Professor Gonzales of Harvard Sheds Light on Undocumented Millennials in America

“Waiting is painful… It’s killing my soul,” she said. These are the words Professor Roberto Gonzales, Ph.D., once heard from a young girl when he was following the lives of young immigrants as they grew up in the United States.

Professor Gonzales – an Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University and author of the new book “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America” – spoke about the lives young immigrants in the U.S. lead during a presentation that headlined Latin Arts Weekend’s programming last Friday.

Professor Gonzales learned about the lives of the immigrant community during his junior year at Colorado College when he took a semester off to participate in an urban-studies program in Chicago. After graduation, he returned to Chicago where he continued to observe the struggles that undocumented youth faced on a day-to-day basis.

“Living and working with kids and families, I got a worm’s eye view of immigration, policing, gentrification, [which] really frame the everyday world of these kids and these families. Over the years I started to notice as the kids were reaching 14-16 with their immigration status, they had problems getting jobs and driver’s licenses. A lot of our neighborhood kids were leaving school,” said Professor Gonzales.

After receiving a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, Professor Gonzales continued to study the immigrant population over the course of 12 years. He closely followed the lives of 150 young adults as they grew up and attended school in the Los Angeles area. Although undocumented kids are able to attend high school, they cannot receive scholarships for college or even drive.

“To me, the most important piece of his presentation was humanizing the undocumented lives of the 1.5 generation in the U.S.,” said Cindy Espinosa ’18, a member of Alianza Latina.

“Considering [that] K-12 education in the U.S. is a right [for everyone,] regardless of [one’s] immigration status, it remains [as] a protected system for undocumented people. His presentation highlighted the path that most people went through during their life if they proceeded to higher education or left school after that protection was gone,” Espinosa continued.

This issue, however, has not been completely without reform. In 2012, President Barack Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to receive immunity from deportation and a temporary work permit lasting up to two years.

Mekedas Belayneh ’18 said, “I found it concerning the amount of waiting many undocumented immigrants have to go through. Their rights as residents of the United States are being discussed with no urgency while they have to find a way to live without basic needs.”

After surveying 2,700 undocumented adults and conducting nearly 500 personal interviews, “UnDACAmented” – one of Professor Gonzales’ most recent projects – reveals that the DACA program has been only partially successful and border control may not be the only solution.

“Our laws treat children and adults differently, and they don’t address the kids who are growing up and becoming adults… Each year they move further and further from their parent’s culture, but paradoxically, each year brings them closer and closer to their parent’s legal circumstances,” said Professor Gonzales. “They move from inclusion to exclusion. This is really dramatic for many of the young people.”

Professor Gonzales’s presentation was hosted by Alianza Latina, an affinity group that represents Latin-American students and their cultures.

“We thought his topic was really relevant considering what’s going on with the presidential campaign and all the talk about immigration. I think it’d be really helpful to just put faces to the actual people that we talk about when we talk about kicking other people out,” said Gerardo Segura ’18, a member of Alianza.

Patricia Thompson ’19 said, “I was surprised by the hopelessness that many of the immigrants Professor Gonzales followed expressed regarding their future careers. Not having the freedom to pursue your goals in life is what creates this downward pull. Essentially, many immigrants are barred from pursuing the American dream.”