Juanmonino/istockphoto.comYoung illegal immigrants often end up with low-skill jobs, even if they attended college.
In the same week that California opened up some financial aid for illegal immigrants, a new report finds that many college graduates who entered the country illegally ended up with the same low-skill jobs as their parents, despite dreams of bettering their lives.
The study, "Learning to be Illegal," appears in the August edition of the American Sociological Review. The report's author, Roberto G. Gonzales, interviewed 150 undocumented Latino adults ages 20 to 34 in Southern California over more than four years. All of his subjects immigrated to the U.S. before age 12.
Among the most striking conclusions: None of the 31 students Gonzales interviewed who had graduated from four-year universities or held advanced degrees were able to pursue their dream careers. Most are doing some kind of low-wage work.
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"I feel as though I’ve experienced this weird psychological and legal stunted growth. I’m stuck at 16, like a clock that has stopped ticking," said "Cory," a study participant who attended college. "My life has not changed at all since then. Although I’m 22, I feel like a kid. I can’t do anything adults do."
The report comes as Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing students who immigrated illegally to access private financial aid to attend the state's public colleges. A more controversial part of California's DREAM Act, AB 131, also would allow these students to get state aid. That bill is in the state Senate.
Meanwhile, the federal DREAM Act, reintroduced in the U.S. Senate in May, would provide a pathway to legalization for students who immigrated illegally when they were children and who attend college or serve in the military. An estimated 2.1 million young people in the United States were brought to the country illegally at a young age, according to a 2010 estimate [PDF].
Gonzales, now an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, found that the young men and women he interviewed often experienced a "buffer zone" while they were growing up – a period when they felt no different from their classmates because their immigration status rarely affected their daily lives.
All of the respondents said they experienced a jolting shift around age 16, when they faced certain rites of passage: finding a part-time job, applying for college or getting a driver's license, for example. Students who managed to go to college or even pursue advanced degrees postponed the negative consequences of their illegal status, Gonzales found.
"For those who have achieved in impressive ways, along the way, their ideals of meritocracy have really been matched by their success," Gonzales said. "And so many of them experience an even harder fall at the time when things finally run out."
Leisy Abrego, assistant professor in Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA, said Gonzales' study is one of the most extensive of any published study on youth who were brought to the United States illegally. She said Gonzales knows the issue well because he’s been involved in researching this population for more than a decade.
"It’s very clear from his research that he understands it inside out," she said.
Gonzales focused on three transition periods: "discovery," from ages 16 to 18; "learning to be illegal," from ages 18 to 24; and "coping," from ages 25 to 29.
Many of the students he interviewed developed aspirations at a young age based on the belief that they would have better opportunities than their parents.
"School was an escape from home," said "Marisol," another study subject. "I felt happy, calm. ... I could be myself. I could be recognized at school. My teachers encouraged me to keep going. And my friends, we believed in education and pushed each other. We helped each other with homework and talked about college."
Most college-goers reported finding out they were undocumented during the college application process.
"Jose," who had participated in academic decathlon and debate teams in high school, tried to enroll in a community college class during his junior year and found out he couldn't because of his legal status.
Others found out about their status when they applied for jobs – moments they described as life-changing and depressing.
"I first felt like I was really out of place when I tried to get a job," said "Rodolfo," 27. "I didn't have a Social Security number. Well, I didn't even know what it meant."
Gonzales wrote that while most young people who go to college experience sharp differences in their lives compared with those who drop out of high school, among students who immigrated illegally, there was a "high degree of convergence" among college-goers and high school dropouts as the students aged. By their mid-20s, both groups held similar occupations.
"Margarita," for example, wanted to be a pharmacist, but after two years of community college, her mother started asking her to pay her share of the rent. She left school to clean houses, which she had been doing for almost four years when Gonzales met her.
"Neither of my parents made it past fourth grade, and they don’t speak any English," she told Gonzales. "But I’m right where they are. I mean, I work with my mom. I have the same job. I can’t find anything else. It’s kinda ridiculous, you know."
Gonzales said he got e-mails from colleagues who were concerned his study might be interpreted by some to mean that it is pointless to help these students go to college, considering the poor returns on investment. Gonzales doesn't see it that way.
"What we need to be thinking about is really the long-term and short-term solutions," he said. "This research I've been doing really underscores need for legalization. ... The short-term aim is preparing and allowing these young people to be successful when legalization happens, if legalization happens."