By Cassandra Balfour, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 6, 2013
Robert G. Gonzalez, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, started off his presentation on the lives of Americans raised by undocumented immigrants by telling the story of Alex, a boy he worked with in Chicago. Alex wasn’t able to attend a private arts high school in Chicago because he lacked nine critical digits.
“A social security number,” the crowd of professors and students in the Union Ballroom murmured in response Tuesday morning.
Gonzalez spoke as part of the University's ongoing MLK symposium and has spent 20 years researching undocumented immigrant youth and working directly with this demographic. He said those with an undocumented status straddle the line “uncomfortably between experiences of belonging and illegality.” He said the proposed DREAM act, which allows young, undocumented immigrants a stay of deportation, creates a “second-class” citizenship.
“The DREAM act was first introduced in 2001, and many of the first-intended beneficiaries of the act have aged out of eligibility,” Gonzalez said. “Many of these young people have been waiting and waiting and waiting while Congress debates their futures.”
“Dreams deferred” was the overarching theme of Gonzalez’s talk. He stressed that out of 11.1-million undocumented immigrants, 2.1 million have been here since childhood. Despite their Americanized upbringing, these students often lack access to the same opportunities as their American-born peers by the time they finish high school.
“While our laws treat children and adults differently, they don’t account for the continuity of children becoming adults,” Gonzalez said. “These young people are very different from their parents who are absorbed from day one into low-wage jobs and life in the shadows … many of these young people by contrast grow up in the sunshine.”
Gonzalez discussed his extensive multi-state research on undocumented children moving from “spaces of belonging to rejection, from inclusion to exclusion.”
Although these children grew up using American slang during, they eventually hit a wall when their immigration status becomes the most salient part of their identity.
Throughout his presentation, Gonzalez quoted many of the undocumented students he interviewed, including one young man, Rudy, who started feeling out of place when he graduated high school and realized he didn’t have the social security number required on many job applications.
Ultimately Gonzalez aimed to not only shed light on these undocumented students and point out deficiencies he sees in the United States’ immigration policy, which is failing young people who feel like American citizens but lack the paperwork to back it up.
Gonzalez also discussed the pivotal role of the “underground railroad” of teachers who shepherd undocumented students into college by mentoring them and finding ways to pay for college without the help of federal aid.