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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Participating and Belonging without Papers: Theorizing the Tensions between Incorporation and Exclusion for Undocumented Immigrant Young Adults

  • Author(s): Enriquez, Laura Elise
  • Advisor(s): Ortiz, Vilma
  • et al.

We know relatively little about how undocumented immigrant youth, who entered the U.S. as children, are being incorporated into U.S. society as young adults. To fill this gap, I draw on 123 in-depth interviews with 92 undocumented and 31 recently legalized Latino young adults, ages 20-35. Unlike existing scholarship, I examine the experiences of individuals from a range of education levels and address experiences outside of educational institutions (e.g. work, family formation). I find that undocumented young adults experience incomplete incorporation because structural barriers prevent them from fully participating in society in the ways that they desire and expect, giving rise to feelings of exclusion. Specifically, I explore how their undocumented status limits their participation and feelings of belonging in educational, economic, and social institutions. I also address how educational status and gender intersect with the limitations of their undocumented status to differentiate their experiences. While assimilation theorists conceptualize immigrant incorporation as participation in various social institutions, I contend that we must also examine feelings of belonging as a distinct aspect of incorporation. Thus, I re-conceptualize immigrant incorporation as the process through which an immigrant becomes a full member of society, not only by participating in social institutions but also by asserting feelings of belonging. This highlights the understudied dimension of emotional exclusion, and demonstrates how it intersects with structural exclusion to limit incorporation.

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