Do undocumented youth end up having the same low-wage jobs as their parents?

Despite having adapted to an American lifestyle, the children of undocumented workers end up having to settle for the same types of low wages as some of their parents, even if the children graduated from college, a new study shows.

The survey  was based on interviews conducted for more than four years. The reality is far from the American dream that the parents imagined after migrating to the United States, said Roberto Gonzales, the study’s author and assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

“Their [undocumented youth who participated in the survey] parents learned right away how to survive and to live in fear. The children grew up with American-born children… they integrated into the legal system” Gonzales said on Friday. “They went to school and prom and they did all the same things their American-born counterparts did. But then they realized how different their lives were. They found themselves restricted.”

Gonzales’ survey is the first of its kind that includes interviews from students having an array of experiences, from high school dropouts to young adults who have a master’s degree. The results will be published in the August edition of the American Sociological Review. The study was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In all, Gonzales interviewed 150 undocumented youth from 20- to 34-years-old who migrated to Southern California before the age of 12. The survey found that about 20 percent of them dropped out of high school while 28 percent graduated from high school. Only 14 percent received a bachelor’s degree and 6 percent a master’s degree. The majority of the youth, about 30 percent, had been enrolled, or are still enrolled, in a community college or university.

The majority of them are also currently working low-wage jobs, Gonzales said. His findings challenge the definition of whether education is the key to success.

The report also found, however, that undocumented youth have a higher possibility of pursuing higher education if they have a mentor and family support.

“Our long held belief that educational attainment provides the way to upward mobility is challenged,” Gonzales said. “The laws create a dramatic change in experiences.”

The findings are divided into three sections to help understand the struggles of these undocumented young adults:

  • K-12: Respondents learned about their legal status and how they dealt with the news, which changed their future plans.
  • Age 18-24: In this “learning to be illegal” period, respondents described how the reality of being undocumented played out in their plans.
  • During the respondent’s mid-20s they found themselves coping with their situation.

“For the children of unauthorized parents, success means improving on the quality of jobs and opportunities. Many youth end up only a small step ahead,” Gonzales writes.

Gonzales notes that these undocumented young adults’ jobs have “the same limited and limiting employment options as their parents.”

© Community Renewal Society 2011


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    The thing that sticks with me about this study is the fortitude of these students. 30 percent attended college. 1 in 5 got a BA or Master's degree. I keep hearing about the job/ skills mismatch. This study suggests that we have a growing number of ambitious American educated people. The bigger question is are we going to put these peoples' skills to good use before they become outdated?

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