Today's immigration debates have brought to the fore conflicting visions within the United States over how to address a population of eleven to twelve million undocumented immigrants. The substantial growth of settled unauthorized populations has generated new concerns, as rising numbers of undocumented immigrants start their lives in the U.S. as children and in American schools. While these youngsters find family poverty and parental legal status constraints to be early deterrents, they experience sharp contradictions between the levels of integration at early ages and legal exclusions in late adolescence and adulthood.
Over the last decade, Assistant Professor Roberto G. Gonzales has examined these issues in the U.S. and Europe. His West Coast Undocumented Young Adults Research Project has collected in-depth qualitative data on over 200 undocumented young adults who have lived in the U.S. since childhood. Broadly, this research is aimed at generating a better understanding of their educational trajectories, how they come of age, and how a segment of these young people engages in civic and political activity. Gonzales finds that conflicting and contradictory laws—most importantly, those regarding immigration and education—move undocumented adolescents and young adults from experiences of belonging and inclusion to those of rejection and exclusion. The process of "learning to be illegal" tremendously impacts these young people's coming of age, identity formation, friendship patterns, aspirations and expectations. And, while these transitions differently impact undocumented college goers and those who exit the school system early, by their mid-twenties, the overwhelming majority has very few legal options.
Gonzales' research indicates that while most American youngsters today face some difficulty managing adolescent and adult transitions, undocumented youth face added challenges. Their exclusion from important rites of passage in late adolescence and movement from protected to unprotected status leave them in a state of developmental limbo, preventing subsequent and important adult transitions. Moreover, unlike their legal peers who linger in adolescence due to safety nets at home, many of these youngsters are required to start contributing to their families and taking care of themselves at early ages. These unique incorporation patterns shape adolescent and adult transitions that diverge significantly from those of their documented peers, and place them in jeopardy of becoming a disenfranchised underclass. However, Gonzales has found that the presence of parental support, nurturing school environments, and school-based mentors can enable undocumented students to overcome financial and legal barriers, succeed in school, and develop capacity for leadership.
While the recent reintroduction of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act in the 112th Congress has raised awareness of the untenable situation facing more than 2.1 million undocumented immigrant children and young adults who have lived in the U.S. since childhood, Gonzales' research provides scholars, policy makers, and practitioners data driven insight into a sizeable and vulnerable population. He has published important findings from this work in the American Sociological Review, Current Anthropology, International Migration and many other peer-reviewed publications. Additionally, he has written policy briefs for the Migration Policy Institute, Immigration Policy Center, Police Foundation and the College Board. He is regularly cited as an expert resource by local and national media, and is often invited to speak to national and international audiences on the circumstances confronting immigrant youth in various contexts.
Roberto G. Gonzales is an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. His scholarly interests include immigrant incorporation and adaptation, the transition to adulthood of vulnerable populations, urban poverty, youth civic involvement, and Latino communities and families. Professor Gonzales’ research focuses on the ways in which legal and educational institutions shape the everyday experiences and the transitions to adulthood of poor, minority, and immigrant youth. Professor Gonzales is currently involved in several research projects: a 4½ year study of undocumented immigrant young adults in Los Angeles, a companion study in Seattle, and comparative projects on immigrant youth in the U.S. and Europe.
Professor Gonzales serves on the editorial boards of Social Problems and Social Service Review. He has also served on several local level and national boards, including the Crossroads Fund in Chicago and the American Friends Service Committee. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his research on Los Angeles. He received his undergraduate degree in Sociology from the Colorado College. He holds an A.M. from the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, and masters and doctoral degrees in Sociology from the University of California, Irvine. Prior to his faculty position at the University of Chicago, Professor Gonzales was an Assistant Professor of Social Work and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington.
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