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Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education, and the Politics of Inclusion

reviewed by Reva Jaffe-Walter - August 16, 2013

coverTitle: Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education, and the Politics of Inclusion
Author(s): Lisa (Leigh) Patel
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753890, Pages: 144, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the past two years we have witnessed a national tug of war over immigration policies. While the passage of comprehensive immigration reform is not in sight, there is a generation of young people who are living on the front lines of globalization and migration. As I was in the midst of Patel’s book, I interviewed an undocumented high school senior who explained that he “should be American.”  His mother returned to Mexico when she was eight months pregnant because of a family illness and then brought him back to the United States in September of 2007, thirty days beyond the deadline to be considered for legal residency through Obama’s deferred action program. Living thirty days on the wrong side of policy, his story reveals the arbitrary violence of policies that deny opportunity and basic human recognition to a generation of young people. Lisa Patel’s book Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education and the Politics of Inclusion reveals the complex psychological dimensions of what it feels like to be a young person living in the shadow of immigration policies and shifting global forces.

 A gifted ethnographer, Patel weaves together a sociological analysis that is anchored in real lives. As she explains: “I demonstrate the ways in which gender, age, life-stage expectations, work responsibilities, documentation status, and racialization all intersect to shape life opportunities for immigrant youth” (p. 9). Her work provides an example of what Weis and Fine (2012) theorize as a lens of critical bifocality, which “enables us to consider how researchers might account empirically for global, national, and local transformations as insinuated, embodied, and resisted by youth and adults trying to make sense of current educational and economic possibilities in massively shifting contexts” (p. 173).  She empirically documents the ways that youth navigate the global flows of migration, the political economies of the US and native countries and nationalist policymaking, while she also shows the creativity and resilience of youth who interrupt patterns of exclusion. The strength of Patel’s ethnography is a result of her sustained and respectful relationships with youth, acting as friend, mentor, co-researcher, advocating for some in immigration hearings and following their journeys over time.

I was captured by the emotional depth of Patel’s ethnography and the ways that she elegantly theorizes through the intricate details of young people’s narratives. In Chapter One, Patel shares the journey of a young Haitian student named Wana, who moves into undocumented status after her Visa expires.  Through her story we learn about the costs of invisibility, how undocumented youth remain vulnerable in work and housing contexts to avoid exposure and deportation and how this leads to “a damaging mix of social isolation, self doubt, and, frequently, poverty” (p. 14).  We also learn about the risks of seeking residency through marriage, as Wana becomes distanced from her support networks and a victim of domestic violence. Extending the discussion of the risks of isolation and the importance of social capital networks for immigrant youth, Patel begins Chapter Two with the story of Lina, an undocumented student from Niger. Lina’s extensive family responsibilities, providing 30-50 hours a week of childcare while her family works at low wage jobs to support the household, leaves little room for Lina’s personal and academic development. In this chapter we learn “what could be” for Lena, as Patel reveals images of teachers providing one on one academic support and counseling at the end of the school day, when Lina is on the bus-ride home to care for her siblings.  From her story, we learn of the unequal opportunities for youth like Lena, who purse their educational aspirations within the tight space of family responsibilities, undocumented status and limited economic opportunity.

Patel’s analysis interrogates stereotyped assumptions about undocumented youth and “the immigrant experience.” She interrogates the term “illegal.” She writes: “When we call one person illegal, that implies that everyone else, those who have experienced better luck in their circumstances is legal…Using the reductive dichotomy of illegal and legal obscures the complexity of the political, economic and cultural factors that permeate the push and pull of human capital across borders” (p. 6). In Chapter Seven, she also challenges traditional notions of child development that imply that immigrant youth should not be called on to serve as language and culture brokers for their families and argues that youth develop nuanced skills and knowledge as they help their families to navigate across multiple worlds.  

The book deftly explores the subtle ways that young people negotiate racial difference and privilege in their everyday lives. In Chapter Three, she brings us along with her to witness how one student, Yveline, is subjected to racialization during a late evening interchange with another student during a service learning trip to the Dominican Republic. As Yveline speaks back to the way she is treated by her classmate, Patel reflects on her own visceral understanding of what these experiences feel like. She describes moments from her own childhood when strangers would ask her "where are you from" or describe her mother's accented English as "cute":

Even at a young age, I couldn't quite fix my mouth to respond to these questions. Somehow, these questions, how they were being asked, and how they deftly positioned me as an outsider and my uninvited interrogator as insider just felt deeply wrong, and I couldn't begin to put my finger on why. …I didn't have the words to express it then, but I knew that my mother had just been made smaller in someway (p.31).

It is clear that Patel’s personal experiences make her a keen interrogator of how structural racism is insinuated into everyday interactions, and she extends this analysis to explore how it is expressed through institutional practices and policies.  She shows how beneath the discourses of our “post-racial” society current deportation policies and educational policies disproportionally target communities of color.  Patel calls on her readers to engage in the “explicit, honest, and even vulnerable conversations about how race ethnicity and power structures access to societal status and resources” (p. 33).

Patel spent six years working closely with Franklin High School, a high school that had exceptional outcomes with immigrant students, graduating close to 90% of its students and where all of the administrators are bilingual and know students by name. In Chapter Seven, Patel documents how the school struggles beneath the mandates of neo-liberal education reforms that evaluate schools based on high stakes tests. As research documents, despite the fact that it takes most English Language Learners 5-7 years to learn academic English, most states, like Massachusetts require that immigrant students take standardized tests in English. Since typically school report cards judge school performance in terms of standardized tests, schools that serve large populations of English language learners are unfairly penalized. Patel’s work documents how policy pressures translate to a policing of native language use and an erosion of the supportive school culture.  At Frankin High, Patel shows a transformation where “The young immigrant students at Franklin went from being seen by the staff as human beings with complex life situations to being framed simply as contributors to, or more often detractors from, the school’s collective report card” (p. 64). Patel's analysis shows the pernicious ways that policies intended to improve conditions for the most underserved youth constrain schools’ abilities to meet the complex needs of these students.

Given that by 2015, one third of all of the students in US classrooms will be immigrants or the children of immigrants, it is critical that we deepen our understandings of how schools can better meet the needs of immigrant and undocumented immigrant students.  As such I would recommend this book for graduate and undergraduate courses in teacher education where, as Patel argues, “teacher preparation tends to focus far more on curriculum content than the contexts of students lives” (p. 51), and she urges us to consider that “Being an educator means not just knowing about youth but also constantly learning about their contexts and the forces that shape their lives” (p. 81). To conclude, Youth Held at the Border makes a significant contribution to the literature on immigration and education as it takes the reader on an emotional journey through the lives of young people who tiptoe along the fault lines created by immigration and education policies and global political and economic forces.


Weis, L., & Fine, M. (2012). Critical bifocality and circuits of privilege: Expanding critical ethnographic theory and design. Harvard Educational Review, 82(2), 173–201.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 16, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17215, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:00:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Reva Jaffe-Walter
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    REVA JAFFE-WALTER is currently a Research Associate at the Department of Educational Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on globalization, immigration and schooling, the anthropology of policy and urban education reform. Reva was also formerly a teacher at Manhattan International High School. Her publications include: a forthcoming article in the Harvard Educational Review ““Who would they talk about if we weren’t here”: Muslim Youth, Liberal Schooling and the Politics of Concern, and “Negotiating mandates and memories: Inside a small schools network for immigrant youth” published in the Teachers College Record, and “To trust in my root and to take that to go forward”: Supporting college access for immigrant youth in the global city” published in Anthropology and Education Quarterly (Co-authored with Stacey J Lee).
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