The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Unlearning to Belong: The Adolescent Experiences of Undocumented Immigrant Youth

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 5:00 PM
Nautilus 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Roberto G. Gonzales, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

During the past 25 years, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has grown substantially, from an estimated 2.5 million in 1987 to 11.1 million today (Passel and Cohn 2010). Scholars contend that this demographic trend is the unintended consequence of policies designed to curb undocumented migration and tighten the U.S.–Mexico border, transforming once-circular migratory flows into permanent settlement (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002). According to recent estimates, there are more than 2.1 million undocumented youngsters who have been here since childhood. Relatively little is known about this vulnerable population, and their unique circumstances challenge assumptions about the incorporation patterns of the children of immigrants and their adolescent transitions.


When does the immigration status of undocumented youth begin to affect their adolescent and young adult trajectories? And how does it shape everyday experiences? My approach to these questions begins with the empirical observation that undocumented immigrant youngsters have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a K-12 education. But while they are integrated into a powerful institution, they cannot legally work, vote, receive financial aid, and drive in most states.


Data collection for this study involved nearly four and a half years of field work between 2003 and 2009, during which I conducted interviews with 150 young adults ages 20 to 34 in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area. I recruited respondents from various settings and built on the initial group by using snowball sampling to identify subsequent respondents.

Life history interviews included questions regarding respondents’ pasts and their present lives as well as future expectations and aspirations. Interviews ranged in length from 1 hour and 40 minutes to 3 hours and 20 minutes. To analyze interview transcripts, I used open coding techniques, placing conceptual labels on responses that described discrete events, experiences, and feelings reported in the interviews. Next, I analyzed each individual interview across all questions to identify metathemes. Finally, I examined responses for common meta-themes across all interviews.


Interview data suggest that a growing awareness of undocumented status occurred at age 16, when respondents began experiencing legal barriers. For many, such exclusions prompted a startling discovery of their immigration status. For others, earlier knowledge of immigration status became salient when matched with experiences of exclusion. In addition to legal exclusions, respondents’ internalization of the stigmatized identity of the undocumented immigrant created a secondary border of withdrawal that reinforced legal barriers. As a result, respondents engaged in a process of unlearning to belong.

Conclusions and Implications

Adolescence is a difficult time for most American youngsters. The dual processes of legal exclusions and stigma conspire to create turbulent transitions that cause undocumented immigrant youth to withdraw from critical networks of support. In addition, these processes profoundly shape identity development as well as mental and emotional health. My findings have direct implications for social work practice, policy and research involving what has become a sizeable and vulnerable population that is at risk of becoming a disenfranchised group in adulthood.