approach to immigration policy.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded the study.
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