Study: Undocumented Students’ Jarring Transition to Workforce

As students lobby for the second half of the California DREAM Act, which would give undocumented residents access to financial aid, a new study shows how complicated achievement can be in the land of opportunity.

By Bryan Gerhart Aug 02, 2011

As Gov. Jerry Brown signed the first part of the California DREAM Act, AB 130, into law last week, activists were quick to point out that what they see as the most important portion of the Act remains unsigned. This second bill, AB 131, would give undocumented students access to publicly funded financial aid for higher education, whereas AB 130 only opens up channels for privately funded scholarships. Later in the week, a number of media outlets reported on a new study of undocumented youth by Roberto Gonzales, and some emphasized that his research found that college degrees don’t help the career prospects of these immigrants. This narrow reading of Gonzales’ study seemed to imply a "Why bother?" stance regarding the education of America’s unauthorized immigrants.

"That’s a very short, decontextualized soundbite," says Gonzales, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

His study, "Learning To Be Illegal," was published in this month’s American Sociological Review. It reports on four years’ worth of interviews with 150 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before they were 12 years old. The study highlights the jarring transition that young immigrants face as they enter adulthood and are forced to cope with their unauthorized status.

"This is a group of young people that, in a lot of ways, had subscribed to ideals of meritocracy," Gonzales explains. "They’d been taught that if you work hard enough and if you dream boldly enough, ultimately you can get what you’ve worked so hard for. But now they realize, ‘Wow, my reality looks totally different,’ and find themselves with very few options."

Every child is guaranteed a K-12 education, no matter what kind of documentation they can provide. But once students graduate from public schools, they must deal with the harsh reality of living as an undocumented resident, often for the first time, Gonzales explains. As a result, even a college education doesn’t mean that aspirations for a meaningful career will materialize.

Of the undocumented immigrants interviewed for Gonzales’ study, none of the 22 with an undergraduate degree or the nine who had completed graduate programs were pursuing their dream careers or working jobs that they’d hoped for. Most were doing the same kind of low-wage work as their parents, who had hoped their labor would provide their children with greater opportunities.

For those undocumented youth who don’t finish or even make it to college, the chance of ending up in a low-skill, low-wage job is, unsurprisingly, much greater. "They run out of rope a lot earlier, and at 16, 17, 18 years old start confronting, on a day-to-day basis, the limitations of their status," says Gonzales. "Their aspirations are flattened a lot sooner."

Along with financial barriers, many of these high school graduates lack the support from teachers and school counselors that proved valuable to those who made it to college. Because of their stigmatized status and instructions from family not to air dirty laundry to strangers, the students that Gonzales refers to as "early-exiters" don’t talk publicly about being undocumented or living in poverty. As a result, they don’t build relationships with people who may be able to help them.

Gonzales’ study also shows that it takes a combination of positive forces to help undocumented students make it to and through an institution of higher learning. Along with access to human and material resources and a clear, affordable path to college, the students who end up in universities are generally without the burden of responsibilities imposed upon other young, unauthorized immigrants. If a student must help provide an income for their family, their opportunities to focus on education are limited and quite often quickly extinguished.

If a student does make it into higher education, paying tuition proves to be the biggest stumbling block. Students who position themselves for the cost of school through working and saving must quickly readjust when tuition fees are raised–an increasingly common occurrence in California’s public universities. Gonzales recalled the story of a University of California student whose financial limitations force her to take breaks from school after she finishes each quarter so that she can work and save up for the next. "This is as much a story about immigration as it is higher education in California," Gonzales said.

"This study begs the need for a deeper discussion about the legalization of this particular population, and underscores the need for some form of regularization," said Gonzales. "[It] really supports the need for something like the California DREAM Act and other local measures aimed at more fully integrating this population."