News And Politics

Unauthorized immigrants turn to activism, says study

May 14, 2012, 11:58 a.m.

Undocumented students and supporters rally at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles in September 2010 in favor of the DREAM Act. (Credit: Nataly Tavidian/KPCC)


The life of an unauthorized immigrant is a tough one – something which causes many of them to turn to civic and political engagement.

A new study in Current Anthropology looked at how the immigration status of 1.5-generation Latinos – those who migrated at a young age – living in the U.S. affects "their political, civic and public selves."

Researchers hypothesized that unauthorized immigrants live frustrated lives due to the limits their status places on issues relating to "surveillance, immigration documents, employment forms, birth certificates, tax forms, drivers' licenses, credit card applications, bank accounts, medical insurance, car insurance, random detentions and deportations."

They interviewed 80 Latino men and women in person and conducted phone surveys of 805 Latino and 396 non-Latino white women and men, gathering information on income, work, education, residence, family, discrimination, immigration status, political engagement and use of medical services.

They found that the majority of study participants had taken part in marches and demonstrations in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, risking exposure as an unauthorized immigrant. The federal version of the DREAM Act proposes "conditional legal status for qualifying young people who arrived in the U.S. under age 16, provided they go to college or join the military," writes KPCC's Leslie Berestein Rojas in Multi-American.

"Rites of passage common to American youth – getting a driver's license, traveling, working and applying to college – are either denied, unattainable or dangerous to pursue for undocumented immigrants," said study co-author Leo Chavez in a statement. "It's at this point that many realize society sees them as disposable, as easily cast away. Yet rather than merely give up, they become involved in campaigns to change the law."

The study's other author, Roberto Gonzales, said that "shrinking rights" for unauthorized immigrants, in addition to "increasing enforcement," "narrowly constrain everyday life and cause a great deal of stress." He noted that doing something as simple as waiting for the bus or driving can lead to arrest and, ultimately, deportation.

Even in the face of that, he added, young immigrants who are in the country illegally will still show up for, say, a DREAM Act rally.

"For them, the risks are worth it for a chance to advocate for legislation that would allow an opportunity for residency, even citizenship," Gonzales said.

Gonzales and Chavez' study also found that 23.5 percent of unauthorized Latino study participants who came to the U.S. as children had an annual family income of $35,000 or higher, compared to 67.6 percent of their counterparts who were in the country legally.

Additionally, only 30.3 percent of unauthorized Latinos had 13 or more years or schooling, compared to 50 percent of their counterparts.

"As adults, these individuals wind up making less money, are less likely to own their homes, and have less schooling – discrepancies directly linked to their immigration status," Gonzales said.

One study participant, a young adult in the U.S. illegally, said, "I know I can do so much more, but I can't because I can't choose where I live. I can't choose where I work. And the worst thing is that I can't choose my friends. In high school I was able to do that; I can't anymore.

"I can't even hang out with my high school friends anymore, and that hurts a lot," the person continued. "Yeah, they want to do grown-up stuff. I can't do anything that is 18 and over. I can't travel with them. If I want to go to a bar, I don't even have a drink."

The 2010 census found that more than 1.9 million of the more than 3.4 million immigrants in Los Angeles County are unauthorized. In 2000, approximately 40 percent of L.A. Council District 9's population was in the country illegally; that number has presumably gone up since then since the city's population grew 3.1 percent between censuses. Net migration from Mexico, however, has since come to a standstill.


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