Research has shown that it’s important for parents to be involved in their children’s education. But what happens when a parent is undocumented, when they worry that their own immigration status will affect their child’s chances at going to college?
This is what doctoral student and Ed.D. marshal Stephany Cuevas, Ed.M.’15, focused on for her dissertation, “Apoyo Sacrificial: Understanding Undocumented Latina/o Parents’ Engagement in Students’ Post-Secondary Planning and Success.” Using information she gathered from in-depth interviews with 15 undocumented Latinx parents whose children were successfully enrolled in a prestigious public university in California, Cuevas explored something that has never been fully studied: how immigration status impacts or shapes the different ways that parents engage, or don’t engage, as their children are planning for college.
What she found in the detailed stories and reflective responses shared by parents is that an undocumented status limits access to resources because parents may feel uncertain about reaching out for help or may not know who to contact for more information or necessary forms.
“Some parents in my study described being worried that their children, who were entitled to services and resources as U.S. citizens, would not have access to financial aid, for example, because they, their parents, were undocumented,” she says.
An undocumented status also added a layer of distrust and discomfort for parents.
“Due to their immigrant status, they knew that at any point they could be stopped and asked for papers, meaning proof of some sort of legal status,” she says. “Since they were unable to produce this, they could be detained and deported, which would lead to family separations. Although they noted that this was not likely to happen, the fact that it could actually happen led them to live highly anxious, careful, and fearful lives.” As a result, the parents she interviewed often avoided places where they did not feel safe — including school. “When sharing about their interactions with their children’s schools, some parents discussed how, to them, schools represented ‘government structures and institutions.’ Because they were undocumented, they even feared physically entering those spaces to ask questions.”
Still, despite the obstacles, or perceived obstacles, Cuevas, who will be starting a post-doc at Vanderbilt University in the fall, was surprised how much parents were very willing to make sacrifices for their children’s education and future.
“Coming into this work, I knew that parents made sacrifices: I experienced my parents’ sacrifices as they sought to give my sisters and I better futures. Similarly, having worked closely with Latinx parents in the Bay Area, I witnessed how they gave up things for themselves for the sake of their children,” she says. “But in this study, I was able to deeply understand the extent of their sacrificios (sacrifices), how they experienced them, and the intentionality behind them.”
For example, parents prioritized their children’s financial needs over their own.
“One participant, Elia, told me how she paid for her daughter’s SAT Princeton Review course with the money she allocated every month for her blood pressure medicine,” she says. “The money she made taking care of an elder man was not enough to cover both her own medicine and her daughter’s test prep materials. In Elia’s case, even though her financial sacrificio put her health at risk, she felt she had no other choice: she wanted to make sure her daughter had the best chance at a top university. Stories like this one helped me realize not only the extent parents would go to make sure their children had access to promising futures, but also how their socioeconomic and political status as working poor, undocumented immigrants shaped the nature of these sacrifices. It made me admire immigrant parents, including my own, even more.”