Guest post by Juan M. Pedroza, a PhD candidate in sociology, Graduate Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and Ford Foundation Predoctoral Research Fellow (2014-2017).

Review of Undocumented Latino Youth: Navigating Their Worlds by Marisol Clark-Ibáñez (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015)

Unauthorized young people in the United States have made news headlines for years. Today, unauthorized students meet―and, in many cases, join the ranks of―educators, journalists, legislators, and public servants all the time. Articles, books, and movies about unauthorized young peoples’ obstacles and activism now abound. How did we get here? First of all, federal law makes millions of unauthorized immigrants (including immigrant youth) ineligible to adjust their legal status, especially those who arrived after 1981. At the same time, school-age unauthorized youth have the same rights to a public education (through to the twelfth grade) as anyone else, as decided by the Supreme Court in December 1982. It was only a matter of time before unauthorized students and allies organized to call attention to the need for federal immigration reform. By 2001, Congressional leaders acknowledged the need to address the consequences of mass unauthorized immigration on school-age youth without regular legal status. If you’re looking to make sense of these looming dilemmas, you’re in luck. Many reliable sources aim to make the experiences of unauthorized youth intelligible and meaningful to a wider audience. Undocumented Latino Youth is among the latest additions to the growing literature on immigrant youth and unauthorized immigration.

Marisol Clark-Ibáñez organizes the book around successive stages of formal education. The study follows tenets of participatory research (detailed in a methods appendix) and aims to make a positive impact on immigrant families’ lives. In most chapters, she credits collaborators as authors and co-authors, and most chapters identify actionable steps to better serve and support unauthorized students. The book focuses on how the research team interacts with unauthorized youth, their parents, and school personnel. They identify challenges and opportunities for support at different stages of educational development. Among older students (chapters six through eight), we also learn about how young people manage the often difficult transition to adulthood. In each chapter, the researchers relay detailed vignettes, ranging from classroom management strategies to students wrestling with thorny and emotionally taxing issues.

The book confirms the work of sociology and education scholars. Clark-Ibáñez finds evidence consistent with the following, among others: Annette Lareau’s research on how class shapes parenting practices (p. 56); Claude Steele’s insights into how the fear of living up to negative stereotypes introduces additional gauntlets for disadvantaged students (p. 99); and Erving Goffman’s work on how we selectively present ourselves in day-to-day interactions depending on our audiences (p. 132). In each case, the book notes deviations from prior work yet refrains from reimagining or refining existing theories.

Undocumented Latino Youth adds rich detail to existing immigration scholarship. For example, the fourth chapter on middle school youth (written by an educator-collaborator) describes the experiences of unauthorized youth. It relays how students thrive, overcome obstacles, or remain ‘underidentified potential achievers’ (p. 71). Scholars may recognize in these accounts the trajectories experienced by children of immigrants as detailed in Learning a New Land: high achievers, declining achievers, improvers, and low achievers. The book also joins immigration scholars examining how unauthorized youth transition to adulthood and how unauthorized immigrants strategically assimilate to stay under the radar in hostile political contexts. The book also includes an introduction to unauthorized student social movement-building (chapter nine).

The book opens opportunities to engage two crucial debates. First, how does place shape immigrant experiences at the local level? Although anchored in the San Diego, California, region, the book’s insights on serving and educating unauthorized students conceivably stretches outside the settings it studies. The book’s lessons likely translate more easily in an immigrant-dense community with a checkered history of integration and hostility than (a) small towns with recent influxes of immigrant families or (b) welcoming cities with robust institutional capacity for integrating immigrants. The book’s lessons need not be equally transferable everywhere to be useful, of course. But our collective knowledge would benefit if we could directly compare across places. Others have taken up the task of measuring how different immigrant contexts affect immigrant communities. Notably, a recent study published in the American Economic Review finds the intensity of local immigration enforcement directly affects student performance among children of unauthorized immigrants (especially students aged 6-13). We need to synthesize the lessons learned from such studies alongside the in-depth work carried out in Undocumented Latino Youth. As a start, the Urban Institute summarized research on how state and local context affects immigrants’ lives.

Second, is the ‘American dream’ alive and well? The tension between the US as it should be―equality of opportunity and upward mobility―and the US as actually experienced―deep and growing stratification along markers of status, including legal status―colors each step of the narrative. In the concluding chapter, Clark-Ibáñez suggests we shift from discussing the promises of an aspirational American dream to the (also aspirational) language of universal human rights. The appeal of positive human rights (i.e., the right to education, housing, health care, etc.), however, remains limited in the US. Nevertheless, if Clark-Ibáñez’s detailed evidence helps motivate provocative theories of justice in the context of unauthorized migration, then our collective research will benefit immensely. Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice offers such a framework, one flexible enough to evaluate anew the collective research on unauthorized youth.

Thanks to Undocumented Latino Youth and similar research, we now know more about the lives and experiences of unauthorized youth than we did when the unauthorized student movement first gained national attention. Clark-Ibáñez and her team assembled compelling narratives worth studying and debating. College students and practitioners in education and family psychology can turn to the book as a resource in the fields of immigration policy, the sociology of education, child and youth development, and participatory research design. In the absence of an overhaul of the federal immigration system, the problems and strategies identified in the book will be with us for a long time.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Pedroza, J.M. (2016) Book Review: Undocumented Latino Youth: Navigating Their Worlds. Available at: (Accessed [date]).