By Caitlin Patler, Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology, UCLA

There are roughly 5 million undocumented children and young adults currently living in the U.S. today, 24% (or 1.1 million) of whom live in California. As in other states, California’s undocumented youth face a unique and challenging paradox. On one hand, they work hard, excel academically, participate in their communities and have high educational and career aspirations in the only country they’ve ever known. On the other hand, their immigration status severely limits their opportunities, aspirations and ability to contribute fully to U.S. society. A new research brief, co-authored by Veronica Terriquez and this author, highlights the experiences of undocumented youth in California—many of whom disproportionally experience economic and personal hardships.

The brief, Aspiring Americans: Undocumented Youth Leaders in California, is based on web survey data that compares the experiences of 410 undocumented youth leaders to those of a random sample of 2,200 18-to-26-year-olds in California. Published by the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and UC/ACCORD, the brief reports that:

  • 84% of undocumented youth leaders came to the U.S. before the age of 12
  • Undocumented youth leaders were almost twice as likely as their native-born counterparts to have volunteered within the past year (88% vs. 46%)
  • Undocumented youth leaders were almost three times as likely as their native-born counterparts to have worked on an issue affecting their communities (82% vs. 27%)
  • However, undocumented youth were much more likely to report difficulty paying for school (91% vs. 68%) and utilities (68% vs. 19%), and more than twice as likely to come from a low-income background (89% vs. 38%)

The paradox faced by these undocumented youth demonstrates what I refer to as “enforced incomplete incorporation” in a forthcoming report, meaning that while undocumented youth are indeed incorporated into U.S. society, their exclusion remains enforced by laws that do not provide them a viable path to citizenship. For example, while undocumented youth are extensively embedded in American society—they grow up here, go to school, are civically engaged, and aspire to continue contributing to their communities—their full incorporation is stymied by the challenges of undocumented legal status.

Recommended policy reforms that will help these highly motivated undocumented youth include:

  • Access to in-state tuition for all California high school students
  • Institutionalize access to scholarships and financial aid
  • Provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth

Temporary fixes, such as the Obama administration’s recently announced deferred action for immigration youth, simply do not go far enough. These fixes, while a necessary start, only offer a short term solution to some of the economic barriers that undocumented youth encounter. In addition, Congress needs to pass long-term policy solutions, like the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young adults who grow up in the U.S. school system. Permanent legal status with a path to citizenship is the only way to ensure the complete incorporation of undocumented youth.

As the research brief concludes:

“The future of California—and indeed our country—depends on making education, legal employment, and citizenship accessible for all young people who grow up in the United States. Undocumented youth who make a difference in their communities and seek economic success are truly aspiring Americans and deserve to be legally recognized as such.”

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