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Lecture Hall: Assistant Professor Roberto Gonzales

Roberto Gonzales

Roberto GonzalesIn a strange way, Assistant Professor Roberto Gonzales can thank an ACL tear when he was in high school for the career path he eventually followed. The Colorado native grew up playing football and was convinced he’d one day go pro. His junior year in high school, there was even interest from colleges with top football programs. But then the injuries started. First, a broken foot bone, followed by the torn ACL .

“That was it,” Gonzales says. “I had to rethink everything.” Instead of going to a big football school, he studied sociology at Colorado College. Through their domestic urban studies program, he ended up in Chicago working in an afterschool program and then as a school liaison at a community service agency. He discovered he really liked working with kids and their families, largely Mexican at the time. He also noticed that children from undocumented families who had grown up in the United States started experiencing problems as they got older. This summer, Gonzales, who recently joined the Ed School from the University of Chicago, spoke with Ed. about his research on immigrant young people, DACA, and why he may not root for the Patriots.

For the past decade, you’ve been studying the same kind of undocumented families that you once worked with, correct? Yes, through my West Coast Undocumented Young Adults Research Project, I collected in-depth life histories of more than 300 undocumented young people in California and Washington. This is, to date, the biggest and most systematic effort to understand these young people and their untenable circumstances.

What problems do undocumented children experience as they get older? Because of a Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe in 1982, K–12 education is free and legal for kids, regardless of their immigration status. The undocumented kids I met who were growing up in the United States had accumulated a wide range of American experiences. They pledged allegiance to the flag, watched Barney and the Power Rangers, and went to prom. But once they hit 14, 15, 16 years old, as their friends started getting licenses and part-time jobs, they found themselves legally stuck. They couldn’t get a license or financial aid for college. They hit these dead ends. Some kids dropped out of school. College becomes a huge leap for this group.

Related podcast iconWe support undocumented kids when they’re younger, but not as they get older? Yes, in general, we’re a lot more supportive of children. Our laws treat children and adults differently but don’t account for the continuity — the transition to adulthood and the rights of undocumented children as they grow older.

You call this turbulent transition “learning to be illegal.” What do you mean? Undocumented adolescents and young people transition from experiences of belonging
and inclusion to being excluded and with few legal options. This process, what I call “the transition to illegality,” is a relearning process and affects young people, who often find themselves with the same narrow options as their parents.

Is this new? In the past 25 years, the number of undocumented immigrants has significantly grown. The pattern in the past was that migrant workers would work for a few months, and then go back.

Starting in the late 1980s, as we put more agents on the border, it became a lot more difficult and expensive for them to cross back and forth. More workers started creating homes in the United States, and now we’re seeing a growth of a large group of undocumented children who are coming of age.

What is the focus of your new project that looks at Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)? Last summer, President Obama announced a change in immigration policy that could provide deferred action to an estimated 1.4 million undocumented young people who have lived in the United States since childhood. The policy, the DACA program, while not granting a path to legalization, enables them to remain in the country without fear of deportation and to apply for work permits. I will study the effects of widened access on these young people’s educational, work, civic, and mental well-being trajectories. This summer we fielded a national survey, and over the next three years we will carry out followup qualitative interviews with a smaller number of individuals in a select states.

As a big sports fan, you’ll be supporting the Patriots soon, right? I greatly respect the Patriots, but I’m a diehard Denver Broncos fan. Boston is a great sports city, and I’m very sure it won’t take too much to get swept up in the excitement.


Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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