Shifting Boundaries
Immigrant Youth Negotiating National, State, and Small-Town Politics
Alexis M. Silver



Shifting Contexts of Reception

As the 2016 presidential election neared, anti-immigrant fervor in the country mounted. Candidate Trump utilized unauthorized immigration as a key agenda item and whipped up support with enthusiastic “build that wall” chants at rallies throughout the country. As support for Trump grew, President Obama feared that his pro-immigration policies would unravel upon completion of his presidency. Though Obama faced harsh criticism from immigrants’ rights activists for record numbers of deportations under his administration, he also initiated policies to grant more security to long-term immigrants during his second term. DACA and the associated Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) both gave protection from deportation and work permits to long-term immigrants with established roots in the United States. Though DAPA was blocked by a lawsuit filed by twenty-six states, Obama remained vocal in his support for established immigrant communities in the United States. In a speech he gave prior to the 2016 presidential election, Obama urged Americans to recognize long-term undocumented immigrants and their children as national insiders who shared an American culture and outlook. He relied on research to support his position:

Every study shows that whether it was the Irish or the Poles, or the Germans, or the Italians, or the Chinese, or the Japanese, or the Mexicans, or the Kenyans—whoever showed up, over time, by a second generation, third generation, those kids are Americans. They do look like us—because we don’t look one way . . . we all share a creed and we all share a commitment to the values that founded this nation. That’s who we are.1

As Obama described a nation of immigrants with a shared creed and commitment to national values, he called on Benedict Anderson’s (1983) idea of an “imagined community,” and he placed long-term immigrants and their children squarely inside this community.

Though President Obama stated that the research uniformly found that immigrants quickly become Americans over one or two generations, his classification of the research oversimplified a long academic dialogue surrounding immigrant incorporation and assimilation. In fact, recent research about immigrant incorporation has trended toward increasingly pluralistic models that stress differences among immigrant groups of distinct national origins and address incorporation processes across various social dimensions.

Incorporation and Membership

President Obama’s characterization of assimilation research called on early models of assimilation based largely on European immigrant groups. Moreover, the studies he referenced emerged from time periods in which immigration status had less of an impact on incorporation than they do now. More recent research has labeled immigration status a master status, dictating the daily routines, mobility opportunities, and psychological outlooks of unauthorized immigrant youth, particularly at key transition points in their life courses (Gonzales 2016). Historically, assimilation theories have not accounted for immigration status. Instead, the theories tend to focus on adaptation patterns over generations, describing a gradual movement of immigrant groups into the mainstream middle class through both language acquisition and structural and cultural adaptation (Gordon 1964; Warner and Srole 1945). Though early theories of assimilation acknowledged diversity in assimilation processes based on ethnicity, culture, and structural access, the theories nonetheless largely followed a “straight-line” assimilation model in which immigrant groups gradually melted into the mainstream by adapting to the host society. More recent models of immigrant incorporation present a far more complicated picture than the straight-line route described by Obama and early theorists.

Accounting for the increased diversity in immigrant streams following the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, current discussions surrounding immigrant incorporation stress that different groups of immigrants may assimilate at different rates based on a variety of factors, including racial and ethnic discrimination, immigration laws, religious discrimination, coethnic community support, familial human capital, and available social capital (Alba and Foner 2015; Alba and Nee 2003; Bean, Brown, and Bachmeier 2015; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes and Zhou 1993; Telles and Ortiz 2008). These models of assimilation better align with Gans’s concept of bumpy-line assimilation, which allows for “changing circumstances” and incorporation trajectories with “no predictable ends” (1992, 44). Acknowledging obstacles to integration, scholars have descriptively illustrated how various immigrant groups have followed varying pathways of incorporation. Despite emphasizing more complex contexts of reception and pathways to incorporation, these grand theories nonetheless continue to downplay the importance of immigration status.

The most pervasive theory on youth incorporation, segmented assimilation, outlines several pathways of assimilation for youth of different classes and social locations but focuses primarily on US-born second- and third-generation immigrants (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes and Zhou 1993; Rumbaut 2005; Rumbaut and Portes 2001). According to segmented assimilation theory, interconnected factors, including discrimination, community context, and human capital, may facilitate either upward or downward mobility. Segmented assimilation theory recognizes upward mobility both via “straight-line” assimilation and through a reliance on ethnic social networks that foster “selective acculturation” or partial acculturation, whereby immigrant groups gradually obtain upward intergenerational mobility while retaining and benefiting from their heritage cultures (Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 63). Segmented assimilation theory also, however, describes a dangerous trend of downward assimilation into a “rainbow underclass” of urban minorities (ibid., 45). According to the theory, downward assimilation is most probable for lower-income second- and third-generation immigrants of color who face racism, discrimination, and chaotic, low-income urban neighborhood environments. The racial or ethnic discrimination described by Portes and Rumbaut, however, does not result from “spillover” assumptions about immigration status (Aranda, Menjívar, and Donato 2014). Instead, segmented assimilation theory stresses the dangers of urban youth culture.

Other scholars argue that segmented assimilation theory’s emphasis on the downward trajectories of second- and third-generation youth of color oversimplifies the culture and experiences of low-income urban blacks and Latinos and underemphasizes the impacts of progressive policies and programs, such as affirmative action (Alba and Nee 2003, 7–8; Kasinitz 2008; R. Smith 2014). Emphasizing the far-reaching impacts of post–civil rights legislative advances, Richard Alba and Victor Nee (2003) highlight English-language acquisition, intergenerational gains in educational and occupational attainment, and interethnic and interracial marriage as evidence of upward mobility and of a diversifying mainstream population. Their perspective aligns with Obama’s sentiment that Americans “don’t look one way.” The American mainstream, according to Alba and Nee’s new assimilation theory, is ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse.

Recent data from a large-scale study of second-generation youth in New York City (Kasinitz et al. 2008) and from the nationally representative Current Population Survey (Tran and Valdez 2015) affirm Alba and Nee’s argument that the second generation is making gains in educational and occupational attainment that take them, as a group, well beyond their parents. Although some Latino groups, including South Americans, most Central Americans, and Cubans, have advanced faster than Dominicans and Mexicans, all of the groups show evidence of intergenerational gains in terms of educational attainment and occupational status (Tran and Valdez 2015). Yet substantial evidence cautions against overly optimistic interpretations of intergenerational gains, as they may not predict long-term socioeconomic status mobility (Telles and Ortiz 2008; Terriquez 2014).

Building on Alba and Nee’s focus on institutional and legislative advancement, Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz (2008) point out that intergenerational gains reflect historical contexts that facilitate cohort advancements. But they also emphasize that these advances are smaller than what would be predicted by classical assimilation (Gordon 1964) or selective acculturation (Portes and Rumbaut 2001) models. Slower gains among Dominicans and Mexicans harken back to segmented assimilationist warnings of the crippling impacts of discrimination, isolation in poor urban neighborhoods, underresourced schools, and few work opportunities for individuals with low levels of education.

In an effort to explain the continued inequality, Telles and Ortiz point to the consistent replenishment of new Mexican immigrants to the Southwest as helping to sustain social distance between Mexican-origin populations and white populations in the region. Moreover, they argue that low-wage labor demands have helped facilitate stereotypes of Mexican immigrants as disposable, low-skill laborers. Adding further nuance to these arguments, Veronica Terriquez emphasizes that the low socioeconomic status of most Latino parents greatly disadvantages their children, who came of age during the Great Recession of 2008–12. Terriquez directly contrasts this population to Latinos who fared better in times of economic growth (Agius Vallejo 2012) and warns that the current population of Latino youth are primed to experience “working class stagnation” due to low levels of four-year college and few upwardly mobile job opportunities (Terriquez 2014, 383). Finally, Frank Bean, Susan Brown, and James Bachmeier stress that Mexican second-generation youth are doubly disadvantaged due to the high percentage that have “parents without papers.” Children with undocumented parents are more likely to remain in economically insecure positions for long periods of time, thus placing strain on both parents and children and diminishing opportunities for intergenerational mobility. Bean and colleagues’ “membership exclusion” theory places immigrant status as a central tenet of incorporation, but the theory nonetheless focuses on documented youth and emphasizes economic mobility without placing equal emphasis on the emotional consequences of exclusion (Bean et al. 2015, 17).

Incorporation and a Sense of Belonging

Though these theories of assimilation, incorporation, and integration have done much to advance our knowledge of the mobility patterns of various immigrant groups and their children and grandchildren, the major focus of these theories remains on markers of mobility and authorized immigrants. Most assimilation theories downplay the consequences of unauthorized status and exclusion on psychological and emotional well-being. Feelings of belonging and well-being, though harder to capture in large-scale quantitative studies, are equally important markers of incorporation as more tangible measures of mobility. As sociologist Andreas Wimmer writes, “boundaries of belonging” based on ethnicity and nationality confer “dignity, honor, identity, economic resources and political power” (2013, 5). Beginning with “dignity,” Wimmer thus underlines the far-reaching impacts of successful incorporation that go beyond measures of mobility and move into psychological and emotional terrain. Similarly, Richard Alba and Nancy Foner argue that immigrants and their children lack access to full membership, as defined by “having the same educational and work opportunities as long-term native-born citizens . . . and a sense of dignity and belonging that comes with acceptance and inclusion in a broad range of societal institutions” (2015, 1–2). Even as the mainstream adapts to growing populations of immigrants and their offspring, significant barriers to both mobility and dignity persist for immigrants and their descendants.

Immigration status, moreover, has taken on increased significance in recent years. As immigration law has become increasingly linked with criminal law, immigrants have become stigmatized as illegal border crossers capable of other illicit activities (Dreby 2015; Flores 2014; Golash-Boza 2015; Kanstroom 2007; Stumpf 2006). Heightened enforcement climates can have deleterious impacts on immigrants and their family members, as they face perpetual threats of deportation, family separation, and marginalization (Abrego and Lakhani 2015; De Genova 2002, 2010; Dreby 2015; Gonzales 2016; Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Menjívar and Abrego 2012). Immigrants often experience chronic anxiety and associated health problems as they endure long-term uncertainty. For many unauthorized immigrant youth, the stigmas associated with their immigration status obstruct their feelings of membership and their opportunities for successful incorporation into the country that they know best. They are acutely aware of the negative stereotypes portrayed in the popular press and know that many within their communities of residence consider them intrusive outsiders.

Illustratively, as Trump began his campaign for president in 2016 classifying Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murders,” he drew boundaries of belonging that placed Mexican immigrants decidedly outside inclusion, and furthermore undermined their dignity and honor. Throughout his campaign, Trump highlighted sharp boundaries between insider Americans and outsider immigrants who threatened the economic and physical safely of US-born Americans. His campaign strategy relied directly on Anderson’s (1983) idea of an imagined community as he repeatedly recalled a nostalgic, though historically vague, era when America was “great” and presumably free of immigrant threats.

Of course, an imagined community of a cohesive national people residing neatly and exclusively within a bounded territory is unrealistic. Consequently, nation-states, and individual states within national borders, have adapted policies to address noncitizen residents. In response to the resultant incongruent political landscape, an “internal politics of belonging” (Brubaker 2010) emerges wherein long-term, noncitizen residents feel a sense of social membership in a nation where they face a vast machinery of exclusion. Chasms between formal and social membership may feel particularly wide for unauthorized immigrant youth who grow up and attend school alongside their US-born peers (Abrego 2008; Gonzales 2011, 2016; Silver 2012). Regardless of membership achieved in adolescence, however, research has repeatedly shown that youth tend to move into more exclusionary contexts as they age into adulthood (Abrego 2006; Cebulko 2014; Gleeson and Gonzales 2012; Gonzales 2011, 2016; Silver 2012). As undocumented youth graduate from high school and move on to the early stages of adulthood, they tend to confront constricting educational and occupational opportunities and more immediate threats of deportation, thus magnifying the salience of their immigration status in daily life.

In the longest study of undocumented youth to date, Roberto Gonzales (2016) finds that unauthorized young adults in Southern California face chronic uncertainty in adulthood and gradually adopt “illegal” identities. He carefully illustrates how young unauthorized immigrants navigate pathways toward illegality at different rates depending on when they leave educational institutions to pursue full-time work or family responsibilities. Following 150 unauthorized immigrants, he demonstrates that youth who do not attend college see their social and occupational worlds constrict around them at younger ages than youth who manage to delay their transitions to “illegality” by remaining in school through college and even graduate school. Devastatingly, however, Gonzales finds that youth who achieve high levels of education eventually join their “early exiting” peers as they too adopt psychological dispositions framed by their immigration status.

Immigration status alone, however, does not determine membership. Instead, immigration status intersects with various geographic and social locations, such as race, class, and gender, to frame immigrant experiences with discrimination and mobility (Brown 2013; Cebulko 2017; Enriquez 2017). For example, Latinos are far more likely to be profiled and stopped at traffic checkpoints than other groups in the South, thereby placing unauthorized Latino immigrants into the most vulnerable social spaces (American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group 2009; Coleman 2012; Shahshahani 2010; Weissman, Headen, and Parker 2009). Moreover, the impact of unauthorized immigration status varies widely by state and locality of residence. The influence of state, local, and institutional contexts should not be downplayed, as these more proximate contexts interact with federal policies to frame unauthorized immigrants’ experiences of membership and exclusion at multiple levels and in multiple dimensions. And while unauthorized immigrants are of course most vulnerable to threats against their security, intersections between assumed immigration status and race, ethnicity, and locality affect second-generation immigrants as well. Because of these intersections, second-generation youth can face threats to their dignity as they too are maligned as potential criminals and national outsiders.

Layered Contexts and State Influence

Though theories about immigrant incorporation generally acknowledge the importance of context, most large-scale studies about youth and incorporation have focused on youth in traditional and largely urban, immigrant destinations (Gonzales 2016; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco 2001; Terriquez 2014). Thus, even when research points to the dangers of substandard urban schooling, clearly a context-specific marker, the implications of these studies tend to be applied to second- and third-plus-generation immigrant populations nationally (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Tellez and Ortiz 2008; Valenzuela 1999). And while research finds crippling impacts of undocumented status for youth in all areas of the country (Abrego 2006; Cebulko 2013, 2014; Gonzales 2011, 2016; Silver 2012), local contexts and institutional policies interact with federal actions to shape incorporation processes from state to state.

Research about immigrant youth incorporation in new, and particularly small-town and rural, destinations is scant. However, existing studies illustrate the complexity of these contexts, as immigrants in these areas develop deep attachments not only to their social contacts in these communities but also to the land itself (Marrow 2011; Schmalzbauer 2014; Striffler 2005). For example, in Leah Schmalzbauer’s (2009, 2014) study of mostly Mexican immigrants in Montana, she describes how immigrants express heartfelt appreciation for their opportunities and the safety and beauty of their surroundings, despite frequent experiences with discrimination and perpetual fears of deportation. Similarly, in her 2011 study of immigrant incorporation in eastern North Carolina, Helen Marrow finds that many Latino newcomers to the rural South enjoyed the tranquility of their North Carolina neighborhoods even as they experienced racism and insecurity associated with their unauthorized immigration statuses. Moreover, despite grueling work conditions in food-processing plants, many of her study participants also felt relatively secure at work and made enough money to provide for their children.

Though later research has found working conditions in food-processing industries in the rural South to be far less secure, these studies also find that workers in the South carve out meaningful relationships with one another and, at times, with others in their communities, even in hostile workplace settings and political contexts that offer them very few protections (Ribas 2016; Striffler 2005; Stuesse 2016). These studies thus underline the importance of acknowledging how overlapping and often conflicting contexts of reception shape incorporation experiences and feelings of membership at different levels.

Even in the hostile climate of North Carolina in the first two decades of the 2000s, unauthorized 1.5-generation immigrant youth managed to find a sense of membership through their attachments to community organizations, schools, caring adults, and social networks (Silver 2012, 2015). These connections, moreover, propelled many toward upwardly mobile pathways despite an unwelcoming regional context (Silver 2012) and an economic structure that largely relegated their Latino immigrant parents to low-wage, insecure, and often dangerous jobs (Griffith 2008; Hernández-León and Zúñiga 2000; Kandel and Parrado 2005; Marrow 2009, 2011, 2017; Mohl 2003; Ribas 2016; Stuesse 2016). However, due to mounting legislation at the state level, their more localized feelings of belonging were tenuous and at times collapsed as policies shifted around them.

Because state and national legislative contexts are not static, more careful analysis of these overlapping contexts is needed. Particularly in new-destination areas where public policy and opinion continue to form and change in response to growing Latino populations, shifting policies can dramatically alter the context of reception for immigrants and their children. I next outline how these layered contexts shaped the experience of 1.5-generation youth in North Carolina during the first and second decades of the 2000s.

Tectonic Incorporation

Previous research has stressed the importance of examining incorporation across multiple dimensions (Bean, Brown, and Bachmeier 2015; Marrow 2011, 2017; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Telles and Ortiz 2008), but research has thus far underemphasized how these different spheres move and interact with one another while in motion, thus becoming more or less influential in framing incorporation experiences and feelings of membership and exclusion. I use the term “tectonic incorporation” to illustrate how overlapping contexts shift unpredictably and respond to one another to frame the experience of incorporation for unauthorized 1.5-generation youth. For example, as federal policies become more inclusive, through actions like DACA, state contexts may be less influential in shaping feelings of membership and security for 1.5-generation youth. In contrast, the influence of state, local, and institutional actions may hold magnified influence over the daily lives of immigrants when federal protections are not in place. Focusing on institutional environments and state-level legislative actions in North Carolina, as well as the larger umbrella context of federal immigration policies, I illustrate how these constantly changing contexts destabilize unauthorized immigrant youth as they emerge from high school and attempt to carve their pathways into early adulthood.

Although tectonic incorporation most directly applies to unauthorized immigrant youth who face steep obstacles impeding their access to resources, the hostile political and social environment in North Carolina in the early 2000s affected citizen second-generation Latinos as well. Because Latino immigrants to North Carolina were a relatively recent population, most Latino citizens had unauthorized siblings, parents, cousins, and friends. Latino citizens, thereby, feared family separation and resultant heartache and economic insecurity as communities throughout the state partnered with ICE to enforce immigration law. Moreover, many Latino citizens in North Carolina faced assumptions of illegality and were profiled in traffic stops by police (American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group 2009; Silver 2017; Weissman, Headen, and Parker 2009) and were regarded as somehow distinct from their American peers by teachers and staff in schools (Silver 2015). Thus, as unauthorized immigrants in North Carolina were targeted by anti-immigration legislation at the state level, the impacts of hostility toward new immigrants in the state spilled over to affect Latino citizens as well.

Of course, concerns about racial profiling were not unique to North Carolina. As anti-immigration policies mounted in Arizona, for example, one study found that unauthorized, authorized, and US-born Latinos all discussed feeling increasingly surveilled and displayed high levels of psychological distress (Szkupinski Quiroga, Medina, and Glick 2014). DACA beneficiaries in more traditional immigrant destinations also continued to experience anxiety about racial profiling while driving (Aranda and Vaquera 2015) and feared the deportation of their friends and family (Aranda and Vaquera 2015; Gonzales and Terriquez 2013). Nevertheless, unauthorized Latino immigrants in all regions were most vulnerable to shifts in policies. In North Carolina, specifically, unauthorized immigrants were forced to adapt their behaviors and goals as sheriffs in cities and counties throughout the state entered into partnerships with ICE and educational institutions intermittently changed their policies on admitting or barring undocumented students.

The rapidly changing North Carolina context illustrates how institutional, local, state, and federal policies and actions interacted as tectonic plates, shaping the ways in which 1.5-generation Latino immigrants experienced belonging. When federal and state policies simultaneously shifted toward more exclusionary realms, unauthorized immigrants in North Carolina felt most vulnerable. When the federal context inched toward inclusion with the implementation of DACA, and the state context maintained its restrictive policies, the slightly more secure foundation continued to reveal fault lines as state policies prevented DACA beneficiaries from taking full advantage of the policy to build upwardly mobile futures. Finally, though institutions, such as secondary schools and nonprofit organizations, provided support and protection, they were limited in their ability to shield 1.5-generation unauthorized immigrants and, by extension, their families and friends from the unpredictable state and federal policy shifts that held more sway over their access to institutions and opportunities.

Magnified State Exclusion within a Shifting Federal Landscape

Despite bipartisan efforts in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, federal action on immigration was repeatedly blocked in Congress in the early 2000s. Consequently, immigrants, including immigrant youth who had grown up in the United States, faced increasing insecurity because of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) and the multiple local and state ordinances and policies that emerged in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (Coleman 2009; Olivas 2007; Winders 2007). At the federal level, IIRIRA limited benefits available to immigrants and expanded categories of aggravated felonies, thus easing requirements for detention and deportation and drastically increasing the numbers of deportees (Golash-Boza 2015; Kanstroom 2007, 2012). IIRIRA also included section 287(g), which allowed local law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements with ICE, thereby strengthening the power of states and localities to enforce immigration law.

Restrictive policies targeting immigrant communities were particularly prevalent in Southern communities where immigrant flows were more recent and established populations were less diverse (Leerkes, Leach, and Bachmeier 2012). Research has demonstrated that 287(g) agreements resulted in more attention being placed on foreign origin during routine policing activities (Donato and Rodriguez 2014) and that Latinos are disproportionately apprehended under the policy (Armenta 2016, 2017). Hostile policies had measurable impacts on migration, as states with aggressive anti-immigrant legislation experienced notable decreases in Latino migration (Ellis, Wright, and Townley 2016) and decreased populations of unauthorized immigrants (Leerkes, Leach, and Bachmeier 2012). Prior to upticks in “internal border control” in 2005, however, immigration to these states had expanded dramatically (Leerkes, Leach, and Bachmeier 2012),

As immigration to North Carolina increased throughout the 1990s, anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation quickly followed. Despite its substantial distance from the border, North Carolina emerged as a national leader in immigration enforcement actions at the state level at the turn of the millennium. With eight active memorandums of agreement to participate in the 287(g) program at the time of this study, North Carolina ranked second in the country in its ability to train local law officers to enforce immigration law and begin deportation proceedings.2 When North Carolina launched its participation in the 287(g) program in 2006 in Mecklenburg County, it did so with the goal of apprehending as many unauthorized immigrants as possible (Capps et al. 2011, 10). This model was subsequently implemented throughout the Southeast to encourage “self-deportation” by creating inhospitable environments. And while these policies emerged at the state level, enforcement efforts were enabled by a federal policy, which provided the framework for partnerships between participating states and ICE. In other words, state actions magnified the exclusionary provisions of IIRIRA.

During this heightened enforcement and hostility, the 2012 announcement of DACA came as a surprise to youth who had been campaigning for inclusion for more than a decade, as well as to legislators and interest groups who had been pushing for even more restrictions on unauthorized immigrants. DACA beneficiaries were granted legal presence through executive prosecutorial discretion procedures, but DACA did not provide lawful immigration status in the country or facilitate a pathway to citizenship. Consequently, state legislatures could continue to enact policies limiting the benefits given to irregular immigrants, including DACA beneficiaries, as long as these actions were consistent with established statutory laws within state boundaries (Arellano 2012). States like North Carolina that perceived DACA as an overreach of executive power pushed back against the policy on multiple levels.

For example, in January 2013, the North Carolina DMV temporarily revoked licenses previously issued to DACA recipients and ceased issuing new licenses. Ultimately, the DMV followed the state attorney general’s recommendation to issue licenses to DACA beneficiaries, but only after substantial debate surrounding the design. Initially, the North Carolina DMV designed vertical licenses with a magenta stripe across the top and the words, “NO LAWFUL STATUS” and “LIMITED TERM” at the bottom and along one side in a red font. After much protest, the Department of Transportation modified the licenses to appear in horizontal format and removed the magenta stripe from the design. Even after the modifications, however, the licenses continued to bear the red label “LEGAL PRESENCE NO LAWFUL STATUS,” clearly marking the license holders as outsiders within the state of North Carolina.

Although driver’s licenses fell under state purview, the National Immigration Law Center (2013) deemed DACA recipients as fitting the general guidelines of state requirements for driver’s license eligibility. Thus, the controversy surrounding the licenses came as a surprise to many DACA beneficiaries in North Carolina. Unauthorized youth in the state, however, were accustomed to political and social vitriol, as they were intimately familiar with debates surrounding their access to higher education.

No federal laws protect access to public institutions of higher education for unauthorized immigrants in the United States. In contrast, the 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision states that all children and youth, regardless of immigration status, deserve equal access to primary and secondary school and equal protection under the law by virtue of their residence and personhood.3 However, because Plyler v. Doe was not decided on preemptive grounds but stressed personhood rights, it did not prohibit states from enacting state-specific policies addressing unauthorized immigrants’ access to public institutions of higher education within their state borders (Motomura 2014; Olivas 2012). This lack of federal protection placed unauthorized immigrant youth in a precarious position as they approached high school graduation.

Undocumented youth generally have a much harder time accessing higher education than their citizen peers because of the high costs of tuition and the lack of federal funding support (Passel and Cohn 2009). Though some states have lowered obstacles to enrollment by offering unauthorized immigrant students access to in-state tuition and state financial aid, provided that they graduated from public state high schools or obtained a GED, other states have prohibited their enrollment in public institutions outright. Hence, unauthorized youth in more welcoming states have a much more accessible road to postsecondary education, while youth in states more hostile to immigrants have limited or no access to public institutions of higher education (Cebulko and Silver 2016; Olivas 2012; Rincón 2008).

In North Carolina, the debate about unauthorized immigrant students’ access to college had been raging since the turn of the millennium, and it did not stop with the implementation of DACA. As increasing numbers of immigrant youth graduated from North Carolina high schools, they became a recurring feature in political debates. In the 2007–8 session of the North Carolina General Assembly, two bills were introduced to “prohibit illegal aliens” from attending North Carolina community colleges and public universities.4 Similar bills seeking to bar college enrollment for undocumented students were introduced in the 2009–10, 2011–12, and 2013–14 sessions of the North Carolina General Assembly (2013). If one of these bills had passed, North Carolina would have become the third state after South Carolina and Alabama to officially enact a state policy prohibiting college admission to undocumented immigrants (National Conference of State Legislatures 2014; Russell 2011; Yablon-Zug and Holley-Walker 2009). In response to proposals to obstruct undocumented immigrants’ access to higher education, some North Carolina Democrats introduced bills to prevent the solicitation of immigration status information from enrolled students and applicants. Ultimately, none of the bills proposed on either side of the aisle were enacted into law. The legislative stalemate left the door open for individual institutions to enact their own policies addressing unauthorized immigrant students. Politicians, however, remained deeply entrenched in the debates about educational access.

Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue, who was a member of the NCCCS board, publicly questioned the logic of admitting unauthorized immigrant students, stating in 2008, “I’m against allowing illegal immigrants who can never work legally in North Carolina to attend community colleges in North Carolina” (Redden 2008). In contrast, Governor Mike Easley issued a statement saying, “In the absence of federal action to the contrary, the Community College board should continue its current policy [of admitting undocumented students], which is consistent with other states” (Lee et al. 2009). Ultimately, the 2008 debates resulted in the NCCCS shutting its doors to undocumented students throughout the state.

Q. Shanté Martin, general counsel to the NCCCS, asserted that the 2008 ban on unauthorized immigrant students aligned with federal policies regarding unauthorized immigrants’ access to state benefits.5 However, Jim Pendergraph, executive director of the Office of State and Local Coordination for ICE, stated in a July 9, 2008, letter to the North Carolina attorney general that “admission to public post-secondary educational institutions is not one of the benefits regulated by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and is not a public benefit under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA).”6 The letter clearly stated that admission to institutions of higher education was not regarded as a benefit regulated by the federal government, as long as undocumented students did not receive financial aid. Yet, even after receiving this information, the NCCCS retained its ban on undocumented students, pending a thorough examination of the costs and benefits of undocumented students in state community colleges. The study’s findings indicated that undocumented students placed no economic burden on the community college system if they paid out-of-state tuition and that such a policy would not invite legal challenges under federal law. In response to the study report, the NCCCS reversed the ban on undocumented students, allowing them to enroll for the 2009–10 academic year (Gonzalez 2009). The reversal marked the fifth change in the NCCCS policy on undocumented students since 2000.

The 2009 policy allowed undocumented students to enroll as full-time students in community colleges at out-of-state tuition rates, but it also stated that “students lawfully present in the United States shall have priority over any undocumented immigrant in any class or program of study when capacity limitations exist” (North Carolina Community College System 2009). Though more inclusive than the ban, the policy continued to relegate undocumented immigrant students to a second-tier position. Similarly, the University of North Carolina (UNC) system’s policy on undocumented students, established in 2004, explicitly stated, “When considering whether or not to admit an undocumented alien into a specific program of study, constituent institutions should take into account that federal law prohibits the states from granting professional licenses to undocumented aliens” (Redden 2008). The language of the policy thus allowed administrators to consider undocumented students’ immigration status when making admission decisions to professional programs. Though undocumented students ultimately maintained access to four-year colleges and regained access to community colleges, the constant controversy and decidedly marginalized ranking in institutional policies made undocumented immigrant youth uneasy.

Undocumented adolescents in North Carolina knew that they would have had better access to higher education if they lived in a more welcoming state, and they directly compared their opportunities to their peers’ postsecondary options in those states. Eleven states offered undocumented students in-state tuition in public colleges and universities in 2010. In the next five years, an additional seven states enacted legislation to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduated from public high schools in those states. Yet Southern states maintained more restrictive policies. South Carolina and Alabama passed legislation banning undocumented students from state public institutions of higher education in 2008 and 2011, respectively. In Georgia, the Board of Regents for the University System in the state passed a policy in 2010 requiring all institutions that had not admitted academically qualified applicants in the previous two years to ban undocumented immigrants, effectively barring undocumented students from the state’s most prestigious universities. Finally, though North Carolina never passed legislation barring enrollment of undocumented students, colleges throughout the state retained out-of-state tuition rates, even for DACA beneficiaries. In contrast, the governor of Massachusetts leveraged DACA as a means to offer previously undocumented youth access to in-state tuition (Cebulko and Silver 2016).

With almost thirty thousand DACA beneficiaries by 2016, North Carolina was home to the seventh-largest population of DACA beneficiaries in the country, trailing only the more traditional migrant-destination states of California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida and the border state of Arizona (US Citizenship and Immigration Services 2016). Nonetheless, or perhaps in part because of the size of the DACA beneficiary population in North Carolina, DACA recipients in the state continued to be treated like second-class residents. They carried conspicuously different forms of identification, were offered lower-priority placement in community college classrooms, and had no access to in-state tuition. Their unauthorized peers were even more marginalized, as they had no access to driver’s licenses, no work permits, and no protection from deportation. As hostile state policies increased, this population became increasingly uneasy.

Spaces of Incorporation within Exclusionary Landscapes

As the North Carolina political climate shifted toward increasingly exclusionary practices and policies, local institutions, such as secondary schools, churches, and community organizations, offered crucial support to help immigrants respond to changing and often conflicting policies at the state and federal levels. Due to the relatively short history of immigration to North Carolina, however, these institutions were not always well equipped to shelter youth from the hostile policies within the state. Moreover, research and public policies from other states could not always serve as guides for best practices, as the South offered unique challenges and resources to immigrant and second-generation youth and the institutions that served them.

Absent the pressures of urban poverty and pervasive neighborhood violence, adolescent children of lower-income Latino immigrants in North Carolina were arguably less likely to follow a path of “downward assimilation” (Portes and Rumbaut 2001), even in the face of a very hostile political context of reception (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2012; Perreira, Fuligni, and Potochnick 2010; Silver 2012). Nonetheless, the lack of resources and heightened immigration enforcement policies in the South threatened the successful integration of recently settled Latino populations.

Although youth in small-town Southern schools do not face the same challenges as their peers in dangerous urban schools, research about Latino students in Southern schools has suggested that incorporation processes may be more difficult than in more cosmopolitan urban areas due to school administrators’ and teachers’ lack of familiarity with Latino and immigrant populations (Bohon, Macpherson, and Atiles 2005; Griffith 2008; Kandel and Parrado 2006). Latino students in North Carolina schools report high levels of discrimination from other students and insufficient support in the form of tutoring, after-school programs, and Spanish-speaking staff and teachers (Behnke, Gonzales, and Cox 2010). Moreover, immigrant students in the region cannot rely on well-established networks of support or a long-standing infrastructure of resources to aid new immigrants or their second-generation peers. The size of the coethnic community in the region, however, is rapidly increasing. Though segmented assimilation theorists highlight coethnic communities as important resources for “selective acculturation,” they qualify that such communities can either impede or facilitate upward mobility (Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 63). By this caveat, the coethnic community of new Latino immigrants in the South would be less able to leverage the necessary resources to foster upward mobility due to its large percentage of undocumented immigrants and low average levels of education (Kochhar, Suro, and Tafoya 2005).

Nonetheless, recent research has documented notable academic gains for Latino students in North Carolina schools, indicating that the state may be overcoming some of its initial strains in adjusting to the new population (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2012; Perreira, Fuligni, and Potochnick 2010). One study found that while Latino youth perceived more discrimination than their peers in Los Angeles, they also reported more positive school climates, more encouragement from adults who worked in the schools, and higher levels of ethnic identification (Potochnick, Perreira, and Fuligni 2012). Another study found that Latino youth who arrived in North Carolina by age nine closed achievement gaps with white students of the same socioeconomic status by sixth grade (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2012). Thus, even as teachers may be less familiar with Latino and immigrant youth in the South, preliminary evidence suggests that they are engaging in effective strategies to encourage their Latino students (Kandel and Parrado 2006; Potochnick, Perreira, and Fuligni 2012; Silver 2015).

One explanation for Latino immigrant achievement in Southern schools is that Latino immigrant students in the South benefit from being exposed to the English language and cultural practices of their US-born, non-Latino peers (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2012). With fewer ethnic enclaves, students in Southern schools may intermingle more with peers of different races, ethnicities, and classes than in highly segregated schools. More contact in classrooms may lead to better English literacy skills and increased feelings of understanding and membership.

While exposure to diverse communities and US-born English speakers may be beneficial, supportive coethnic communities within historically black and white neighborhoods can be equally important in promoting successful incorporation in schools. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that connections to ethnic and racial identities are associated with higher engagement in school (Chavous et al. 2003; Fuligni, Witkow, and Garcia 2005; Gibson et al. 2004; N. Lopez 2003; Oyserman, Harrison, and Bybee 2001; Silver 2015; Stanton-Salazar 2001; Suárez-Orozco, Qin, and Amthor 2008; Tatum 1997; Valenzuela 1999). Additionally, studies have consistently shown that teachers who acknowledge and understand the cultural backgrounds of their students will be far more likely to engage them in positive educational exchanges (N. Lopez 2003; Patel 2013; Stanton-Salazar 2001; Suárez-Orozco, Qin, and Amthor 2008; Valenzuela 1999). Conversely, if students feel isolated, alienated, or misunderstood in their schools, they may be more likely to form oppositional identities (Cortina 2008; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Valenzuela 1999). Clearly, membership within a heritage community and recognition from teachers help immigrant and second-generation students establish a sense of belonging in schools that emphasize a white Anglo-Saxon history and perspective. Furthermore, in new immigrant destinations, coethnic communities, relationships with teachers, and involvement in heritage-based clubs and activities may serve as protection against isolation and help buffer community-level discrimination and hostile state policies.

Schools, of course, are not the only institutions active in creating spaces of inclusion and sanctuary against more hostile environments at the state level. Youth themselves, along with adult allies and nonprofit organizations, also create their own spheres of belonging and empowerment by establishing safe community spaces and advocating for immigrants’ rights and inclusion. Nonprofit outreach organizations are crucial in connecting immigrant populations to resources and information, and they are also instrumental in promoting civic engagement and activism. Though previous research has found that Latinos are more likely to participate in activism when they live in cities with multiple well-established Latino outreach organizations (Martinez 2008), recent social backlashes and proposed anti-immigrant legislation have prompted immigrants in new destinations to become more politically engaged (Benjamin-Alvarado, DeSipio, and Montoya 2009; Deeb-Sossa and Bickham Mendez 2008; Okamoto and Ebert 2010).

In response to the proposed federal H.R. 4437, Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which included a measure that would have redefined illegal entry into the United States from a misdemeanor to a felony, coalitions of nonprofit organizations in states throughout the country helped unite immigrant and allied activists to mobilize in protest. Youth activists became increasingly visible as they took on leadership roles during the large-scale immigrants’ rights marches of 2006 (Bada et al. 2010; Nicholls 2013). Finding membership and purpose through the social movement, unauthorized youth marched in immigrants’ rights demonstrations, held mock college classes and graduations, occupied senators’ offices, and went on hunger strikes as they campaigned vocally for their own inclusion.

While immigrant youth throughout the country united in a strong and effective immigrants’ rights movement, youth in North Carolina and their allies in various local institutions and organizations faced very different challenges. Though some North Carolina youth responded to anti-immigrant rhetoric at the state and federal levels by deepening their commitments to their activist efforts, others retreated in frustration. For some, it was more meaningful to concentrate on helping their families rather than fight for access to expensive college classes (J. López 2007). Thus, even as activist organizations acted as supportive shelters from the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the region, hostile policies threatened to undermine feelings of belonging and membership provided by activist organizations and community institutions.


Unauthorized immigrant youth in various states faced very different contexts of reception. Some, like those in North Carolina, faced hostile local policies and lacked access to in-state tuition as well as financial aid. Meanwhile, others in more inclusive states, like California, had access to in-state tuition, some public financial support for higher education, and, as of 2015, driver’s licenses. In North Carolina, politicians, sheriffs, and school board members capitalized on the exclusionary provisions of the IIRIRA to introduce policies limiting access to resources and threatening the security of unauthorized immigrants in the state. As the state climate became increasingly hostile to undocumented immigrants, unauthorized immigrant youth struggled to find a sense of comfort or hope when confronted with state legislators that did little to protect them (Cebulko and Silver 2016). Nonetheless, supportive schools, organizations, and neighborhoods offered unauthorized youth support and a sense of membership. Yet, even as youth found spaces of belonging in supportive communities, shifts in policies at the state and federal levels threatened to destabilize the security and solidarity they felt as members of schools, youth-centered community groups, and activist organizations.


1. “Obama on Scotus Immigration Ruling,” The Hill, June 23, 2016,

2. Virginia led the nation in 287(g) policies at the time of the initial 2007–11 study period. Participation in the program in states throughout the nation declined after much criticism about widespread racial profiling (American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group 2009; Coleman 2012; Shahshahani 2010). However, North Carolina continued its use of 287(g), and with five active memorandums of agreement in 2016, North Carolina replaced Virginia for first place, leading the nation in participation in the program at the time of this writing.

3. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 207 (1982).

4. Republican representatives introduced a bill titled “An Act to Prohibit Illegal Aliens from Attending North Carolina Community Colleges and Appropriating Funds for the Verification of Prospective Students’ Immigration Status.” A joint resolution to consider an act titled “An Act Prohibiting Illegal Aliens from Attending North Carolina Community Colleges and Universities” was introduced in the same session.

5. The 2008 memorandum from the NCCCS titled “Unrestricted Admission of Undocumented or Illegal Immigrants” stated, “Federal Law, 8 USC Section 1621 makes most undocumented or illegal aliens ineligible for most state or local public benefits. Post-secondary education is one of those benefits that undocumented or illegal aliens are not eligible to receive.”

6. Letter to Thomas J. Ziko, North Carolina special deputy attorney general, from Jim Pendergraph, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, July 8, 2008 (online site discontinued).