When College is Illegal: Undocumented Latino/a Youth and Mobilizing Social Support for Educational Attainment in South Carolina


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

There are an estimated 1.9 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who came to the U.S. as children. Undocumented youths cannot work legally anywhere in the U.S., and state laws barring access to higher education further influence their social mobility. Theory suggests that social ties to teachers and other key individuals might provide a buffer against such a restrictive context, but we know little about how such ties form. This study explores how undocumented students access social capital embedded in ties to high school teachers and staff and why, at times, they do not. We conducted in-depth phone interviews with 36 undocumented immigrants (ages 18–25) in South Carolina, a state that blocks undocumented immigrant access to higher education. All respondents were Latino/a immigrants. Undocumented youths in our sample demonstrated determination and ingenuity in the face of a hostile receiving context. Yet, legal status had implications for attainment of their educational goals, as well as the availability and utility of support in high school. Although they incorporated socially in high school, undocumented students in this study encountered barriers to accessing the support they needed to transition to college. Local and state policy contexts are important for the social mobility and incorporation of undocumented immigrants. This study suggests that such laws can exacerbate barriers to developing social connections between undocumented students and school personnel, which might alter students’ educational pathways.

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