American Hopes, Broken Dreams

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Lives in Limbo uses qualitative research techniques to follow the lives of 150 undocumented Latino (largely Mexican) youths in Los Angeles over a 12-year span.

The research for the book has yielded a wealth of information that contradicts the often-held belief that undocumented youths experience a smooth transition to legal status.

The children in the study came to live with families already in the U.S. and began their American lives in public schools where their immigration status was unknown or irrelevant. Some received excellent attention and support from their schools, while others were marginalized and eventually became so discouraged that they dropped out. To all intents and purposes, these children lived as Americans—they attended school, played sports, and participated relatively freely in the life of their communities. They spoke English better than their parents and had years to absorb American popular culture.

Many, however, experienced a rude awakening when they got older. They needed Social Security numbers for after-school jobs and scholarships, financial aid was frequently not available to them, and in California at the time undocumented students were required to pay out-of-state tuition. Lack of a driver’s license kept many from getting to work or school. Occasionally friends or family were picked up in raids and deported back to Mexico, leading to feelings of insecurity and fear.

So, far from walking a path to legality and full participation in American society, these young people faced increasing restrictions and were forced to live in the shadows. Their relationships with peers began to fragment and break, and gradually they began to withdraw from their social networks and activities. Financial obligations added to the stress felt by these young people, who were usually expected to contribute to the family coffers, depleted because of the low-wage jobs held by parents and other members of the household. Even young people who had been highly successful in school and were able to get to college often found themselves in the same kinds of jobs as their parents because of the lack of Social Security numbers.

The DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which was expanded during the Obama administration, offered “temporary work permits and deportation relief to more than 664,000 youths who had lived in the U.S. since childhood.” Unfortunately, the $465 application fee was prohibitive for many, while a history of youthful gang membership or other misbehaviors can render an applicant ineligible for DACA status.

Gonzalez uses case histories of young people who either left high school early or who graduated (a much smaller group) to illustrate the stresses and dashed hopes they experienced. Although this monograph is an academic work, it is extremely readable and would be useful for anyone who wishes to become fully informed about the worlds of these deserving young people who could potentially contribute so much to the country that they adopted but that in many cases did not adopt them back.


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By (author): Roberto G. Gonzalez

*A portion of purchases made via the above links benefits Child’s World America.


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