Immigration and Identity

Talk about immigration is usually about federal policies and legal frameworks. But some researchers are examining how being an immigrant affects young people’s everyday lives.

By Charles Whitaker

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Grace is, by all outward appearances, a typical high-performing college student. But she harbors a deep secret: She is an undocumented immigrant, a fact she has withheld from most of her friends, including the boyfriend with whom she’d maintained a very serious year-long relationship.

Mural of hispanic people


Few studies on immigration have taken into account the consequences on young people, including consequences related to mental and physical health. SSA’s Roberto Gonzales is one of a handful of scholars who are examining the psycho-social adjustment many young, undocumented residents face as they move into young adulthood and resign themselves to a narrowly circumscribed range of post-school opportunities. Faculty members Yoonsun Choi and Miwa Yasui note that immigrant experience impacts psychological states and that the profound differences in immigrant experience based on ethnicity, legal status, age and other factors must also be taken into account when studying these factors.


Published in the Summer 2012 issue of SSA Magazine

Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at SSA, recalls a recent afternoon when he bumped into Grace while he was visiting her California campus. He had interviewed her as part of his wide ranging ethnographic study of the life histories of undocumented Latino young adults, and the two went out for coffee. She talked about how, a few weeks prior, her boyfriend had railed about the “damned illegals” while the two of them were watching a news report featuring a protest staged by undocumented workers. She quietly broke it off with him the next day, claiming that she was too busy with work and school for a relationship. Sitting with Gonzales, Grace was still reeling from the breakup. “She just looked so different and distressed,” he recalls.

“Adolescence is already a stressful, highly charged time,” he continues, “but [these young people] have additional stressors of not being able to legally participate in many of the important rites of passage for this age. They see friends moving forward, while they stay in one place, having to live with this secret.”

Scholars such as Gonzales are examining the impact of immigration on adolescents, exploring the rarely exposed tensions and traumas buffeting both documented and undocumented immigrants. By delving into the lives and life trajectories of young immigrants, they are researching the myriad psycho-social and developmental issues that can be lost in the standard media and political narratives about immigration, as well as in programs and interventions designed for those born in the U.S.

As a clinical psychologist, SSA Assistant Professor Miwa Yasui sees that acculturation processes and unique socio-cultural challenges faced by minority and immigrant children have often been ignored in developmental and clinical research. “Within the field of child development, many of the theories are derived from the perspectives and experiences of mainstream families,” she says. “Much of the research examining ethnic minority families centers on race —comparative work that does not address culturally unique developmental processes central to positive adjustment. The result is the framework for much of the theory about development and what is considered normative childrearing practices often do not include culturally embedded values, beliefs, traditions and experiences that may in fact be essential for ethnic minority and immigrant children.”

Though scholarly journals have begun to include more papers with examples drawn from the lives and experiences of minority and immigrant families, Yasui says, there still is a huge need for more research that examines culturally specific developmental processes that may vary from the “normative” developmental pathways of mainstream families. “We have far to go to learn more,” she says.

Professor Roberto Gonzales stands with students near a mural in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

Through his West Coast Undocumented Young Adults Project, the first large-scale study of this vulnerable population, Roberto Gonzales has identified a common pattern for youth who come into this country at such a young age. They are essentially indistinguishable from their native born friends and classmates. Through childhood, they experience school and community life the same as their native-born peers, only to find their options curtailed by their legal status as they get older and cannot legally obtain documentation like a Social Security card or driver’s license.

It’s a process that Gonzales calls “learning to be illegal,” a frustrating psycho-social adjustment many young, undocumented residents face as they move from childhood into adolescence and young adulthood and reluctantly resign themselves to the narrowly circumscribed range of post school opportunities. By high school, two distinctly different though equally traumatic trajectories begin to emerge for these undocumented Latinos. For those with circumstances in high school that prevented them from moving forward (unfavorable tracking, disconnected from positive relationships and resources in school, trouble with the law, early teen pregnancy), their aspirations flatten once they leave school and reluctantly resign themselves to the same narrowly circumscribed range of options as their parents.

“One young man I talked to said he felt his years in school had made him ‘soft’ in many ways. He wasn’t prepared to be working 12 hours a day. He wasn’t prepared for the possibility that he might get fired for going to the bathroom. So he was thrust into a world that really is the antithesis of what he had hoped and prepared for,” Gonzales says.

But the outcomes are not appreciably better for industrious college-going immigrants like Grace, who did well in school and graduated from college. For these students, who are about 5 to 10 percent of the young people in this demographic, the post-secondary years are fraught with tensions surrounding paying for school, maintaining their secret and hoping for a change in legislation that will enable them to realize the professional aspirations they were encouraged to harbor. Against considerable financial and social odds, many of them finish college or even graduate school, only to find the same roadblocks.

“So they’re just waiting,” Gonzales says. “Two years out of college, three years out of college, five years out of college, they’re still waiting. Eventually, like the ones who exited school early and who went through this at 16 or 17, the college-goers’ hopes also start to recede. And in some ways they’re worse off than the early-exiters because for a long time they subscribed to this dream that by playing by the rules, that by working really hard they were going to get something. Now they have to start from scratch, and in some instances, from below scratch.”

Gonzales says more research is needed to get at the relationship between undocumented status and day-to-day life in order to better understand the contours of the existence of the young people he surveyed. While he is not a psychologist or physician, he says his study revealed a number of mental health and well-being issues in his subjects that merit the attention of researchers and clinicians.

“Much about what we know from the media about the high achievers—those commonly known as Dreamers—is their only problems are that they can’t get into college and can’t get jobs,” he says. “Indeed, these are serious problems. But their daily lives are rife with stress and worry, and these stresses have important implications for their mental and emotional well-being. Nearly every person I interviewed talked about headaches, ulcers, toothaches, trouble sleeping, problems eating, thoughts of suicide, and even attempted suicide.”

Roberto Gonzales at a coffee house in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood with students in SSA’s master’s program

The process of learning about the impact of immigration on youth identity is made more difficult by the simple fact that, while there are similarities in the immigrant experience, there are also profound differences based on ethnicity, legal status, age and other factors. For example, SSA Associate Professor Yoonsun Choi, whose work includes explorations of Asian immigrant communities, points out that the public perception of Asian immigrants as the “model minority” masks the diversity of their experience.

“What we see is a very extreme distribution of bimodal socio-economic status, with Chinese immigrants and those from countries like Korea, the Philippines, India and Japan on one extreme, with high levels of education and concentrations in fields like high-tech or health care,” Choi says. “In contrast, Cambodian Americans, those from Laos, Pacific Islanders and a lot of other groups have abysmal education levels, with high school dropout rates being high and collegegoing rates low.”

Choi’s research examines how the colonial histories of the countries of origin affect how members of these subgroups interact with American culture. The Philippines, for example, endured 400 years of western colonization, which Choi says, gives them a very different adaptation to the U.S. than Korean Americans, whose country of origin was colonized not by a western power, but by Japan. Due to the long history of colonization, Filipino immigrants are familiar with the American education system and are fluent in English prior to their immigration. However, they might have also internalized a sense of the oppressed, showing a weak sense of ethnic identity. Conversely, Korean immigrants are well known for a strong sense of ethnic pride and solidarity, which, however, leads to social and cultural isolation in the U.S.

Both Yasui and Choi say entrenched stereotypes can also cloud the discourse about development within a cultural context. Choi points to the recent “Tiger Mother” debate launched in the wake of the publication of Yale law professor Amy Chua’s headline-grabbing memoir recounting the strict disciplinary code under which she raised two daughters. The controversy over Chua’s book and purported parenting style is a public conversation that could have benefitted from more scholarly input, Choi says.

While Choi dismisses much of Chua’s account as sensationalized for the sake of promoting the book, she does concede that there are some aspects of what is considered Asian parenting that are indeed different than the parenting style of Westerners. Very little scholarly research has been devoted to those differences, Choi says, “so what I would like to get at is how precisely this parenting is different and what exactly is different about it. It’s more than just the stereotype of Asian parents being extremely controlling and harsh, because if that’s the case I think we would see far more and serious mental health issues with these children.”

The work of researchers like Yasui is helping us understand more about how the immigrant experience impacts psychological states. She is looking at the variety of ways and contexts in which ethnic and racial socialization occur in an effort not only to discern how culture shapes development in these families but how clinicians and researchers can better serve and understand family needs in that context. She examines, among other things, the processes by which families pass on cultural knowledge, values, beliefs and practices in an effort to greater understand the impact that culture has on development.

“For the field, how we can help these families is to really help them understand the acculturation process,” Yasui says. “And also help them understand that there are differences between how the parent and the child interact with mainstream culture and in some way being the mediator between the two.”