Researcher delves into the lives of the DREAMers

Ten years ago Roberto Gonzales began investigating what life is like for the more than one million people who came to the United States as children. Particularly, the Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago wanted to know when these children recognized what their different status would mean for their lives.

He spent three and a half years conducting interviews of 250 young adult undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 12. He found the same stories again and again.

“This is a case where the marriage of politics and policy gets in the way of what’s good and what’s right.” ~ Roberto Gonzales, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago

Undocumented children growing up and going to school just like their citizen peers, only to realize they were much different in their teenage years.

“At an age when peer influence is so critical, they find out that they’re not like everybody else,” he explains. “They can’t get a drivers’ license, can’t get financial aid, can’t get the scholarships that their peers are seeking.”

They are the DREAMers (so named because they are the generation of immigrants affected by the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act), undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children by their parents, who came here illegally in search of work. They are educated in America’s K-12 school system, but after so much is invested, many are left with the frightening prospect of paying huge tuition bills if they can get into college, or not being able to go at all despite high academic achievement.

“It’s a huge waste of talent, a huge waste of resources, and a huge waste of an investment we’ve already made in these students,” Gonzales says.

In his research, Gonzales found that one factor that led to the growth of illegal immigration in the 1990s was the tightening of border security.

“In the 1980s we started putting more money into fortifying the border,” he says. “That really disrupted what had been a circular flow in which migrants were leaving families home to work seasonally.”

The demand for migrant labor didn’t decline, Gonzales says. What changed is the auspices under which migrants came.

“We made it a lot more difficult for them to go back and forth,” he argues. “Tightening border security meant that immigrants were deterred through the desert, which made it much more dangerous for them to come here.”

So instead of coming to the United States and filling the labor shortage seasonally when businesses in the agriculture and tourism industries needed them, migrant workers stayed in the United States permanently. To come here they had to spend thousands of dollars, risk their lives to cross the border, and risk being deported any day. Once getting here, they had too much invested to just return home and do it again next year.

The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 compounded the problem.

“After NAFTA you had this huge displacement of populations as Mexican farms were put out of business by cheaper American goods,” he says. “So not only are migrants having a hard time maintaining this circularity, but now they don’t have anything to go back to.”

President Barack Obama’s new deferred action policy is nothing close to comprehensive immigration reform, but for DREAMers, Gonzales says it represents a step forward. They will be eligible for “a sort of second-class citizenship,” Gonzales says, and that’s progress for those seeking to go to college or already facing deportation.

DREAMers can now get temporary work permits, which may lead to drivers’ licenses depending on the whims of their state. For those pursuing college, they can now get paid internships, which for those moving into graduate school means they can now do the research required to get an advanced degree or take a job upon graduation.

“This is a case where the marriage of politics and policy gets in the way of what’s good and what’s right,” Gonzales says of the debate over what to do for the DREAMers. “To support those that are here, we have to consider giving some sort of regularization to adults. We need to ask how we make the most out of what can be a potential benefit? We’ve proved that we’ve sealed the border. We’ve been very tough on immigrants the last two administrations. Now, how do we think about integrating the people who are here who have formed relationships with employers and neighbors.”

Roberto Gonzales is writing a book about undocumented immigrant youth and their difficult transitions to adulthood.