Undocumented Childhood Arrivals in the U.S.: Widening the Frame for Research and Policy

By Stephanie L. Canizales and Daysi Diaz-Strong


Authors: Stephanie L. Canizales, University of California at Merced, and Daysi Diaz-Strong, University of Illinois Chicago.

Amongst undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., the fate of childhood arrivals has garnered greater public sympathy and political support relative to other segments of the population since the early 2000s. People typically imagine childhood arrivals as children migrating alongside or in the hope of reunifying with parents. Undocumented children are assumed to follow a Western normative coming of age trajectory. The dominant portrait assumes they grow up as dependents with access to education and socialization in K-12 schools and make decisions about pursuing higher education, entering the workplace, and family formation as they transition into adulthood.

Despite undocumented childhood arrivals being at the center of the immigration debate over the last two decades, youth who do not follow this linear coming of age trajectory are left in the political fray. Our qualitative research in Los Angeles, California and Chicago, Illinois shows that the common portrait of the undocumented young person growing up in the U.S. does not reflect the diversity of childhood arrivals and the full range of their incorporation and coming of age experiences.

In this brief, we show how the three primary assumptions about the social and institutional contexts that undocumented youth grow up in ignore the diversity of the childhood arrival population and hamper the effectiveness of protective policies. Limited frames have led to policies that exclude a significant segment of undocumented youth. We share stories of lesser-known segments of this population as a corrective to the limited understanding. Widening the frame of undocumented childhood arrivals in the U.S. can support more inclusive immigration reform.


For media outreach about the brief, please contact  jennifer.allsopp@gse.harvard.edu.

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