Professor Roberto G. Gonzales
Professor Roberto G. Gonzales

Roberto G. Gonzales

Roberto Gonzales has done extensive research on undocumented immigrant youth and young adult populations in America.
By Norah M. Murphy

UPDATED: September 16, 2017 at 5:40 p.m.

Roberto G. Gonzales is a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a sociologist who researches inequality. Gonzales has done extensive work focusing on undocumented immigrant youth and young adult populations in America. He conducted a 12-year study to determine what happens to undocumented youth as they transition to adulthood, a study culminating in his book “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.” Gonzales followed this with a five-year study of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Since the Trump administration announced its plans to end DACA, Gonzales has received an inundation of media requests.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fifteen Minutes: What led you to this field of research?

Roberto Gonzales: I had worked as a youth organizer in Chicago for 10 years, and I had lived in the same community where I worked. It was an immigrant community, largely Mexican and Polish, and I had the experience of seeing many kids in our community hit dead ends at around fourteen, fifteen years old. As their friends were getting drivers licenses, taking after school jobs, and starting to think about college, many of the young people I was working with in the community, because of their immigration status constraints, were not able to join their friends at a really critical time.

Then when I got to graduate school, I was working with some prominent immigration scholars who were my advisors and some of them were studying undocumented immigrants as adults and as workers, but hadn’t yet thought about the circumstances of children in these families, especially kids who have undocumented status. I had very first hand experience with a growing demographic of kids in our communities and in our schools that wasn’t being reflected in the academic literature. I saw a big gap there. So I started this research very early on in my graduate studies.

FM: What sort of factors influence DACA’s accessibility to young undocumented immigrants?

RG: One of the requirements is an education requirement—so, to be in school, to either have graduated from high school or have success with a completed GED program, or to be enrolled in GED, workforce development or literacy programs.

Someone could enroll in a program and that would get them eligibility, but there are other issues, like being able to find those on-ramps back into education for young people who, for the last several years, have been working in low wage jobs, trying to support their families.

Place matters a lot. To have DACA in New York City, for example, where you have access to in-state tuition, a very strong public higher education system, reliable public transportation, and you live in a city that supports immigrants is very different than growing up and having DACA in suburban or rural Georgia. You’re excluded from public education, even with DACA, where public transportation is not so vast and so available, and where there are local agreements between immigration enforcement and local police. Where one lives today is dramatically determinative of the level of access that young people with DACA have.

FM: What kind of impacts has DACA had on young undocumented immigrant populations?

RG: We’ve seen DACA beneficiaries take giant leaps, off the margins and towards the American mainstream.They have certainly seen investments in higher education pay off, in the form of high paying jobs and also access to graduate school.

But in my opinion, and from our data, arguably the biggest success stories of DACA have been those young people who prior to DACA had been funneled out of school. DACA has provided really important incentives for young people to go back to school and really important on-ramps to workforce development.

FM: Have there been any unexpected impacts of DACA?

RG: Beyond education and employment, DACA has also helped boost feelings of belonging and improve mental health. In my LA study, this was one of my biggest surprise findings. What I found very early on is that the young people I met were describing physical and emotional manifestations of stress: chronic headaches, ulcers, sleep problems, eating disorders, depression, thoughts of suicide. This link between undocumented status and strained well being became clear early on, and DACA has worked to alleviate a lot of these pressures.

FM: What could the end of DACA mean for eligible young people?

RG: Thinking about current events now, I think with the very real possibility of this program ending, especially if there is no legislative solution in the next six months, then all of this that we’ve been talking about is in jeopardy. This is a program that has provided a nontrivial number of young people access to the American Dream, and for it to be taken away, I think we’ll have really tremendous ripple effects. I think we can imagine some of them, but I think there are many more that will emerge over the weeks and months ahead that we haven’t even anticipated.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: September 15, 2017

A previous version of this story misstated Professor Gonzales's title.