What’s the Value of Keeping Undocumented Youth in the Shadows?

The real life psychological ramifications of young immigrants struggling with their unauthorized status are often glossed over in the larger immigration debate. In a recent journal article, Learning to Be Illegal: Undocumented Youth and Shifting Legal Contexts in the Transition to Adulthood, University of Chicago professor Roberto G. Gonzales uses 150 interviews with young Latino adults to examine how unauthorized youth deal with their legal status as they come of age. Gonzales finds that as unauthorized immigrant children transition into adulthood, many “learn to be illegal,” figuring out how to exist in a society that was once welcoming, but now prohibits their participation.

Under U.S. law, all children have the legal right to a K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status. After graduation, however, unauthorized youth quickly learn that they cannot legally work, vote, receive financial aid for college or drive in most states. In addition, they have the added fear of deportation. Throughout his research, Gonzales found that unauthorized youth “uniformly noted a jolting shift at around age 16, when they attempted to move through rites of passage associated with their age…as respondents tried to take these steps into adult life, they were blocked by their lack of a Social Security number.” One student noted:

I never actually felt like I wasn’t born here. Because when I came I was like 10 and a half. I went to school. I learned the language. I first felt like I was really out of place when I tried to get a job. I didn’t have a Social Security number. Well, I didn’t even know what it meant. You know Social Security, legal, illegal. I didn’t even know what that was.

Gonzales found that nearly 60 percent of the unauthorized youth interviewed discovered they were unauthorized when applying for college. Most of those who did not attend college discovered their immigration status when attempting to work. Sadly, the end result for both groups was universal disappointment—their chances of finding a good job or attending an esteemed university severely diminished by their immigration status as were their chances of contributing to society.

These youth, however, have not given up on pursuing their educational aspirations. Many are working on the passage of federal legislation known as the DREAM Act, legislation which would solve many of the issues facing these youngsters. The DREAM act would allow unauthorized youth to eventually gain citizenship by going to college or joining the military after high school. While passage of the DREAM Act is currently an unlikely political reality, the Obama Administration has the ability defer the deportations of certain unauthorized youth who would likely have qualified for the DREAM Act.

So what can we do about America’s unauthorized youth? While Congress remains gridlocked on legislation that would enable unauthorized youth to fully participate in society, Gonazles asks the larger question—what is lost when we keep unauthorized youth—many of whom will remain in the U.S., regardless of their status—in the shadows?

Whether they become a disenfranchised underclass or contributing members to our society, their fate rests largely in the hands of the state.

We must ask ourselves if it is good for the health and wealth of this country to keep such a large number of U.S.-raised young adults in the shadows. We must ask what is lost when they learn to be illegal.

Sadly, the answer to that question is “too much.” While Congress continues to play politics with reform efforts, America loses out on the raw potential these unauthorized youth bring to the table.

Photo by j valas images.

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  • NYprogressive@frontier.com

    A better question to ask is “What is gained by denying amnesty?” American citizens are not responsible for the problems these youth face, their own parents are the ones who brought them here illegally.

    For those of us who were willing to abide by immigration law, the idea that people who broke the law should be allowed to jump ahead of the line is appalling. We have relatives on the waiting list that should be a higher priority than people who broke into the country, even if those people were children at the time their parents brought them here.

    Undocumented youth can still earn US citizenship via military service, even without the so called “Dream Act.” But that’s not good enough for them. Demanding citizenship for attending college is beyond absurd. What kind of service to the US is attending college? It’s a great opportunity to attend a US college, and should never be a way to earn citizenship. The fact is, the only one who benefits is the person who gets that seat in the university classrooms. And for every seat given up to a non-citizen, one of our own children can be rejected when they apply to that college. Why should the children of illegal aliens be a higher priority than children of legal immigrants, or for that matter, children of people still waiting to immigrate to this country? Just because someone is here already shouldn’t make them a priority. They should get in line with the rest of the world’s people wanting to live here.

    Worse, by giving amnesty to illegal aliens, and the Dream Act is most certainly another round of amnesty, our country is insulting those of us who were willing to abide by the law, while simultaneously encouraging more illegal immigration!

    What is gained by refusing amnesty is reinforcement of the rule of law and the expectation that if potential immigrants abide by the system, they’ll be rewarded, not undermined.

    • mentor

      NY Progressive is ill informed. Undocumented youth cannot legally join the armed forces. If they do secure entry, most are discovered and discharged early in their service. Those immigrants we read about who gain fast track to citizenship by military service are immigrants with green cards.

      What does our nation gain by educating a million undocumented children in public schools and then forcing them to live in the shadow of the law as young adults with dim prospects for higher education or employment that matches their potential? Despite the present unemployment situation, in the coming years our nation needs bright willing employees due to the shrinking youth cohort of majority youth and an increasing percentage of the elderly. NYProgressive’s thinking- or lack of it- condemns our nation to more “underclass” youth with no hope of the sort that acted out in the London riots. Failing to do everything pubic policy can to assist immigrants to become highly productive citizens decreases the promise of a stronger American economy..

  • nancy taylor Shivers

    How can undocumented youth earn US citizenship via military service? The US military will not take any individual who is not a permanent resident or a US citizen. Are you suggesting that an undocumented youth should be dishonest in seeking to get into the military?
    I have worked with many undocumented youth who are very willing to go into the military. I have worked with recruiters who tell me they know they can get a particular undocumented youth into the military–then they call back and say that as soon as the undocumented youth has a green card, the recruiter can get him or her into the military.
    High ranking members of the military have advocated for passage of the Dream Act so that undocumented youth would be able to enlist. Trust me, earning citizenship via military service is definitely good enough for the undocumented youth I know and have worked with. Would you be willing to support legislation that gives US citizenship to undocumented youth who join the military and serve our country?

  • Ned

    The thankless entitlement mentality astounds me. It is not the responsibilty of American citizens to feed, medicate, house and educate you to start with. American citzens have enough labor involved with begging and borrowing in oder to get their children into and through college. And here you expect it to be given to you. Your parents broke our laws and continue to do so as you march. Not only did they drag their children into their criminal act, but even worse they came here, had an anchor baby so that they could stay but didn’t stop there. If having one anchor child helps them stay then why not have 2 or 3 more, and they did, placing all of you at risk.

    Our law may stipulate that any and all children have the right for k-9 grade education, fine, you got it. But again you want more, without so much as a thank you for the k-9? Your government takes no responsibilty for you here, or there for that matter. And unlike the many of people in the USA, I work with and around people from south of the border, and respect for this country is not something you extend and I doubt ever will.

    I’m sorry for dilema but I did not put you in it, your parents did, and your own government. Go to them for a solution not the American public who are struggling with own problems.

  • SMH [>___

    NYProgressive: Do you know there is no line for the undocumented? People like you keep repeating “They should get in line with the rest of the world’s people wanting to live here.” Maybe your relatives are waiting back home because they have a sponsor in the US. But what if you don’t have a sponsor? What if a US-sponsored war in their home country brought them here and they were denied asylum when they applied due to discriminatory acts by the US government? Immigration laws are very complicated and sometimes children are left out of the chain/anker because they aged out, formed families, got married, etc. [These children then become part of the undocumented pool].

    Moreover, they are already here and were given free education K-12. Why should they not be able to go to college and become productive citizens? Mind you, people do not become citizens merely because they go to college, that is a whole other process. Everyone benefits by having highly educated citizens. They become tax-payers, go on to earn more money, contribute to the US economic base, lead productive lives, etc. The US has everything to gain.

  • Hazael

    Children shall not have to suffer the consequences for the decisions their parents made. Having been brought as children to the United States without their consent should not be an excuse for keeping this young people dreams truncated. Giving these young bright people the opportunity to become legalized after finishing their careers is logical. This country would benefit more from professionals; they will be giving back to this country by creating more jobs for Americans, better serving their communities, and contributing to this country’s well-being. The more professionals we have in this country, the more competitive we will become globally. Remember that education creates jobs. The DREAM Act will not be an amnesty or an easy process; learning that the process will be rigorous can help Americans realize it will not be for those with criminal convictions. It is time to be educated on the DREAM Act and realizing that the Dream Act is the right choice. Passing The DREAM Act bill will contribute to our nation’s economy, it will make the United States more competitive globally, and it will also contribute to our military’s recruitment.