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Marking Legal Status: A High School’s Response to Issues of Documentation and the Needs of Undocumented Students


While an emerging body of work has highlighted the experiences of undocumented students in higher education (Contreras, 2010; Flores, 2009; Perez, 2009, 2012), the research literature on undocumented youth in the K-12 public education system is limited. Nationwide, approximately 1 million undocumented immigrants are under 18 years of age and about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year (Passel, 2003; Passel & Cohn, 2011). In recent years, numerous states have passed policies, which provide undocumented students greater access to postsecondary education as well as financial assistance such as the California Dream Act. Many of these policies, however, are rapidly changing and confusing for students and parents (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). Framed within theories of belonging, this study examines undocumented high school students’ perceived membership and inclusion within a school community.

Employing ethnographic methods in an urban, high school serving a diverse student body, the study includes the following data: 1) observations in classrooms and the college center, 2) interviews with U.S-born/legally residing students (n=15), undocumented students (n=14), and teachers/administrators (n=13), and 3) school artifacts. Using a multilevel analysis framework the study addresses the impact of federal and state immigration related policies on undocumented students (macro), school-level processes and systems in placed to support undocumented students as they prepare to transition out of high school (meso), and the treatment of undocumented students in school (micro).

Findings from this study are presented following the multilevel level framework. Study findings suggest that the California Dream Act and DACA have helped to make strides in supporting undocumented students college enrollment and gaining legal employment. However, increasing college costs and limited access to financial resources threaten undocumented students matriculation into college. Despite creating a supportive school context for undocumented students, teachers and administrators struggled with how to appropriately address the issue of documentation in order to target assistance and protect student privacy. In general, undocumented students felt comfortable disclosing their legal status after developing trusting relationships with adults and peers. At times, peers and adults were surprised to learn an individual was undocumented because it challenged dominant perceptions of undocumented immigrants (i.e., dress, language, or race/ethnicity). Ultimately, undocumented students felt a sense of belonging, suggesting the importance for schools to address issues of documentation in a direct, but respectful manner.

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