Dr. Roberto Gonzales, scholar and assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, spoke at a Silliman College Tea on Monday. Beginning in 2003, he tackled the difficult task of following a cohort of 150 undocumented youth as they transitioned into adulthood. When Obama began to pursue the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provided temporary social security numbers, work authorization and stays of deportation, his team conducted a larger-scale survey to examine the effects of this new policy.

He’s received the American Sociological Association Award for Public Sociology in International Migration and the AERA Scholars of Color Early Career Award, and his work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report and American Sociological Review.

Q: What drew you to this work initially?

A: I spent 10 years between college and graduate school … in Chicago as a youth worker. I lived and worked in the same community. It was an immigrant community, largely Mexican. And living and working with kids and families in this community, gave me a kind of worm’s eye view of the ways in which larger processes like immigration were framing people’s everyday worlds. And so, as I was describing earlier, what I started to see that with a lot of our neighborhood youth at around eighth grade or ninth grade, many … were confronting dead ends. Many of them were really hitting a wall, not only around kind of the barriers they were facing to some very defining adult rites of passage, but for many of them this was kind of their first real awareness of their status and what it would mean for them in their lives. And so, this was a time mid-1990s, there’s not a lot known about this population, particularly not about kids. And many people at the community level — teachers, counselors, social workers — didn’t know how to address these problems for these kids, and so many of them, many of the young people we were working with, ended up leaving school. They had family pressures to contribute financially to their households and didn’t see a future. Smaller number wanted to go to college, but the barriers were really steep. So fast forward a few years and I’m in graduate school in California, and I start meeting young people with very similar stories — who come to the US at six months old, at two years, at five years old, who had grown up alongside American-born peers but were confronting these issues as they came of age. So that really inspired me. I wanted to understand their trajectories — so what do their employment and education opportunities look like moving forward? That’s really the kind of initial impetus. I think there were really a lot of unexpected things I found out along the way.

Q: What were some of the difficulties that you encountered when trying to study undocumented people, particularly youth, especially in the beginning stages when you were trying to form your cohort?

A: This is a really important question because this is a population that you just don’t turn on a tape recorder and start asking … questions. My years as a youth worker in Chicago taught me a lot of lessons about engaging young people. One, I knew from working with youth that if I was to show up, many young people would tell me a story they thought I wanted to hear in order to send me along my way so that I’m out of their face. I also knew that a lot of the young people I worked with had experienced researchers that wanted to understand youth more generally who would come into the community, make relationships with them, ask the questions that they wanted, get the kind of information or data that they wanted and then leave. And they would make promises to youth, young people would form attachments to them and then suddenly they’d be gone. And it wasn’t really their fault; it was just that they had their own constraints, but I knew that for young people those attachments meant something. That those relationships with the researchers meant something. So for me it was really important that I was seen as somebody who had a long-term investment, that I was seen as somebody who had a stake in the community, that I was giving more than I was asking, so I volunteered, I tutored, I showed up early for meetings to help set up chairs. I was always one of the last people to leave community events. And so I wanted to establish myself as somebody trustworthy. And then finally, for most of the young people that I met, I spent nearly a year with them before I turned on a tape recorder and I started asking questions because I wanted to make sure that I had established enough trust and rapport that one, that they would feel comfortable and safe sharing their stories and two, that I could get more of an accurate picture of their lives.

Q: What have your findings shown about the main barriers to success for undocumented immigrants? And then on the reverse, what factors can improve the chances for success?

A: This transition period that I described earlier, I conceptualize this as a transition to illegality. Really for undocumented children, their K–12 schooling is legally permissible; it gives them the opportunities to have the same experiences as their peers born here. But there’s a real contradiction between our laws that allow them to attend K–12 schools and immigration laws that narrowly define their access. And so our laws treat children and adults really differently in this respect when they don’t account for the continuity of children becoming adults, so just the nature of growing up is very difficult. And then you layer on top of that for them their coming into awareness of a status that’s very stigmatized. For a lot of undocumented students what this means is concealing this big secret from their friends, from romantic partners, from their teachers and other adults in their lives. What’s problematic about that is that for many young people, those networks are critical to their success early on. The kind of severing themselves from these networks then also separates them from critical supports. The biggest surprise, I think, in this study — and I mentioned that I was interested in these mobility pathways largely around education and occupational mobility — the biggest surprise for me was that almost to the person, the young people that I met described physical and emotional manifestations of stress: chronic headaches, chronic toothaches, ulcers, problems getting out of bed in the morning, sleep issues, eating issues, thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide. It became very clear over time that there was a very strong link between their undocumented status and strained wellbeing. These, I think, are some of the issues, I think, the barriers that they confront. On one hand, the set of legal barriers, legally that they can’t participate in all these important things: driving, working, [they’re] ineligible, for example, for financial aid for college. Then there’s this other area where this kind of secondary border — this act of stigma management — separates them from their peers. This is a very stressful and chaotic experience for a lot of them.

But you asked also about … mechanisms for success, right? And certainly, over the last decade, we’ve become accustomed to hearing stories of undocumented high school valedictorians, class presidents — model citizens in their communities. And despite these barriers they’ve described, [they] have managed to do well. For those who are successful in my studies, we’ve pinpointed one major factor, and that is having a relationship with an adult mentor. In my book, I followed two groups I called college-goers and early-exiters, and college-goers had at least two years of college. And by the time of my study about 30 had graduated from college and about a dozen had post-baccalaureate degrees. All of those young people, I think almost to the person, could name 3 or more mentors in their lives: teachers, counselors, youth workers. At a very critical time, they had developed trust with these adults, and so, at a very critical time, were able to disclose their status, were able then to disclose the nature of their problems. “Look I’m just realizing that because I’m undocumented, I’m ineligible for financial aid. I really want to go to college.” And so in many cases teachers did online searches to find information to help their students, went to teachers’ lounges to pass around the proverbial hat, and as a result came up with money to pay for books for college, to pay for in some cases, a semester or more of fees. And so having a trusted adult at a critical time to be able to disclose and not hold on to that really sort of stressful secret was critical and also allowed them to navigate that transition from high school to college.

Q: What then can we do to improve the conditions of undocumented youth? And on what level? You know, local, national, in a political way, perhaps through nonprofit organizations?

A: I think that these are important questions today particularly in this new administration when there’s a lot of fear among immigrant children, families and communities. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA for short, is, despite Trump’s [campaign] promises to eliminate this program, he so far has kept it. And that’s been a huge game changer for a lot of young people and their families, so as a result of DACA — and there are now some 750 young people who have this status — they’ve taken giant steps towards the American mainstream. They’ve taken legal jobs, they’ve increased their earnings, they’ve started to build credit through bank accounts and credit cards. They now have healthcare. They have driver’s licenses. So this has been really important, but DACA doesn’t address the financial aid problem. And it doesn’t address some of the bigger problems in their world — particularly, that they belong to families and communities that don’t have such access. Much of the attention on this issue has really revolved around access to college and high school jobs, and these are two really important issues. But this broader political narrative in support of these students has failed to uncover some of the mechanisms and questions like “What does it mean to live in an impoverished household? What does it mean to have one or more of your parents who is undocumented? What is the experience of seeing friends move forward while you don’t have the means to participate? And what does it mean to have to work to have to drive nevertheless?” To wrap up a very long-winded answer, what we’ve seen on college campuses over the last several years — support groups for undocumented students, staff liaisons to help them to navigate campus life, support centers, training for university staff, and opportunities for students when they’re on campus — are really important. And really important, I would argue now so more than ever. It’s one thing for undocumented students to be accessing higher ed. It’s another thing to persist and to graduate and to move from undergrad experience to graduate training. All of these things also, I think, these kinds of keys to success, are started to be replicated in middle schools and high schools. And I think that what happens in K–12 is arguable more consequential to their future chances.