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Institute for the Study of International M igration. Georgetown University. Washington, DC.

To Dream or Not to Dream: The Effects of Immigration Status, Discrimination, and Parental Influence on Latino Children’s Access to Education

Elżbieta M. Goździak Institute for the Study of International Migration Georgetown University


Acknowledgements This paper is part of a larger project on undocumented children and their access to education, health care and employment opportunities carried out in collaboration with the Center for Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) at Oxford. The research project was generously supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Words of gratitude to Joanna Foote and Eguiar Lizundia for invaluable assistance in conducting interviews and focus group discussions in Spanish and to Nina Laufbahn for masterful copy editing and formatting.


Introduction Unauthorized migration has gained an unprecedented prominence in public discourses about immigration and immigrant integration. Unauthorized immigrants account for one-fourth of all immigrants in the United States, yet they dominate public perceptions about all foreign-born and are at the heart of the current immigration policy impasse (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011). Unauthorized adults living in the shadows have been the object of policy debates and the subject of significant academic inquiries for a number of years. Relatively less is known about unauthorized children and citizen children living with unauthorized parents, although the body of knowledge about these populations is growing (e.g. Abrego, 2006; Martínez, 2009; Yoshikawa, 2011; Gonzales, 2011; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011. There are roughly one million unauthorized children and youth coming of age in the United States and more than four million citizen children living in families with at least one unauthorized parent (Passel and Cohn, 2010). In other words, one in ten children living in the United States is living in mixedstatus family (Passel, 2006). Children of unauthorized immigrants make up approximately seven percent of school-age children (Passel and Cohn, 2010; Passel and Taylor, 2010).

undocumented; two were part of documented households, while six lived in mixed status households. Four of the interviewed parents did not disclose their immigration status. Additionally, we interviewed 15 stakeholders assisting Latino children and youth in pursuing their educational goals and held a group discussion with 20 college students tutoring Latino children attending primary public schools in Columbia Heights, Shaw, and Petworth neighborhoods of the District of Columbia. The stakeholder group included governmental officials in the Office of Latino Affairs (OLA) in the District of Columbia; officials in the DC Public Schools; administrators and teachers in two different charter schools; school social workers; case managers working with low-income families; a program manager at a youth center; members of an intentional community living side-by-side with low-income Latino families in Virginia; and a gang prevention specialist. We have also conducted participant observation of parent training programs; adult ESL classes; parent leadership gala and graduation ceremony; needs assessment session conducted by immigrant teens in Columbia Heights on safety and security in the neighborhood; summer theater program at the Gala Hispanic Theater for at-risk youth; various community meetings; Christmas, Holy Week and Easter celebrations organized by the Sacred Heart Church; and Three Kings’ celebration organized by the Gala Theater.

This paper is part of a larger study on unauthorized children and youth’ saccess to education, healthcare, and livelihoods. The research included one year of continued ethnographic fieldwork in three different neighborhoods in the Washington DC metropolitan area: Chirilagua, VA, a neighborhood on the border of Alexandria and Arlington also known as “Arlandria,” Langley Park, MD; and Columbia Heights, DC.

In this essay, I tell a story of the challenges Latino children living in the Washington, DC metropolitan area face in pursuing educational opportunities. I focus on unauthorized children and citizen children living with unauthorized parents and examine the ways in which, in the experiences of these children their legal vulnerability intersects with different forms of discrimination and parental/family influences and affects their access to education and their educational attainment. I argue that unauthorized status alone is not adversely affecting Latino children’s education. While regularizing their families’ immigration status would go a long way towards facilitating access to post-secondary education and improved educational outcomes at all levels, the Dream Act and amnesty alone are not a panacea for the challenges Latino children and youth face in accessing educational opportunities, persisting in school, and graduating from high school or college.

We conducted a total of 24 individual interviews with children and young adults (11 males and 13 females) and one group discussion with eight young adults (two women and six men). The respondents ranged in age from 12 to 22 years old; the majority of the youth were between 15 and 19 years of age. While we did not ask directly about our interviewees’ immigration status, all of the children and youth volunteered this information. Immigration status has impacted their educational pursuits so profoundly that a meaningful discussion about access to education was not possible without mentioning one’s status. Ten of the interviewed children were citizen children born in the United States but living in largely undocumented households. One youth had a Temporary Protective Status (TPS), while the remaining of the non-citizen children were unauthorized. They came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia. In addition, we interviewed 17 parents (13 mothers and four fathers); six parents were interviewed individually and 11 parents participated in two different group discussions. Five of the parents lived in a household where all members were

I open with ethnographic vignettes presenting three different young men with very different migration and educational trajectories. These vignettes illustrate the multiple challenges facing young Latinos, both male and female, in pursuing their American dream.

Ethnographic Vignettes separated from his mother for over three years. She came, he said, “because we were very poor, we had no money.” When he arrived in Washington, DC he was placed in 5th grade. He did not speak any English and school was very hard for him. On the first day he was “kicked in the chest by a big girl. She seemed so big, maybe 6 feet tall. She was black.” He did not report the incident: “No, I did not do anything. I did not know where to go. I told my friend and he told me ‘Man, there is

Alejandro1 Alejandro came to Washington, DC from San Miguel in El Salvador when he was 10 years old. About his journey from Salvador to El Paso, he said; “I traveled by everything. You name it and I was on it: plane, bus, truck and on foot.” The journey took him about three weeks but it seemed “like forever.” He was

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nothing you can do’ so I just set there on a swing.” Alejandro reported that he was not doing well academically or socially; he missed a lot of school because he was often mistreated by other students and didn’t feel like he really understood what was going on in class. By 9th grade he dropped out. On advice of his aunt, he went to the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in Columbia Heights and got connected with the Next Step School. He did very well there and received his GED within a very short time. In addition, he got certified in Microsoft and during the summer of our interview he was teaching a computer class at LAYC. Alejandro is committed to furthering his education. He is taking classes at a community college and is working towards a two-year degree in life sciences. He hoped to get a scholarship to the University of Maryland and transfer there. He does not quite understand how undocumented youth can pursue higher education and on what conditions, but he trusts that his counselor at LAYC will help him figure things out. Alejandro is interested in becoming a medical examiner. He is also very passionate about performing arts and has been participating in Paso Nuevo, an at-risk youth theater collective at the Gala Hispanic Theater. In the summer of 2011 he landed a receptionist job at a small non-profit. He gets paid in cash.

knowing the language. He could barely say anything in English. He could not even say “I am looking for work” or “I am a painter.” He has worked various construction jobs, mostly in painting. He rarely has steady work and works mostly as day laborer.

Jaime Jamie, 22, is a US citizen; he was born in Columbia Heights. His mother came to Washington, DC from Salvador some 30 years ago. Jamie started his college career at a university in New York. First he wanted to major in engineering because he thought it would be a marketable degree, but while in college he discovered his love of writing and switched to English. He aspires to be a fiction writer and at a time of our interview was working on his first novel. Financially he is on his own. His mother owns several businesses and is doing quite well but will not contribute to his or his siblings’ education. After three years in New York, Jamie decided to transfer to U of Maryland, because he could live at home and save money. Unfortunately, he still owed New York tuition so Maryland told him he could not transfer until all of his financial obligations were resolved. When we talked in the summer of 2010, Jamie moved back home and was taking classes at Montgomery College while working for tips in his mother’s restaurant; she would not pay him wages. Just before Christmas he got a job as a cook in an upscale restaurant in DC. He wasn’t taking any classes during the fall. He needs very few credits to graduate and fears that Maryland will not allow him to transfer if he does not attend the university for a whole year. His plan was to work for the rest of the winter and summer in the restaurant and transfer to Maryland in the fall of 2011. He worked very hard and took every possible overtime shift. He often worked 70-80 hours a week to make enough money to pay his student loans. His mother told him how glad she was that ‘he was following in her footsteps.’ She never praised him for his school achievements. She has never expressed any pride in her daughter, Elena, who after a very tumultuous adolescence in a female gang and single motherhood is pursuing a degree in nursing or her younger son, Juan, who is a sophomore at an Ivey League university on a full scholarship. Jamie says he does not want to be a cook forever, but his friends do worry that he might never go back to school if he does not have the support of his family. I checked in with Jamie a few weeks ago and indeed he is not in college—although is still talking about wanting to graduate—and is being groomed by the restaurant owner to become a head chef. In his spare time he continues to write.

Javier Javier, 18, came from Guatemala when he was 14 to join his three older brothers. He first lived in Kansas where two of his brothers still reside. He came to the States although there is plenty of work in agriculture in Guatemala, but it does not pay well at all and he wanted to make more money. After three-and-a-half years in Kansas he moved to Silver Spring, MD to be with his other older brother. Javier prefers the DC-area to Kansas because he is more comfortable in a larger urban environment and the city is more interesting than Kansas. He lives with his brother, who also works in construction, and they help each other with rent and living expenses. Javier attended school in Guatemala for six years. He said he was never particularly interested in school and started working at a young age. His 12-year-old brother wants to keep studying and Javier is very supportive of this decision. Javier says, “Once you grow older, you realize the value of studies.” It seems that it never occurred to Javier to enroll in school once he got to the United States, because he was already working in Guatemala. He came to the US to work, not to go to school. Javier has expressed the desire to learn English because he sees the importance of

Legal Vulnerability and K-12 Education Alejandro’s story illustrates many of the challenges unauthorized youth face in pursuing educational goals. Similarly to other unauthorized children, Alejandro had legal access to public elementary and secondary school. Since 1982, based on the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Plyler v. Doe, children in the United States, irrespective of their immigration status, have a constitutional right to free public education from kindergarten through high school graduation. However, despite this fundamental right, Latino children’s path to education is far from straightforward. Many people think that because unauthorized children have legal access to primary and secondary education, advocacy efforts should focus mainly on post-secondary education. Having legal access to K-12 education does not mean that Latino children—both unauthorized and citizen children— have access to the resources and the support needed

to do well in school and obtain a high school diploma. Nationally, 40 percent of unauthorized young adults, ages 18 to 24, have not completed high school. Unauthorized children who arrive in the United States before the age of 14 fare slightly better—72 percent finish high school (Passel and Cohn 2009). On average, in the DC-ArlingtonAlexandria Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) 25 percent of all high school students, native and foreign-born, do not graduate. There are 160 public high schools in this area; 19 of them are considered among the nation’s lowestperforming schools. In Chirilagua, VA, where the foreignborn constitute approximately 46 percent of the total population, 42 percent of all residents are without a high school diploma and graduation rates of Latino students at T.C. Williams High School are 52 percent; 31 percent of the

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student body is Latino. In Langley Park, MD, where Latinos constitute 75 percent of the population, with 66 percent foreign-born, 51 percent of all residents, native and foreignborn, have less than 9th grade education. Graduation rates among Latino students at High Point HS hover around 69 percent. Thirty-two percent of Columbia Heights residents do not have a high school diploma; the average for the District of Columbia is 15 percent. Graduation rates in the neighborhood differ dramatically among schools: at Bell Multicultural High School 90 percent of Latino students graduate, while at Cardozo only 53 percent finish high school. Community leaders attribute the high graduation rates at Bell Multicultural to a unique partnership the school has with the Multicultural Career Intern Program (MCIP), a non-profit organization, housed within the walls of the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, providing a wide range of services: teen pregnancy prevention and support, parenting classes, youth development, summer enrichment programs, and pre-college counseling.

interviews suggest that these numbers are not insignificant. Another group of young adults included individuals who migrated on their own and had no other choice but work. Working youth are discussed in-depth in a companion piece to this paper exploring Latino youth’s livelihoods and access to the labor market. Here I want to point out the fact that unaccompanied children and youth migrating on their own do not have the luxury of choosing school over work. The Next Step School has set modest educational goals for these young men and women: to improve their literacy in Spanish and English to increase their employment prospects in fields that require good communication skills. The school offers GED training but the teachers indicated that realistically speaking they would be very pleased if the students learned to speak English and acquired some literacy and numeracy skills in English. These competencies would serve them well and could even lead to some upward mobility in the labor marker. One of the students said: “I don’t want to wash dishes forever. I would like to be a waitress, but my English is not good enough.”

Teens that Never Dropped-In an American School

Beyond Immigration Status: Parents’ Education and Social Class

These statistics do not convey the difference in the dropout rates that occur across groups because, ironically, many teen migrants never ‘drop in.’ Indeed, the literature on immigrant children and youth is chock-full of studies on school dropouts as well as students who do well in schools, often against all odds, but fewer scholars (Fry, 2005; Oropesa and Landale 2009) focus on immigrants who arrive in this country as adolescents and immediately take up waged employment, just like Javier in the vignette above. This is a hidden population that is very difficult to identify. In the course of our study we have met a number of Latino youth that have never dropped-in to an American school; some of them worked while taking classes at the Next Step Public Charter School, a bilingual GED and ESL program affiliated with LAYC in Columbia Heights. Isabel Martínez suggests “these youth experience life stages of childhood and adolescence that differ from mainstream characterizations and thus adopt older age-graded identities that do not coincide with full-time schooling in the United States” (Martínez 2009: 34). Indeed, some respondents pointed to cultural definitions of childhood and adulthood and said, “By now I wouldn’t be in school anyway. I am not a child.”

What are the factors that contribute to dropping out of school or never dropping in? Legal vulnerability is not the sole element; it intersects with many other issues plaguing children and youth in unauthorized households. Parental engagement with their children’s school—a positive predictor of academic achievement, higher self-esteem, and higher rates of high school completion and college enrollment— is often a challenge for immigrant families. While many of the immigrant parents we interviewed had high educational aspirations for their children—some told us that the very reason they came to the United States was so their children had better educational and employment opportunities--few arrived with resources that could help them realize these goals. Many had very limited education themselves and as a result were only semi-literate in Spanish and illiterate in English and thus unable to help children with homework. College students who tutored immigrant children in DC public schools, talked eloquently about problems stemming from low levels of education among their tutees’ parents. “Low education of immigrant parents is a big problem. Some adults have been here for 20 years and they do not speak English at all. Some parents are barely literate in their own language. My tutee told me that he has never seen his mother read a newspaper or a book in Spanish or in English.”

Community leaders suggested that these adolescents are pressured by their families to contribute to the household income and are not encouraged to enroll in school although they not only have the right to education, but school attendance is compulsory in Virginia and the District of Columbia until 18 years of age and until 16 years of age in Maryland. Others indicated that while these teens seemingly came to the US to reunite with their parent/s, the family that now includes US-born children and stepparents is not eager to support them financially hence their need to trade education for employment. Many of the young people we spoke with did feel abandoned by their families. Cesar remarked: “I don’t know why, but my mom abandoned me twice: first when she came to the States and left me with my abuela, and later when I came here. She told me she paid for the coyote to take me across the border, but now I have to repay her. I wish I never came.” It is difficult to estimate how many adolescents are in Cesar’s situation, but

A Latino sophomore at Georgetown lamented that her tutee did not know the pleasures of going to the library for story hour or curling up with a book on a rainy afternoon. “She goes to church right across the street from a public library, but she has never visited [the library].” Lack of reading skills was the biggest problem the tutors identified. One tutor praised the sixth grader he was working with: “He is a smart kid, good at math, except word problems. He is in sixth grade but he reads at a 2nd grade level. He is embarrassed by his poor reading skills, so he refuses to read, which is making it harder for him to improve.”

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unequal educational opportunities. Community leaders and Latino educators were very critical of the DC Public Schools’ attitude towards Latino students. One advocate said: “DCPS does not value you as an individual, puts you down because you cannot speak English and your literacy in Spanish is not up to par either. There are no incentives to move forward.” An expert on bilingual education remarked that Latino students are marginalized within the DCPS system. “In a school system where the majority of students are African Americans— with their own set of educational challenges—it is virtually impossible to get anyone focused on the Latino kids.” He felt that both Latino students and Latino advocates are marginalized within the public school system. He met with me in his official capacity and was therefore reluctant to talk about overt discrimination, but remarked that he sometimes wonders, “where neglect ends and discrimination begins.”

The story is quite different when it comes to middleclass immigrant parents. In the course of our research we encountered a sizable community of Bolivian families in Northern Virginia. These parents were poor and unauthorized but middle-class, with at least a high school diploma and in many cases a college degree obtained in Bolivia. As will be shown later in this paper, these parents were much more supportive of their children’s education than poor, unauthorized working class parents or parents coming from very rural backgrounds. Other researchers also discuss the effects of class on educational progress of children of immigrants, but equate class with economic status (Portes and Macleod, 1996). The Bolivian parents’ class standing was not related to their current economic status but to their educational capital obtained in the country of origin. While they were fairly well off in Bolivia, they have not been able rebuilt their economic standing in the United States because of their undocumented immigration status.

Indigenous Indian students and Black Latinos we spoke with experienced discrimination from within the Latino community as well. Recounting being teased and bullied in high school, Benjamin said: “It was just like in Guatemala. They judged me by my clothing. I didn’t have a lot of friends.” Benjamin’s story is quite typical of indigenous students who do not speak Spanish and are seen as “different” from other Latinos. Black students from the Dominican Republic, for example, were neither accepted by the wider Latino community nor by their African American peers. One community leader told us that one of the local Catholic churches doesn’t much care when he casts Black Latinos in the Christmas pageant or Easter Passion.

Stigmatized Identity and Discrimination The youth in our study reported significant ethnic stereotyping by teachers, administrators, and peers. Several community leaders echoed these sentiments. One of the schools we visited had a program where students could sign up to be teacher’s assistants. Four Mexican students signed up but none of the teachers wanted to work with them, because “Mexicans are lazy and use their lack of English language competency as a crutch not to work.” The teacher who reported this story said she was “surprised to hear those opinions voiced so openly, but not shocked” because such sentiments are not unusual. She decided to give the students a chance and was very pleased with the outcomes. “Those students were the hardest working, most polite, and punctual student aids I’ve ever had,” she said. Ethnic and racial stereotyping often leads Latino students to be overlooked, excluded, or negatively tracked and results in

A school counselor working with immigrant students in a suburban school said that teachers often discriminate against Latino students and peers bully them because of their accent and language abilities. She added: “It is difficult for immigrant children to communicate with peers who do not speak Spanish. These limitations often lead Mexicans to selfsegregate. Migrant children make friends within their migrant network, creating an insulated cultural and language bubble.”

In fact the relationship between Latino students, including Black Latinos, and African America students is quite interesting. The Gala Hispanic Theater’s summer program for at-risk-youth included both Latino adolescents and African American students attending the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. After a performance at the end of the program, the young actors took questions from the audience. Someone asked what the students learned from their experiences. Several African America students spoke very eloquently about how working side-by-side with immigrant youth made them appreciate the newcomers and expanded their horizons. These speeches seemed quite insincere and the sentiments were articulated for the benefit of the VIPs in the audience: Stevie Wonder, the African American singersongwriter, and Jim Graham, Ward 1 councilmember, were in attendance. Participant observation of the program during two consecutive summers and interviews with the program coordinator contradicted these statements. The program coordinator, a Spanish speaking Caucasian young woman, remarked: “These Duke Ellington kids sure know how to talk the talk, but try to get them to eat lunch at the same table with the Latino kids! They can barely tolerate them on stage, but backstage all they do is bad-mouth them. They think the Latinos don’t speak any English, so they think they can

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Employment pressures—many parents worked more than one job or worked graveyard shifts—also contributed to parents’ increasing inability to engage with their children’s education. Parents’ involvement with their children’s education and engagement with schools decrease as the children get older. Participant observation at parenting programs organized by the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs (OLA) at several primary schools in Columbia Heights suggest that Latino parents of small children are eager for their children to succeed in school and meet developmental and educational milestones. We met with several groups of mothers—fathers seemed to be less involved in their children’s education--who took pride in their children’s progress at school, participated in a variety of parenting programs, and attended parent-teacher meetings. However, with few exceptions, parents of high school students were not interested in their children’s achievements or problems at school. It seems that parents who have limited education themselves aspire for better education for their children but that does not necessarily mean a lot more education: finishing primary or middle school seems sufficient. Jamie’s mother who supported her children throughout primary and secondary education thinks her role ended there; she is not willing to support their college education and is happy that Jamie dropped out of school and is working as a chef.


get away with anything…” I interviewed some of the African American students and asked them about the discrepancy between the narratives and the observed behavior. One girl just shrugged her shoulders, but another one rolled her eyes and said: “Please! These kids have everything handed to them, they come here and take things that are rightfully ours!”

from the child’s conscious experience (Gonzales, 2011), although the condition of illegality does have harmful effects on early development whether the child is aware of the family’s immigration status or not (Yoshikawa, 2011). Many of the interviewed children found themselves in what researchers call “suspended illegality” through late adolescence. In Kindergarten, primary or even middle schools they did not have to face full on the consequences of their immigration status. “The social parenthesis the moratorium affords them gives way in late adolescence to a time of deep disorientation, of shock, of not knowing who they are or where they belong, and of anger at their parents for putting them in this situation” (Suarez-Orozco et al, 2011:453). However, once they entered high school, particularly in senior year, when their peers were applying to college unauthorized children started realizing the effects of their immigration status on their future after high school. At a recent gathering of unauthorized students attending Georgetown University, the discussion centered on “being different,” especially when everyone else was talking about study abroad or participation in alternative spring break. Unauthorized students admitted they did not know how to handle these discussions. They became very emotional recounting their fears of traveling home for holidays. An event that their citizen classmate take for granted, for unauthorized students takes a great deal of planning and knowing what kind of mode of transportation to take to make it home without being stopped by authorities. Students living on the West Coast or in the Southwest have reconciled to the fact that they may not see their families for four years. One student who lives in New York City said he figured out how to get home without being noticed by authorities, but is worried that his parents who have never been outside Brooklyn since they came to the United States a decade ago will be too afraid to travel to DC to see him graduate.

Discrimination by school officials, teachers, and peers is not conducive to good experience in school. Fist fights and physical violence experienced my many of the interviewed as well as gang violence further discourage Latino students from attending school; many skip school often or drop-out altogether. “Increasingly, Latino youth also confront a host of negative public discourses and media images about themselves. Young Hispanics are routinely depicted in mainstream discourse as low achievers, high school dropouts, teen parents, or violent gang members, all stereotypes that paint a picture of an unassimilated population marked primarily by exclusion and difference. Given an increasingly hostile anti-immigrant discourse that conflates “Latino” and “immigrant,” Latino youth are also exposed to the demonization of their immigrant backgrounds. Everyday interactions of youth with their environments are clearly affected by such images, and a significant majority—close to 83%—of Hispanic youth reported in a recent national survey that discrimination is a personal problem for them” (Foxen, 2010).

“Suspended Illegality” Our research suggests that factors such as poverty, parents’ class and education levels, and family strategies favoring employment over education are much more tangible in the lives of unauthorized Latino children than legal status per se. The family’s unauthorized status is often hidden

Postsecondary Education: Legal Vulnerability and Beyond In recent years the plight of unauthorized immigrant students has emerged as part of the larger debate on immigration. Sometimes the issue is brought up within the context of high-profile cases such as that of Dan-el Padilla Peralta from the Dominican Republic or Juan Gomez from Colombia. Padilla is the 2006 Princeton graduate and salutatorian, who was offered a scholarship to Oxford; as an unauthorized immigrant he faced a dilemma: if he went to Oxford he would not have been able to return to the United States, but if he stayed in the US he would not have been able to legally obtain a job. Juan Gomez, a senior at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown, told us in an interview that he would have to look for a job in Canada when he graduates in May 2011. He has a job offer from JP Morgan in their Latin American Banking Division; however, the job requires foreign travel and that is impossible in his current legal situation. Juan is considering employment in Canada because he thinks he has a better chance of legal settlement there. He plans to attend a Quebec career fair that Georgetown holds a couple times a year in hopes of establishing contacts with Canadian companies.

students, almost always invoke stories of similarly gifted and motivated immigrant students arguing that the passage of the DREAM Act would enable countless other immigrants to pursue their educational dreams. Indeed, discussions about the DREAM Act dominate the discourse on unauthorized children’s access to education. However, as Gonzales (2010) points out “the use of star students as the face of undocumented students, to the exclusion of other stories and trajectories, is both limited and limiting” (Gonzales 2010: 470). Researchers and advocates alike bemoan the fact that only a small fraction of unauthorized youth actually moves on from high school to postsecondary education (Gonzales 2010). Fix and Passel (2003) estimate that approximately 65,000 unauthorized students graduate from high school each year, but only about 13,000 enroll in US colleges. Even with a promise of in-state tuition in 11 states--California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin—the hurdles seem insurmountable for many unauthorized students (see also Contreras 2009). To the best of my knowledge, there are no statistics on the number of citizen children living in mixed status families who avail themselves of in-state tuition benefits. My interviews in the District of Columbia suggest that few immigrant parents with children born in the United

Advocates of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a proposed legislation that would provide a pathway to legislation for unauthorized immigrant

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States know about the DC Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG), a program for DC residents designed to make up the difference between in-state and out-state tuition. Parents were astounded that their citizen children could use this program to apply to any public university in the Union.

admission of unauthorized immigrants to US colleges and universities. In contrast to employment laws, no federal statutes require disclosure and proof of immigration status for students to enter institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, many college counselors and high school administrators are either unaware of the legal provisions or just gloss over them. The prevailing sentiment expressed in interviews was that “these children cannot go to college; they are here illegally.” Immigrant students confirmed that many teachers and counselors do not see them as college material. As always, there are exceptions: A mental health counselor in a DC public school told us that she has been working with a Mexican boy who “is an A student, really eager to learn and go on to college, but he does not get the support from his teachers that he needs. They just don’t see past his accent and his status.” She is determined to do whatever needs to be done to get him into college. While immigration status does not prohibit the admission of unauthorized students to institutions of higher education, it does affect unauthorized families’ ability to finance their children’s college education. As indicated above, unauthorized youth are able to avail themselves of instate tuition only in 11 DREAM Act states. In our sample, this provision was about to become available to students residing in Maryland,2 but not to those living in Virginia. The ability to pay tuition at in-state rates would certainly help to offset the cost of higher education, but in many situations students also needed access to additional financial assistance. With the exception of two states—New Mexico and Texas—unauthorized students are not eligible for state financial aid (Gonzales 2010: 480). Highly motivated students with a lot of social capital and unconditional support from parents and teachers managed to secure private scholarships to both public and private colleges.

While some parents interviewed in the course of this study pointed to lack of a DREAM Act as a huge obstacle to their ability to finance their children’s college education, others were not convinced that such legislation alone would pave the road to higher education for unauthorized students. Community leaders were equally ambivalent. On one hand, they worked tirelessly with other local and national organizations to advocate on behalf of immigrant students: participated in meetings, organized rallies, wrote letters, and educated immigrant communities. On the other hand, they were cognizant of the fact that the Act alone will not drastically affect access to higher education among unauthorized students. One Latino community activist and service provider in Virginia remarked:

US citizen children living in mixed status households also feel the brunt of their parents’ unauthorized status. Citizen children are “in danger of becoming the unsuspecting victims of state and federal policies aimed at addressing illegal immigration” (Seo 2011: 312). Most readers are familiar with the situation in Arizona where “In early 2011, the legislature (…) introduced bills that would deny US citizenship to children of undocumented immigrant parents and mark them with a different birth certificate” (Seo 2011: 311-312) that would possibly revoke their eligibility to public benefits such as in-state tuition or financial aid. The Alabama legislation barring unauthorized students from attending any public college received a lot of national attention (Preston, 2011). Nationally, less attention has been paid to citizen children living with their unauthorized parents in Virginia who have also faced difficulties in accessing educational benefits. In 2008, the Office of the Attorney General in Virginia published a memorandum indicating that the undocumented status of parents could effectively disqualify their US-born children from receiving in-state tuition if the children were unable to independently prove eligibility (Virginia, 2008; see also Seo 2011: 314). The issue is whether unauthorized immigrant parents can be considered residents of the state and whether minor children can prove that residency independently. Without going into too many legal details, suffice it to say that many public universities in Virginia resolve this issue on a case-by-case basis. Interviewed immigrant parents residing in Virginia shared with us several

“If a miracle occurred tomorrow and every state in the union had a DREAM Act, it would only help those students who are already motivated to go to college. Unfortunately, it would not change the situation of the majority of our clients.” She added: “I do not dare speak about these issues publicly very often, but many of the parents we work with just do not seem to value education. Maybe because they themselves do not have much formal schooling, they cannot imagine what college degree would do for their children’s future.” Her colleague pointed out: “We do not have much better results in the Latino immigrant families with US-born children. College just does not figure in their plans and aspirations for their children.” Ironically, most of the interviewed immigrant parents told us that they came to the United States to secure educational opportunities and economic mobility for their children. Immigration status affects immigrant youth’s access to higher education in many different and not always very direct ways. Federal law does not expressly prohibit the

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However, lack of tuition assistance is not the only obstacle to postsecondary education for many unauthorized immigrant children. In order to go to college one has to successfully graduate from high school. Nationally, 40 percent of unauthorized young adults have not completed high school, and among high school graduates, only 49 percent are in college or have attended college (Passel and Cohn 2009). It needs to be stressed that unauthorized immigrants who arrive in the United States before the age of 14 fare slightly better—72 percent finish high school and 61 percent of those who graduate from high school go on to college—but these figures are still much lower than for US-born residents. As indicated above, graduation rates in the neighborhoods under study varied greatly, but were far from levels ensuring high numbers of college-bound Latino youth. A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that nearly 62 percent of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries would likely fail to gain permanent (or even conditional) status due mainly to the bills’ educational attainment requirements (Batalova and McHugh, 2010).


Journal Articles

stories of their college-bound children emancipating themselves in order to establish eligibility for in-state tuition. Parents felt badly about this “symbolic gesture.” One mother said: “I now I will always be his mother in my and his heart, but it still hurts that he had to ask for this piece of paper.”

skills and ability to raise and educate their children well.”

Parents’ unauthorized status affected citizen children’s access to higher education in many other ways. A couple of US-born Latino high school seniors stated that they did not realize how much their parents or siblings’ unauthorized status affected their ability to be successful in applying to college until they set down to write their college essays. Marisol remarked:

Resilience and perseverance in pursuing educational goals are shaped by relationships with caring and supportive parents (Gonzales, 2010), other family members, and in the absence of close family members adult mentors. Sadly, few youth in our study have experienced an unconditional parental support of their educational pursuits. As signaled in the opening vignette, Jamie’s mother was not interested in her children’s education. When her oldest daughter, Elena, was offered a scholarship to Trinity College in DC, she told her that if she went to an all-women’s college she would “become a lesbian and never get married.” Elena did not want to enroll against her mother’s wishes and it took her several years to realize that she really needed a college education to support herself and her toddler daughter.

Beyond Immigration Status and Socioeconomics: Parental Support is Crucial

“I have the grades to get to a good college, but I don’t have any extracurricular activities to brag about in my essay. My friends are writing about trips abroad, community service, sports achievements and I have nothing! All I ever did during high school was study. My mom told me to lay low, because she was afraid that someone would tell immigration authorities that both she and my older brother are here without papers.’

Maria, a young community leader in the metro DC, did go to college and graduated with a BA in anthropology. Maria is working for a small non-profit organization helping Latino immigrant families and homeless African Americans in Northern Virginia. Her uncles constantly barrage her mother that she raised such “a lazy girl.” They consider Maria to be lazy because she does not “work with her manos [hands].” Maria’s professor would like her to come back to school to get a master’s in applied anthropology; she promised to help Maria secure financial aid. Maria said: “I would love to go back to school, but I am sure that would enrage my uncles even more and they would take it out on my mother.” A professional Latina in the DC government also spoke about the lack of understanding of the value of education among her extended family. She said: “Even my mother-inlaw whom I love dearly and with whom I have a very good relationship, could not understand why my husband and I mortgaged our house to put our two daughters through college.” Speaking about the wider Latino community in the area, she added: “By and large the Latino parents in this area do not appreciate education, because they themselves have little formal schooling. Educational loans are not even on most immigrants’ radar screen; it has less to do with poverty and more to do with valuing education.”

The fear of possible deportation of her family members overshadowed Marisol’s everyday life. Several community leaders told us that the “issue of immigration status just hangs there” both for unauthorized children and those living with unauthorized family members. Many Latino children feel pressure to not get noticed and to never discuss their or their family’s status with peers. A director of youth leadership program in the District of Columbia talked about the constant fear and the psychological effects of immigration status on Latino youth: “Even if they are here legally, they hear everyday about someone having been deported or someone having been shot at—or worse, having died— while crossing the border. It’s difficult to shake it off.” The Pew Hispanic Center (Lopez and Minushkin, 2008) indicates that a majority of Latinos worry about deportation. Some 40% say they worry a lot and an additional 17% say they worry some that they themselves, a family member or a close friend may be deported. This is up slightly from 2007, when 53% of Latino adults said that they worried a lot or some about deportation (PHC 2007). On the other hand only one-fifth of the survey Latinos know possible deportees. These statistics include all Latinos and for unauthorized immigrants the worry might be substantially greater. Researchers and advocates alike agree that the condition of illegality—one’s own or one’s family members— places many Latino children in the untenable position of interminable liminality (Suarez-Orozco et al., 2011).

On the other end of the spectrum was a group of very determined unauthorized middle-class Bolivian parents in Virginia. They went out of their way to establish several programs to support their college-bound or already attending college children, including fund-raising events, mentoring programs, free of charge college prep, and youth leadership programs. Although poor, often holding two menial jobs, working graveyard shifts, these parents worked tirelessly so they children could graduate from college. A Salvadoran couple with two small children has recently joined this group of Bolivian parents. The man said: “I want to be like them. I don’t see parents like them in my community. My wife must learn English so we can send our children to college too!”

A long-time immigrant children advocate in Washington, D.C. spoke about the effects of parents’ undocumented status on young Latino children born in the United States: “The number one problem is not undocumented status anymore—relatively few [unauthorized] kids come these days [to Washington, DC]—but the indirect effect of the undocumented status of immigrant parents, particularly those who came in as children or teens, and resulting lack of security and feelings of abandonment affect their parenting

Conclusions No single factor determines Latino children and youth’s educational prospects and outcomes. Rather many different

variables conspire against educational achievements of both unauthorized and citizen children living in mixed

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status families. There is a large body of research that points to the educational legacy of unauthorized migration (e.g. Bean et. al., 2011; Olivas 2011; Haskins and Tienda, 2011), which disadvantages immigrant children, particularly Mexicans, way into the second generation. Evidence shows that growing up in a poor household can also adversely affect children’s academic achievements. Poverty correlates strongly and negatively with the probability that a child graduates from high school (Borjas 2011).

In order to succeed in school and in college, Latino children and youth need people to champion their educational aspirations and role models to emulate. Community leaders interviewed for this study stressed over and over that both are rarely coming from within the family and kinship networks. A service provider in Langley Park, MD said: “Contrary to popular beliefs and stated attitudes, Latino families in this town do not support educational pursuits of their children.

When children and youth look elsewhere for role models, parents are not always happy about it. One mother told us that her son has bonded with her employer, a professional woman who hired Ester to clean her house. The woman gives him books and tries to help him out with homework, but Ester said: “I don’t like her interfering. She is not from my country, she is going to steal him away from us.” But motivated children look for support in many places. Victor, for example, raved about the wonderful teachers who supported him throughout high school and a counselor who helped him look at college his senior year. He clearly saw school as a strong support network not just academic environment. It is clear that the kind of assistance and support Latino students need will not come solely from immigration reform and policy changes, but rather paradigm shifts in our attitudes toward and programs for Latino children and their families. 1 All interviewed children and parents have been asked to invent pseudonyms. In cases when interviewees provided their own names, we have changed them to preserve their anonymity. 2 Maryland’s version of the Dream Act was to take effect on July 1, 2011, but Republican Delegate Neil Parrot flooded the Maryland secretary of state’s office in Annapolis with 55,736 signatures, or 3 percent, of voters from the last gubernatorial election, that are needed to put the law up for referendum on the ballot for November 2012.

References Abrego, Leisy Janet 2006 “I Can’t Go to College Because I Don’t Have Papers”: Incorporation Patterns of Latino Undocumented Youth. Latino Studies 4: 212-231.

Contreras, Frances 2009 Sin Papeles y Rompiendo Barreras: Latino Students and the Challenge of Persisting in College. Harvard Educational Review 79(4): 610-631.

Batalova, Jeanne and McHugh, Margie 2010 DREAM vs. Reality: An Analysis of Potential DREAM Act Beneficiaries. Available at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/ pubs/DREAM-Insight-July2010.pdf

Fix, Michael, Passel, Jeffrey S. 2003 U.S. Immigration: Trends and Implications for Schools. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Bean, Frank D., Leach, Mark A., Brown, Susan K. Bachmeier, James D., and Hipp, John R. 2011 The Educational Legacy of Unauthorized Migration: Comparisons Across U.S.-Immigrant Groups in How Parents’ Status Affects Their Offspring. International Migration Review 45(2): 348-385. Borjas, George J. 2011 Poverty and Program Participation among Immigrant Children. Immigrant Children 21(1): 247-266.

Foxen, Patricia 2010 Speaking Out: Latino Youth on Discrimination in the United States. Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza. Fry, Richard 2005 The Higher Dropout Rate of Foreign-born Teens: The Role of Schooling Abroad. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at: http://www. wwww.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/ wwwpewtrustsorg News/Press_Releases/Hispanics_in_ America/PHC_dropout_1105.pdf

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Journal Articles

Our research shows that comprehensive immigration reform and the passage of legislation such as the Dream Act would level the playing field for unauthorized children and youth, but would not automatically ensure better access and better educational outcomes for all young Latinos. In addition to, or perhaps ahead of, advocacy for an immigration reform, including passage of Dream Act legislation in every state of the Union, there is a need to work with Latino immigrant families on realizing the relationship between educational levels of immigrant children and parents and their employment and upward mobility prospects. Thus, those concerned with better educational outcomes for Latino children and youth must also work on improving educational levels of their parents; literacy and vocational training might go a long way towards accomplishing this goal. A Latina community leader in the District of Columbia remarked: “DCPS does not engage immigrant parents! Schools should have activities for parents such as multicultural nights, gatherings that would bring together people of different socioeconomic standing. There is a need for programs aimed at upward mobility for parents before we even start working with the children.”

The prevailing attitude is that when a kid wants to go to college they are on their own. There is a lot of pressure on the kids to drop out of school and go to work, especially among low-income families. Go-getters and parents with higher levels of education have a better attitude.“ According to the same community leader, youth who have been in the United States for only a few years “hardly go against their parents’ wishes and do drop out of school even if they have the grades to graduate and go on to college.” Some community leaders indicated that there are not enough Latinos “who have made it and want to come back to the community to work with the youth and serve as role models.”


Gonzales, Roberto G. 2010 On the Wrong Side of the Tracks: Understanding the Effects of School Structure and Social Capital in the Educational Pursuits of Undocumented Immigrant Students. Peabody Journal of Education 85: 469-485.

Portes, Alejandro and MacLeod, Dug 1996 Educational Progress of Children of Immigrants: the Role of Class, Ethnicity and School Context. Sociology of Education 69 (4): 255-275. Preston, Julia 2011 Immigrants are focus of harsh bill in Alabama. New York Times, June 4, p. A10.

2011 Learning To Be Illegal: Undocumented Youth and Shifting Legal Context in the Transition to Adulthood. American Sociological Review 76(4): 602-619.

Seo, Michelle J. 2011 Uncertainty of Access: US Citizen children of Undocumented Immigrant Parents and In-State Tuition for Higher Education. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 44: 311-352.

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Haskins, Ron and Tienda, Marta 2011 The Future of Immigrant Children. Policy Brief. Available at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/ papers/2011/0420_immigrant_children_haskins/0420_ immigrant_children_haskins.pdf

Suarez-Orozco, Carola, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco 2011 Growing Up in the Shadows: The developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status. Harvard Educational Review 81(3): 438-472.

Lopez, Mark Hugo and Minushkin, Susan 2008 Hispanics See Their Situation in US Deteriorating; Oppose Key Immigration Enforcement Measures. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at: http:// www.pewhispanic.org/files/reports/93.pdf Martínez, Isabel 2009 What’s Age Gotta Do with It? Understanding the AgeIdentities and school-Going Practices of Mexican Immigrant Youth in New York City. The High School Journal 92(4): 34-48. Olivas, Michale A. 2012 No Undocumented Child Left Behind. Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren. New York: New York University Press Oropesa, R.S. and Landale, Nancy 2009 Why Do Immigrant Youth Who Never Enroll in US Schools matter? School Enrollment of Mexicans and NonHispanic Whites. Sociology of Education 82: 240-266.

Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M., Tasha Darbes, Sandra Isabel Dias, and Matt Sutin 2011 Migration and Schooling. Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 311-328. Virginia 2008 Memorandum from Ronald C. Forehand, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Commonwealth of Va., to Lee Andes, State Council of Higher Educ. for Va. (Mar. 6, 2008). Available at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/1 2/20080306AGmemoInStateTuition.pdf Yoshikawa, Hirozaku 2011 Immigrants Raising Citizens. Undocumented Parents and their Young Children. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Passel, Jeffrey S. 2006 The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S. Estimates Base on the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Available at: http://www. pewhispanic.org/files/reports/61.pdf Passel, Jeffrey S. and Cohn, D’Vera 2009 A portrait of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at: http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/107.pdf 2010 Unauthorized immigrant population. National and state trends. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at: http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report. php?ReportID=133 Passel, Jeffrey S. and Taylor, Paul 2010 Unauthorized immigrants and their US-born children. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at: http:// pewhispanic.org/files/reports/125.pdf Pew Hispanic Center 2007 National Survey of Latinos: As Illegal Immigration Issue Heats Up, Hispanic Feel a Chill, Washington, D.C. Available at: http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/reports/84. pdf

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To Dream or Not to Dream  

The Effects of Immigration Status, Discrimination, and Parental Influence on Latino Children's Access to Education

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