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Young and Undocumented: The Impacts of Legal Status on the Incorporation of Immigrant Young Adults in California

  • Author(s): Patler, Caitlin Cassidy
  • Advisor(s): Waldinger, Roger
  • Zhou, Min
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates a critical paradox of contemporary U.S. immigration policy. On one hand, undocumented immigrants are legally excludable from the state, blocked from formal economic integration, and socially stigmatized. Yet they also have rights such as access to K-12 education for undocumented children. How do undocumented young adults experience this incomplete inclusion and what does it mean for their integration? What impacts does legal status have on their educational outcomes and social network formation? What tactics do they employ as they struggle for more formal inclusion? I seek to answer these questions in three empirical chapters. The first two empirical chapters draw principally from in-depth interviews with undocumented young adults in Los Angeles, as well as two samples of the 2011-12 California Young Adult Study: a random sample of 1.5-generation and second generation Latinos, and a listed sample of participants of immigrant student organizations. The final empirical chapter analyzes 125 anti-deportation campaigns led by national undocumented youth organizations.

Chapter two examines the educational impacts of legal status on young adults. Regression analysis reveals that undocumented youth face a penalty in educational outcomes, compared to their citizen peers, even after controlling for socioeconomic background and high school tracking. However, other non-citizen youth also face educational disadvantage, suggesting both undocumented disadvantage and citizenship advantage. Chapter three argues that the everyday experience of "illegality" comes to structure the social network formation and comfort in accessing school-based resources early in adolescence, even for members of immigrant rights organizations. However, I also find that the presence of other undocumented youth in the extended social network becomes a critical resource for navigating formal exclusion. Chapter four explores how some undocumented youth have resisted exclusion in much more public ways. I show how immigrant youth organizations advocate for young adults in deportation proceedings by deploying ideologies of citizenship that emphasize acculturation, civic engagement, and innocence. However, anti-deportation campaigns remain bounded by the government's priorities for deportation, emphasizing a version of citizenship that may ultimately exclude many other immigrants.

Ultimately, I argue that existing assimilation theories, in their focus on social structures and shared group characteristics, do not fully account for the experiences of legal status at the individual level. I conclude that the incorporation of undocumented young adults remains incomplete, in ways that are enforced explicitly by laws and experienced by undocumented youth both directly and implicitly within schools and social networks. While some youth alter the course of their daily lives in order to avoid discovery, others find themselves making a claim against exclusion based on social citizenship, membership and belonging.

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