• by Sofia Bahena, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2015 •

Dr. sofia bahenaImmigration policy is an issue that touches the lives of many in the United States. The most recent estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that, as of March 2012, 775,000 children younger than 18 years old were living in the United States without proper authorization (Passel, et al., 2014).

Even if not undocumented themselves, many children are growing up with someone who is. It is estimated that one in 10 children is part of a mixed-status home, where at least one family member is not documented (Passel, 2006). These demographics have direct relevance to our nation’s public schools, as children from families with at least one undocumented parent make up 6.9 percent of all K-12 students in the country (Passel & Cohn, 2014).

Research has begun to document the implications of legal status – of either the child or of his or her parents – on children’s educational experiences, as well as their socio-emotional and physical health. While some research has found that undocumented students may be particularly vulnerable to higher levels of depression, stress and isolation (Gonzales & Chavez, 2012; Gonzales, et al., 2013), other research has found undocumented youth to be incredibly resilient (Gonzales, 2008; Perez, 2009; Perez, et al., 2009). And, importantly, schools, families and communities can play a significant role in development and educational experiences of undocumented youth and those who are members of mixed-status families.

Public rhetoric has labeled undocumented immigrants of Mexican-origin, for example, with derogatory terms and as threats to the employment of U.S.-born citizens (Sullivan & Rehm, 2005). This stigmatization and guilt associated with being undocumented, compounded with fear of deportation, can lead to feelings of isolation and marginalization (Arbona, et al., 2010; Sullivan & Rehm, 2005).

Academically, undocumented youth face unique challenges once they approach high school. One undocumented student likened the realization that not having “papers” would hinder his future prospects as “waking up to a nightmare” (Gonzalez & Chavez, 2012). It is around the age of 16 that many youth living in the United States apply to their first jobs, apply for their driver’s license and begin planning for college. As young adults, undocumented students also face challenges in paying for college, as they are ineligible for financial aid at either the federal or state level (Murillo, et al., 2010). For undocumented youth, life milestones become sources of distress rather than exciting passages to adulthood.

Despite these challenges, undocumented youth, and immigrant youth generally are resilient in the face of many challenges. For a decade now, immigration scholars have examined what they term immigrant optimism, an academic advantage unique to children of immigrants that is prevalent in the immigration narrative (APA, 2012; Kao & Tienda, 1995). Being a child of immigrant parents has been correlated, for example, with higher grade point averages, fewer disciplinary issues, and more positive attitudes toward school (Hao & Woo, 2012; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995).

Nascent research on undocumented youth specifically has underscored the resilience of these youth in the face of daunting obstacles, primarily through their activism, community engagement and protective factors. In their study, Perez, et al., (2009) found that undocumented immigrant Latino youth who had a supportive network of family and friends and participated in school activities reported higher levels of academic success than students with similar risk factors but who did not have these personal and environmental resources. The authors conclude that a system of community resources can play an important role in mitigating some of the risk factors associated with being undocumented.

Because immigrant families may settle into widely different communities and thus have access to different sets of resources, it is important to have a systemic lens in understanding and supporting undocumented youth’s educational experiences (APA, 2012). Immigration scholars Suárez-Orozco, et al., (2011) have proposed a socio-ecological framework to examine the various influences that may impact youth who are children of undocumented parents (or are undocumented themselves) across the developmental spectrum.

Though it is true that undocumented youth face innumerable challenges to accessing higher levels of education and integrating into the U.S. economy, there is hope in the role that stakeholders at all levels can play in supporting these students. Educators, researchers, advocates and policymakers should consider a systemic approach that shifts the conversation from a solely deficit focus on undocumented, primarily Latino, youth to a holistic one that acknowledges the ways in which their community can positively influence their educational experiences.

School teachers, staff, and administrators can do several things to support their students. For example, schools can:

Inform students and their families of their constitutional right to a public K-12 education regardless of documentation status (as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler vs. Doe). As educators, school administrators do not have to take on the responsibility of enforcing federal immigration policy. Instead they should devote their resources to educating the children at their schools.

Help high school students identify college scholarships that do not have citizenship requirements. TheDream.US is a national scholarship fund specifically targeting recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. In addition, there may be funds from local organizations and private colleges available that vary by area.

Become informed about local and state policies that impact undocumented students’ lives. Some state and local governments have enacted polices that are hostile toward undocumented immigrants (such as Arizona’s policy that requires local police to ask about immigration status during routine stops), while others are more immigrant-friendly (like Texas’ policy that allows in-state tuition for immigrant students).

Develop positive relationships with all students. When students feel they can trust their teachers or counselors, they may feel comfortable enough to share their documentation status and reach out for help when they need it. This provides an opportunity to provide support so they do not have to face the challenges alone.

Connect students with local organizations. Undocumented students may find the socio-emotional support they need and gain access to resources by participating in organizations like Immigrant Youth Justice League, United We Dream, and countless local groups in communities and colleges.

As more and more undocumented youth come of age in the United States, it is imperative that we as a community provide these youth with the necessary support structures to achieve their academic potential and grow up to be thriving adults.

For more than 40 years, IDRA has advocated for systemic transformation to ensure all children receive the educational opportunities they deserve. This requires sustained, authentic collaboration between schools and communities and public policies that are inclusive, foster equity, hold stakeholders appropriately accountable, and acknowledge the interconnections between educational systems (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010).


American Psychological Association. Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century (Washington, D.C.: APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration, 2012).

Arbona, C., & M. Olvera, N. Rodríguez, J., Hagan, A., Linares, M. Wiesner. “Acculturative Stress Among Documented and Undocumented Latino Immigrants in the United States,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences (2010).

Gonzales, R.G. “Left Out But Not Shut Down: Political Activism and the Undocumented Student Movement,” Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy (2008).

Gonzales, R.G., & L.R. Chavez. “‘Awakening to a Nightmare’ – Abjectivity and Illegality in the Lives of Undocumented 1.5 Generation Latino Immigrants in the United States,” Current Anthropology (2012).

Gonzales, R.G., & C. Suárez-Orozco, M.C. Dedios-Sanguineti. “No Place to Belong: Contextualizing Immigrant Youth in the United States,” American Behavioral Scientist (2013).

Hao, L., & H.S. Woo. “Distinct Trajectories in the Transition to Adulthood: Are Children of Immigrants Advantaged?Child Development (2012).

Kao, G., & M. Tienda. “Optimism and Achievement: The Educational Performance of Immigrant Youth,” Social Science Quarterly (1995).

Murillo, Jr., E.G., & S.A. Villenas, R.T. Galván, J.S. Muñoz, C. Martínez, M. Machado-Casas. Handbook of Latinos and Education: Theory, Research, and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Passel, J.S., & D. Cohn, J.M. Krogstad, A. Gonzalez-Barrera. As Growth Stalls, Unauthorized Immigrant Population Becomes More Settled (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, 2014).

Passel, J.S. Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S: Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, 2006).

Passel, J.S., & D. Cohn. Unauthorized Immigrant Totals Rise in 7 States, Fall in 14: Decline in Those From Mexico Fuels Most State Decreases (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, 2014).

Perez, W. We Are Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream (Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2009).

Perez, W., & R. Espinoza, K. Ramos, H.M. Coronado, R. Cortes. “Academic Resilience among Undocumented Latino Students,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences (2009).

Portes, A., & R.G. Rumbaut. Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (Los Angeles: University of California Press. (2001).

Robledo-Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman (Eds.). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Suárez-Orozco, C., & M. Suárez-Orozco. Trans-formations: Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation Among Latino Adolescents (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995).

Suárez-Orozco, C., & H. Yoshikawa, R. Teranishi, M. Suárez-Orozco. “Growing up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status,” Harvard Educational Review (2011).

Sullivan, M.M., & R. Rehm. “Mental Health of Undocumented Mexican Immigrants: A Review of the Literature,” Advances in Nursing Science (2005).

Yoshikawa, H., & A. Kalil. “The Effects of Parental Undocumented Status on the Developmental Contexts of Young Children in Immigrant Families,” Child Development Perspectives (2011).

Yoshikawa, H., & J. Kholoptseva, C. Suárez-Orozco. “The Role of Public Policies and Community-Based Organizations in the Developmental Consequences of Parent Undocumented Status,” Social Policy Report of the Society for Research in Child Development (2013). 

Sofia Bahena, Ed.D., is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Civic Engagement Department. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at sofia.bahena@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]