Coming of Age and Navigating Immigration Policy


No. 8, January 2018, Global Studies Literature Review

Roberto G. Gonzales’s book, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (2015), takes a heartbreaking look at the effects of U.S. immigration laws on young undocumented individuals through the use of personal narratives. The stories that are shared in his book hit particularly close to home for many professionals working in secondary and higher education, as he reveals the severe limitations that students with undocumented status face once they hit young adulthood.

The main premise of Gonzales’s book is quite clear: for those who came to the United States in their youth, transitioning to adulthood also transitioned them to illegality. For the majority of the youths that he kept in touch with during his study, the status of being “illegal” was their master or dominant status, as perceived by both themselves and society at large. The result of this “master status” was that it became the overall constraining factor in their lives. Even if they were able to work around their illegal status, the solutions were usually temporary and relatively unstable. The most successful undocumented young people in his study were able to make it to college.

For so many young adults, college is an exciting time of new discoveries and opportunities, including the chance to engage with a diverse and, often, international community both in the United States and abroad. However, Gonzales outlines a very different picture for young people with undocumented status. These undocumented young people face significant barriers to make it to college. Even when they do, their college experiences often contrast with the idealistic image of a bastion of open-mindedness and acceptance.

Gonzales shares “a story of the university as a place of discrimination and difficulty for undocumented students. This story is often lost in popular narratives but is just as much a part of the undocumented experience…. many others experience their campuses as cold and impersonal” (2015, 174). This feeling of discrimination and difficulty can extend beyond students with undocumented status. Regardless of the immigration status of international students, they may run into some of the same coldness and discrimination on divided campuses that students with undocumented status face. The overall sentiment that foreigners are “outsiders” and a negative influence can permeate the entire campus community. This is particularly true in the current climate in which international students may be facing stricter immigration regulations, inconsistent guidelines, and media or personal messages of hostility.

While Gonzales states that the intention of the book is not to rewrite policy, through the stories he shares, he shows that there is a need to take a critical look at immigration policy. As international educators, we should take notice of the current immigration regulations and rhetoric so that we can consider how they affect all of our students and campus communities.

Gonzales, Roberto G. 2015. Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.