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“We’ll Get Through This Together”: Collective Contribution in the Lives of Latino Undocumented Undergraduates

by Dalal Katsiaficas, Edwin Hernandez, Cynthia M. Alcantar, Erick Samayoa, Maria Nava Gutierrez & Zyshia Williams - 2018

Background: Undocumented undergraduates are a growing population in the United States. Despite being shut out from many resources, such as access to federal financial aid and social services, many are thriving by contributing to their families and communities. Few studies to date have taken a strengths-based approach to understand the lives of undocumented young adults or examined their normative developmental experiences.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to examine how contribution manifests in the lives of Latino undocumented undergraduates and the extent to which they are engaged in and contribute to their families and communities.

Research Design: This study employed a convergent mixed-methods design in which parallel quantitative and qualitative data were collected and analyzed separately. Through mixed methods, this article examines the family and community responsibilities of a sample of N = 797 Latino undocumented undergraduate student survey respondents, along with three portraits of qualitative visual and verbal narratives in the summer of 2014.

Results: Results highlight the value of “collective contribution” in Latino undocumented immigrant families. Through quantitative methods, results reveal that the majority of Latino undocumented undergraduates are contributing to their families and communities in significant ways. Qualitative findings reveal ways in which cultural values manifest as the reciprocal contribution between individuals and their families and communities. Further, results reveal the varied ways that Latino undocumented undergraduates engage with their families and communities, exhibiting the characteristics of ideal citizens, despite being denied a pathway to citizenship.

Conclusions: The results suggest that Latino undocumented college students are thriving and contributing to the society that gives them conflicting messages about how to belong. Yet, they enter postsecondary institutions and continue to remain engaged in their families and communities. Their engagement has important implications for what type of society we will become and for the need to build on these social resources to make our democracy and community stronger, recognizing immigrants as a resource to strengthen the social fabric of our society.

Greater restrictions on immigration and fewer opportunities to adjust legal status (in an era of continued migration) have led to a large population of undocumented immigrants in the United States (Massey, Durand, & Malone 2003; Passel, Capps, & Fix, 2004). The term undocumented immigrants refers to individuals who were born outside of the United States, have not been permitted admission under the most current and specific set of rules for longer term residence, and who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents (Abrego, 2008; Passel & Cohn, 2010). Nearly a fifth of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States are children and young adults (Batalova & McHugh, 2010; Passel & Cohn, 2010). Current estimates reflect that 47% of immigrant youth 16 to 26 years old are undocumented, compared with 31% of the total immigrant population in the United States, suggesting that legal status disproportionality affects the lives of undocumented youth as they come of age (Batalova & Fix, 2011). Most undocumented youth were born abroad and arrived to the United States at an early age (many before the age of 12), and they are largely described as the 1.5 generation (Gonzales, 2009). Undocumented immigrants are diverse in ethnicity, country of origin, and immigration histories (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015) and come from various places around the globe, including Canada, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

Undocumented immigrants legal status creates a sense of what scholars have termed liminality (Menjívar, 2006; Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi, & Suárez-Orozco, 2011)belonging neither to the society they left behind nor the society they have entered into. With the current political and public policy landscape, undocumented immigrants and their families are caught in a sense of interminable liminality by which there are no clear paths to citizenship and no means to gain entrance into mainstream American society (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011 p. 444). Such liminality constrains their access to resources, possibilities for belonging in American society, and social and economic trajectories into adulthood (Menjívar, 2006).

Theories of development suggest that ages 1829 years, referred to as emerging adulthood, are marked by few responsibilities toward others and are a time of self-focus (Arnett, 2000). However, this developmental period is complicated for undocumented immigrants, whose experiences do not fit this developmental theory. On one hand, undocumented emerging adults are propelled into adulthood because they often must take on adult responsibilities and roles at an early age; in some cases, they fill in for their parents who have been left behind or deported by raising siblings, contributing financially to the family, and navigating legal and medical systems (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011). On the other hand, as they begin to come of age, undocumented immigrants bump up against a series of barriers that prohibit them from participating in a range of normative coming-of age-rituals and prevent them from reaching markers of adulthood. Because they are unable to get a drivers license, apply for financial aid for college, or get a job, their future prospects are drastically reduced as they transition into adulthood (Gonzales, 2011). Instead of emerging into adulthood like many of their peers, they often begin a process of hiding their legal status amid feelings of shame and fear, entering a period of (sub)merging adulthood (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011, p. 453).

Undocumented students face a series of obstacles in their daily lives, such as a lack of access to resources (Chávez, 1998; Contreras, 2009; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015), and discriminatory laws, policies, and interpersonal interactions (Gonzales, 2011; Nienhusser, 2014). These experiences can negatively impact their physical and mental health (Katsiaficas & Suárez-Orozco, 2013; Sullivan & Rehm, 2005), social belonging (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015), academic engagement (Muñoz & Maldonado, 2011; W. Perez, 2009, 2010; W. Perez, Cortés, Ramos, & Coronado, 2010), and family processes (Oliverez, 2006). Most difficult to contend with are the negative media and political portrayals of undocumented immigrants as draining national and local resources. These damaging portrayals negate the tangible ways in which undocumented members of communities contribute to the social fabric of society.


Liminality is further made salient as undocumented students exit high school and enter college. As undocumented emerging adults transition from adolescence to adulthood, they move from federally protected status during K12 to unprotected status during college. Although the 1982 Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court decision affords undocumented immigrants access to a K12 education, there is no similar federal edict that informs how undocumented immigrants are to be treated in postsecondary education settings (Gonzales, 2009; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). In the United States, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year (Abrego, 2008; Golden Door Scholars, 2012). Of these, roughly 13,000 enroll in colleges or universities throughout the United States (Golden Door Scholars, 2012; W. Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2009). That is, approximately 1 out of every 5 undocumented high school graduates will make it to college.

Once in college, undocumented students face a number of additional barriers that hinder their educational trajectory to persist and earn a postsecondary degree. Although many undocumented college students come from low-income families (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015), this challenge is magnified by the lack of federal higher education policies that directly address the postsecondary educational opportunities for undocumented students (Nienhusser, 2015). First, undocumented students do not qualify for any federal financial aid (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). Second, only six states (California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington) offer state grant aid to undocumented students (National Conference of State Legislatures [NCSL], 2015). Additionally, 18 states, either through state legislation or board of regents decisions, and two states university systems (University of Hawaii and University of Michigan) have policies that allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition fees (NCSL, 2015; Nienhusser, 2015); this means that in other states, unless a higher education institution has a policy that says otherwise, undocumented students have to pay out-of-state or international tuition fees. The lack of higher education policies for undocumented students poses challenges that extend beyond the challenges often faced by low-income students in college.

Moreover, undocumented college students do not have access to stable employment opportunities unless they have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.1 DACA is an executive order that provides an opportunity for undocumented young adults to apply for temporary lawful presence in the United States and a two-year work permit. DACA has no direct benefits related to college, but it does expand opportunities for students by allowing them to lawfully work, get drivers licenses (in many states), open bank accounts, and seek opportunities that are related to their educational and career aspirations, such as paid internships and study or visit abroad programs through Advance Parole (Gonzales & Bautista-Chavez, 2014; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015).

Despite these difficult circumstances that undocumented emerging adults face, what is often overlooked are the ways in which they are thriving and contributing to the society that gives them conflicting messages about how to belong. Few studies to date have taken a strengths-based approach to understand the lives of undocumented young adults or examined their normative developmental experiences. Therefore, this study aims to take on these gaps in the literature by examining the positive development of social responsibilities of Latino undocumented college students. Latino foreign-born youth account for the lowest rates of high school completion, college enrollment, and college completion when compared with Asian, White, and Black students (Fuligni & Hardway, 2004). As a result, it is critical to understand the ways in which undocumented Latino youth are developing within these settings to better address their needs.


In response to the deficit model approach to research, youth researchers and practitioners have embraced the positive youth development (PYD) model (Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003), which focuses on youths assets rather than the risks in their lives. Through this lens of PYD, youth are viewed as resources to be developed rather than as a collection of risks and problem behaviors that should be avoided (Bowers et al., 2010, p. 721; Futch Ehrlich, 2016; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). PYD relies on a developmental systems framework (Lerner et al., 2003) that emphasizes the bidirectional nature of interactions between individuals and their contexts, suggesting that environments shape the experiences of individuals, while individuals in turn have agency in shaping their environments (Futch Ehrlich, 2016; Lerner et al., 2003).

Most important, this theoretical framework allows researchers to understand the ways in which young people are thriving in society. Thriving is conceptualized as the enactment in adulthood of behaviors that contribute positively to the health structure of society and, in doing so, support and further self, family, community and civil society (Lerner, Brentano, Dowling, & Anderson, 2002, p. 23). Extensive work with practitioners and researchers in the field of adolescent development has revealed an empirically validated model of positive youth development, referred to as the Five Cs (Lerner, 2004). These qualities are operationalized as the characteristics embodied by thriving youth: competence, confidence, character, social connection, and caring or compassion (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000; Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray, & Foster, 1998). These qualities are linked to positive outcomes for youth when matched by resources in the environment (Bowers et al., 2010). Development in these domains results in an orientation to a Sixth C, described as contribution (Lerner et al., 2003, p. 176; Youniss, McClellan, & Yates, 1999). Contribution involves a value of undertaking a role to contribute to social well-being in the form of contributions to family and community, which are critical to positive youth development (Lerner et al., 2002, p. 15).


The form of contribution is often characterized as social responsibilities, particularly with immigrant youth. Responsibility for othersoften referred to as social responsibilityis rooted in relationships with others and is defined as a sense of responsibility and duty that extends beyond the self (Wray-Lake & Syvertsen, 2011). This sense of social responsibility can be for family members, peers, or the local community, or go beyond to a sense of civic obligation (Wray-Lake & Syvertsen, 2011). For example, for immigrant youth, one type of contribution is connected to their academic success. Smith (2006) referred to this as the immigrant bargain, which makes reference to the values and beliefs of immigrant parents to see their children thrive in their academics as a form of honoring their sacrifice of migration. Therefore, as youth in immigrant families transition to adulthood, there are significant increases in levels of family responsibilities (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002) and civic engagement (Flanagan & Levine, 2010; Suárez-Orozco, Hernandez, & Casanova, 2015) during this developmental period. Yet, other studies with undocumented students suggest that civic participation decreases as youth enter college (W. Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2010). This may be due to the additional demands of college and financial responsibilities. Furthermore, these social responsibilities are central to the ways in which immigrant-origin community college students define adulthood (Katsiaficas, 2017; Katsiaficas, Suárez-Orozco, & Dias, 2014). Therefore, examining the role of contribution during the college-going years is of the utmost importance for immigrant youth and for those with undocumented status in particular.


Immigrant children contribute to their families in many ways, such as contributing toward family expenses at home and abroad, caring for siblings and extended family members, translating for family members, and helping them navigate institutions, among other tasks (Fuligni, 2007; Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002; Orellana, 2009; Rumbaut & Komaie, 2010). Extensive research suggests that immigrant children are more likely to financially support their families as young adults than native-born children (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002). Furthermore, immigrant-origin young adults from Latino backgrounds report a stronger sense of values of family obligations than their European American peers (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002).

Oftentimes, expectations regarding the contribution of young adults to family can take on gendered patterns, particularly in Latino families, as young women experience expectations as caretakers (Muñoz & Maldonado, 2011) and young men as financial contributors to the family (Saenz & Ponjuan, 2011). In addition, daughters in undocumented families often fill the gaps left by mothers who are deported and may take on the roles of caring for their siblings and taking care of the household chores such as cooking and cleaning (American Psychological Association, 2012; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011). The expectations of young womens families, cultures, and society all significantly influence their understanding of and engagement in contribution.

Nonetheless, it is important to note the reciprocal process of contribution, given that undocumented parents support their children in various ways. Some parents are able to provide academic support, most commonly at the primary school level, but because many parents of undocumented students do not have high educational attainments, this type of support can be limited (Sanchez, Reyes, & Singh, 2005). Often, undocumented parents demonstrate a strong desire for their children to succeed academically, which can serve as a source of support for them as they navigate college institutions (W. Pérez, Cortés, et al., 2010; Smith, 2006, 2008). In fact, many undocumented students rely on the emotional and financial support of their parents as they navigate college (Finch, Kolody, & Vega, 2000; Finch & Vega, 2003; W. Pérez, Cortés, et al., 2010). For undocumented students, this form of emotional and financial support they receive from their undocumented parents instills a sense of motivation and desire to attend and graduate from college (Enriquez, 2011). Therefore, this familial support that undocumented students receive aligns with the work of Louie (2012), which documents how working-class immigrant youth maintain the immigrant bargain. In doing so, Louie (2012) highlighted additive portraits of immigrant youth, which consisted of the instrumental support from immediate family members, along with other caring adults in institutional settings who provided the mentorship needed to thrive in school.


As previously noted in the work of Louie (2012), contribution for immigrant youth also occurs beyond the family context and can take the form of civic engagement, which is often in the form of giving back to the community through translating for community members and tutoring and mentoring youth in the community (Alcantar, 2014; Enriquez, 2014; Flanagan & Levine, 2010; Mody, 2008; Pascarella, Ethington, & Smart, 1988; W. Perez, Espinoza, et al., 2010; Seif, 2011; Stepick, Stepick, & Labissiere, 2008). Although unable to participate in voting, undocumented college students are often highly engaged in their communities through their participation in rallies and/or community organizing (Flanagan & Levine, 2010; Nicholls, 2013). In addition, through this political socialization and idea of citizenship, many undocumented youth develop support groups in college, establish advocacy organizations in their communities, and also organize through online networks (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs) to disseminate messages and resources related to undocumented youth (Nicholls, 2013). This kind of civic work can turn into a virtuous circle whereby by helping others, undocumented young adults find purpose and a role that serves to augment their own well-being (Kirshner & Ginwright, 2012; Nicholls, 2013; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Katsiaficas, 2014). This may also differ significantly by gender; female students report greater levels of civic engagement compared with their male counterparts (W. Perez, Espinoza, et al., 2010). In addition, the undocuqueer movement suggest that civic engagement may also differ by sexual orientation (Beltrán, 2015; Terriquez, 2015). As Terriquez (2015) reported, LGBTQ undocumented youth encounter multiple forms of oppression, which leads toward some developing an intersectional consciousness of their marginalization, thus intensifying their activism and leadership in social movements.


Emerging adults who exhibit these behaviors of contribution are considered to be thriving, yet to date, few studies of contribution with youth have connected it to the cultural values that might drive it. Research with immigrant populations documents the importance of family interdependence, particularly among Latino families. The cultural demands of family interdependence on emerging adults highlight lifelong financial and emotional support between family members, living close to or with parents, and consulting parents on important decisions (Tseng, 2004). Such cultural values play a significant role in shaping the behaviors of young people, particularly regarding contribution. Therefore, many undocumented parents are considered to be role models of hard work and sacrifice for their children, who observe the physically demanding jobs and risk of deportation incurred by their parents (Cervantes, Minero, & Brito, 2015; Louie, 2012; Smith, 2006). This in turn produces a sense of responsibility among undocumented college students and a desire for academic achievement as a means to improve the standard of living for themselves and their family members (Louie, 2012; Smith, 2006). In these ways, contribution goes beyond social responsibilities and instead reflects the bidirectional nature of contribution between individuals and their family and community environments that is mutually constitutive.


Therefore, our aim is to add to the nascent body of literature on collective contribution through a mixed-method study of Latino undocumented college students. More specifically, this study reports the extent to which Latino undocumented undergraduates are engaged in and contribute to their families and communities using data from the UndocuScholars national survey study. Furthermore, three qualitative portraits help to illuminate the many ways in which these contributions manifest in the lives of Latino undocumented undergraduates.

Through the analysis of results from survey responses (N = 797) as well as interviews and family maps (n = 3) of Latino undocumented undergraduates, two research questions were explored.

Using quantitative methods,

RQ1. What are broad patterns of family and community responsibilities in Latino undocumented undergraduates lives?

RQ2. How do these patterns vary by gender, DACA status, family income, and first-generation to college status?

Using qualitative methods,

RQ3. How do Latino undocumented undergraduates contribute to their families and communities in their daily lives?

RQ4. What role does collective contribution play in the lives of Latino undocumented undergraduates?


This study used a convergent mixed-methods design (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011) in which parallel quantitative and qualitative data were collected and analyzed separately. Finally, the results were compared, contrasted, and combined to represent a more complete picture that addresses the research questions. Moreover, many of the design elements were influenced by a transformative-emancipatory paradigm (Mertens, 2003) that encompasses a participatory action research perspective (Fine & Torre, 2006; Tolman & Brydon-Miller, 2001) by (1) creating an interactive link between researchers and participants, (2) involving the community in methodological and programmatic decisions, and (3) recognizing and placing the diversity of viewpoints in cultural, social, political, and historical context. The transformative design helped to shape the ways in which community members were involved in all phases of the project, from designing the instruments to analyzing the data. The quantitative and qualitative methods of this study are described in detail next.



The survey was conducted anonymously online through Qualtrics and in paper format through campus and community outreach events from January to October 2014. To take part in the survey, participants must have been born outside the United States and self-identified as undocumented or having DACA; be enrolled as an undergraduate (either currently or in the past semester to account for stopouts); and be between the ages of 18 and 30. Participants were provided with a $20 gift card for their participation. Additionally, the survey was administered anonymously online, and no identifying information was collected during the subsequent qualitative data collection.

Online survey participants were recruited through a variety of outreach efforts, such as posting flyers with the project website link on social media, sending recruitment emails to community-based organizations that forwarded it to their constituents, tabling at various undocumented student events and workshops, and mailing postcards with the information to organizations across the country. Additional efforts were made to recruit students at events that attract underrepresented undocumented student populations, such as community college students, students in rural areas, and Asian and Pacific Islander students. We also targeted states with large estimated undocumented and immigrant populations, such as California, New York, Arizona, and Texas.

Furthermore, given the highly vulnerable nature of this population and the hard-to-reach nature of participants, recruitment and participation of a nationally representative sample for this study was not possible (Marpsat & Razafindratsima, 2010; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). However, although this is not a nationally representative sample, the researchers made attempts to recruit a sample that was as closely reflective of the demography of the undocumented immigrant youth population as possible using any available benchmarks derived from demographic estimates from previous studies. Specifically, we used estimates on country of origin and state of residence of DACA-eligible youth from reports by the Immigration Policy Center (2012) and Batalova, Hooker, and Capps (2014; see Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015, and Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015, for further details); any available benchmarks are presented in Table 1. The authors recognize this as a limitation to this study; however, given the limited research on undocumented students, this study aimed more to understand their experiences from the perspectives of the sample attained.

Table 1. Participant Demographics (N = 797)








Age of Arrival



    Before 5 years of age



    Between 5 and 12 years of age



    After 12 years of age



Family Background



    First-generation college students



    Family income: < $40,000



 Immigration Status



    Mixed status householdb



    Citizen siblings



    Mother does not reside in the U.S.



    Father does not reside in the U.S.



    Participant has DACA



College Setting



    Attends CCc



    Attends 4-year public



    Attends 4-year private



    Attends school in CA



Note. All percentages are given as a percentage of responses for that item

aFemales in our sample are slightly over the estimated 46.1% of DACA-eligible youth (Immigration Policy Center, 2012). However, the percentage is similar to the National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP) sample of undocumented DACA-recipient females at 61% (Gonzales, Terriquez, & Ruszczyk, 2014).

b At least one family member is documented.

c Our sample is overrepresented at four-year colleges compared with the available benchmark of 70% of immigrant undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; CC: community college.

Data presented in this table reflect available estimated data on undocumented populations (Gonzales et al., 2014).


Participants included the subset of 797 self-identified Latino undocumented undergraduate college students (ages 1830, M = 21.5 years, SD = 2.7; 54.5% female; see Table 1 for demographic detail). Participants emigrated from a number of different countries of origin (see Table 2 for full details). The average age of arrival to the United States was 6.4 years (SD = 4.3). Over half (51.9%) had arrived between the ages of 5 and 12 years old, and over a third (37.8%) had arrived before they were 5. On average, participants had lived in the United States for 15.1 years (SD = 4.7). The majority of participants were the first in their families to attend college (61.3%) and were residing in families whose annual income was less than $40,000 per year (79.1%), which was considered low income. Two thirds of participants (66.0%) had received DACA (66.0%) and resided in mixed-status families where at least one person was documented (61.7%). Nearly half of participants attended four-year public colleges (45.0%) or community colleges (43.9%). Nearly two thirds of participants were attending colleges in California, whereas others attended colleges in a variety of states.

Table 2. Countries of Origin of Participants
















El Salvador


















Costa Rica


















Congo, Republic of the...



Dominican Republic


















Note. Countries of origin of survey participants who self-identified as Latina/o in origin. These reflect available estimated data of undocumented populations. The majority of undocumented students in the United States are said to come from Mexico (71%; Batalova et al., 2014). Additionally, the large proportion of survey participants originating from Mexico is similar to the large proportional representation of this population in other national samples of undocumented students, such as the 68% in Gonzales and colleagues (2014) National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP) survey participants who received DACA.

Survey Items and Measures

The survey questions are informed in part by the scholarship and past surveys of experts on undocumented and immigrant students (see Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015, for full details). Additionally, and more important, we sought feedback by community-based organizations and advisors to the project in the survey development stages. More specifically, we consulted three advisory boards in the development, piloting, and adaptation of the quantitative measures. The student advisory board consisted of 11 student leaders, the community advisory board consisted of members from 13 immigrant advocacy organizations throughout the country, and the research advisory board comprised well-regarded organization leaders and practitioners, as well as faculty with complementary expertise. The final survey included a number of measures to understand the experiences of undocumented undergraduates in and out of school including: student demographic and college program information, experiences in college (such as peer and instructor support, experiences of bias, and accessibility of safe spaces), identity and social engagement, psychological well-being, work experiences, and academic trajectories. For the purposes of this study, we focused on the family and community responsibilities and how they differed by demographic categories.

Family responsibilities. A version of the Family Responsibilities Index from the Research on Immigrants in Colleges (RIC) project was adapted for this study (see Katsiaficas, 2017). The previous measure examined the ways in which immigrant-origin (first- through third- generation) community college students provided support to their families. The measure was expanded to include an additional index of the types of support participants received from their family based on preliminary findings from the RIC project. The Family Engagement Checklist tapped into the types of assistance undergraduates provided their family members in the past month. This six-item measure was adapted from a four-item measure from the RIC study. The original scale asked participants to indicate if they had provided help to their family members in the following domains: translating, providing advice and solving problems, taking care of children or elderly family members, as well as a space for additional domains where they wrote in their responses. In addition, two items were added based on findings from the RIC study (Katsiaficas, 2017): paying bills or expenses, and providing tutoring or homework help. In addition, participants were asked to report how many hours they spent weekly engaging in each of the mentioned activities to understand the frequency of participation ranging from 0 to more than 15.

The Family Assistance Checklist tapped into the types of assistance undergraduates received from their family members in the past month. On this six-item scale, participants indicated whether they had received help in the following domains: paying expenses, paying tuition, errands or practical tasks, tutoring or homework help, and advice and solving problems, as well as a space of additional domains where they wrote in their responses.

Community responsibilities. A version of the Civic Engagement Index from the RIC project was adapted for this study. The original measure (see Katsiaficas, 2017) was developed for a study of immigrant-origin community college students to account for the variety of ways that immigrant-origin college students may exhibit civic participation beyond traditional indicators, such as voting and political participation. The measure was expanded to account for the ways in which undocumented youth typically engage with their communities. Participants were asked the frequency of their participation in eight different activities, ranging from 0 (never) to 5 (daily). These activities included helping people in their community with translation; taking care of children or the elderly in their community; providing advice or advocacy for people in the community; mentoring and coaching young people; volunteering in a place of worship, school, or community center; and engaging a cause they care about. Two additional items were added to the original measure to include items about community organizing and attending a protest or demonstration, given the history of political activism in the undocumented student movement.

Financial Contributions to Education

Participants reported the percentage of tuition and fees that were paid for by a variety of sources, including family, self, loan that had to be repaid, and other, which they could fill in.


Design and Procedures

The qualitative component of the study was designed and conducted as part of a participatory action research (PAR) project embedded within a summer undergraduate research program focused on preparing undocumented undergraduates for graduate school at a large public, highly selective university in California (see Katsiaficas et al., 2016, for full details). The research program was established to provide research training and an opportunity for undocumented and ally students to make change on their campus through a PAR approach. The research team was composed of six undocumented and ally graduate and undergraduate students. The design of the qualitative component was informed by the perspectives and priorities of the research team, in addition to the preliminary findings from the quantitative component. Visual and verbal narratives were collected (see Katsiaficas et al., 2016; Katsiaficas, Futch, Fine, & Sirin, 2011, for further details) in parallel to the survey data collection (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). Table 3 summarizes the project activities and the types of data yielded.

Table 3. Project Activities and Data Yielded

Project Activities

Product/Data Yielded

Undocumented student study survey

Descriptive quantitative data

Review of survey findings

Research questions for PAR project

Summer program

Training & design meetings

Deepened theoretical understanding of contribution

Design of visual and verbal narratives

On-campus interviews

N = 18 verbal and visual narratives

Dialogic analysis meetings

Portraits of n = 3 participants

Designing dissemination products

Policy report & short film, It's Time

Participants were recruited for the qualitative study on campus through a combination of convenience and snowball sampling. Student participants were mostly recruited through outreach to on-campus student organizations and the undocumented student support services office via email lists and social media. Participants were also recruited via personal referrals from team members or interview participants. Interviews were audio-recorded and lasted roughly 1.5 hours. Each interview was transcribed verbatim, and all participants were assigned a pseudonym to protect their identities. Each participant was provided a $20 gift card incentive after completing the interview. All interview participants reported taking part in the quantitative survey. However, as a result of the anonymity procedures of the survey, we were unable to link quantitative data to qualitative data for this study.

Study Context

The university is located in a large urban city with a large concentration of immigrant-origin population (35%).2 Nearly half of all residents of this city identify as Latina/o, most of whom are of Mexican descent. This city is reflective of the demography of the state of California, in which over a quarter of the total population are Latina/o (39%; California Senate Office of Research, 2017) and foreign born (27.3%; American Immigration Council, 2017). Additionally, in 2014, an estimated 6% of the total population in California are said to be unauthorized immigrants, of whom 71% are from Mexico (Pew Research Center, 2016). In fall 2014, the university comprised 19.1% Latina/o undergraduate students, and 55.7% of the total undergraduate population identified as female.


For this study, narratives of three Latina/o participants were selected from the pool of 18 participants in the qualitative study. The researchers selected three cases that displayed a range of ways in which they contributed to their communities and families. Aside from selecting a range of contribution among Latina/o cases, the participants are demographically diverse and reflect diverse college experiences. In particular, the cases represent a diversity in genders, countries of origin, DACA status, and college transfers (demographics are presented in Table 4). The selection of participants among these variables was purposefully done to represent a diversity of experiences, but also to mirror the diversity of the survey sample (see Tables 1, 2, and 4 to compare samples).

Table 4. Interview Participant Demographics





Age of Arrival

Country of Birth

First in Family in College


Hours of Work per Week

 Household Size




5 or 6
























Note. Household size includes the number of family members reported to be currently residing with participant.

Verbal and Visual Narratives

Pluralistic narratives (verbal and visual narratives; Katsiaficas et al., 2011, 2016) were collected through semistructured interviews with participants (see Katsiaficas et al., 2016, for full details). As part of the interview, participants were asked to complete a family identity map (visual narrative; Futch & Fine, 2014; Sirin, Katsiaficas, & Volpe, 2010) in which they were asked to draw what they consider to be their family. Mapping techniques allow participants to express a visual narrative of self and relationships that may be preverbal, affect-laden, metaphoric and/or relational (Katsiaficas et al., 2011, p. 123). During the interview, interviewers asked each participant for specific interpretations of his or her map to delve deeply into the narratives of family and community. Finally, participants completed a short demographic survey in which they identified country of origin, gender, and age of arrival to the United States.


A convergent mixed-method analytic strategy was used for this study (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). Quantitative and qualitative data were analyzed independently using strategies best suited for the research questions (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011, p. 215). The databases were compared regarding dimensions of family and community contributions. The comparisons between the converged and diverged findings fostered insights into what might have been missed using a single method (Marks & Abo-Zena, 2013).

Quantitative Analysis

Descriptive statistics were conducted using SPSS to examine the first research question. In addition, chi-squares tests were conducted to determine if there were group differences based on gender, DACA status, family income (making under $40,000 per year, which was considered being low income) and first-generation-to-college status in the percentages of participants who took part in each of the family and community activities.

Qualitative Analysis

The researchers analyzed the interview transcript (verbal narrative), demographic survey, and the family map (visual narrative), discussed the themes from each case, and drew connections between the data points for each case to identify how Latino undocumented undergraduates drew on and served as resources to their families and communities. By placing both the visual and verbal narratives in dialogue with one another as part of the shared pluralistic analytic (Frost, 2009; Katsiaficas et al., 2011) conversations, team members were able to develop thick descriptions of contribution in the lives of undocumented undergraduates. Narrations of important relationships in ones life were used as guideposts utilizing the following questions: Whom do the participants consider family? What role does family play in college students lives? How is family a resource? What role do the undocumented student participants play in contributing to their families/communities? These analytic conversations also facilitated the reflexivity of the analysis team members, most significantly the ways in which their understandings of family and contribution might inform the analysis to further ensure internal validity (Merriam, 2009).


With regard to RQ1, descriptive quantitative results suggest that undocumented undergraduates provide a significant amount of support to and receive a significant amount of support from their families.


Nearly all participants (94.8%) received assistance from their parents in a variety of domains. Family members help participants to pay for expenses (62.1%), solve problems or provide advice (42.1%), pay for tuition (33.1%), and help with errands or practical tasks (31.9%). With regard to RQ2, these types of supports received varied significantly by gender, DACA status, first-generation-to-college status, and family income status. Specifically, men receive more help from their families in paying tuition (39.0% of men vs. 28.1% of women), χ2(1, 789) = 10.42, p = .001, ETA = .12. Nearly half of women (49.5%) report receiving help solving problems and getting advice from their families, compared with only a third (33.1%) of their male counterparts, χ2(1,789) = 21.56, p < .001, ETA = .17. Furthermore, although the majority of participants reported receiving support from parents in paying for expenses, a significantly smaller proportion of participants with DACA reported receiving this assistance (59.1%) as compared with their counterparts without DACA (70.4%), χ2(1,751) = 8.73, p = .003, ETA = .11. Those with DACA reported receiving advice from family members in significantly higher proportions (47.2%) than those without DACA (27.8%), χ2(1,751) = 24.75, p < .001, ETA = .18. Not surprisingly, first-generation-to-college students report receiving advice from family members in significantly lower proportions (40.5%) than those with at least one college-educated parent (56.5%), χ2(1,668) = 13.84, p < .001, ETA = .14. Participants who were from low-income families reported receiving help paying for tuition in significantly lower proportions (29.5%) than their peers who were not from low-income families (48.9%), χ2(1,759) = 18.91, p < .001, ETA = .16.

Financial Contributions to Education

Participants reported on the percentage of family, self, financial aid, and other sources used to cover tuition and fees. This provided insight into how participants paid for their education and what role family was able to play in these financial contributions. Overall, 85.5% of participants reported that they self-financed part of their tuition and fees through work, work-study, or other income. Specifically, 31.6% reported that 1%25% of their tuition and fees were covered by their own income; 15.4% reported 26%50%; 16.3% reported 51%75%; and 22.1% reported 76%100%.

Overall, 68.6% of participants reported that their family contributed to financing part of their tuition and fees. Specifically, 30.1% reported that 1%25% of their tuition and fees were covered by family members; 16.8% reported 26%50%; 11.3% reported 51%75%; and 10.3% reported 76%100%. In addition, 8.6% reported using aid that needed to be repaid (such as loans) to cover some of their tuition and fees, and 11.9% reported using other sources, such as friends and scholarships, to cover tuition and fees.


Participants also provided a significant amount of support to their families. Nearly all (97.2%) participants took part in at least one activity to support their families in the past month. This finding should be interpreted with caution because participants were recruited through community organizations and might reflect a segment of the undocumented student population most connected to these organizations. The majority of participants took part in translating for their families (70.2%). Two thirds (64.0%) helped their families with errands and household chores, such as child and elder care. Over half reported giving advice to family members (57.8%). Two fifths (45.4%) reported tutoring or helping family members with homework. Similar proportions (42.8%) reported helping their families pay for bills and other expenses. On average, participants reported spending a significant amount of time engaging in these family activities; attending or organizing family events (n = 661, M = 3.1, SD = 3.9 hours); taking care of children or elderly family members (n = 659, M = 3.6, SD = 5.0 hours); helping extended family (n = 652, M = 3.8, SD = 5.1 hours); and providing advice or advocacy for family members (n = 651, M = 3.1, SD = 4.0 hours).

Community responsibilities also played a large role in students lives. The majority of participants (92.1%) took part in at least one activity to contribute to the community in the past month. Over three quarters of participants reported being engaged in a cause they cared about in the past month (77.7%). Similar proportions helped community members with translation (76.5%). Many also reported mentoring young people in their communities (70.4%). Nearly two thirds (63.6%) engaged in advocacy for their communities, with similar proportions participating in community organizing (60.1%) and volunteering in a community center or place of worship (59.7%). Slightly fewer than half (46.1%) reported participating in a demonstration or protest in the past month. Roughly two fifths (42.1%) reported taking care of an elderly member or child in their community in the past month. On average, participants reported spending a significant amount of time volunteering in their community (M = 4.26, SD = 5.18 hours).   

In addition, participants rated how often they took part in community engagement activities in the past month. On average, participants reported engaging in the following activities roughly 23 times a month: engaging in a cause they cared about (M = 2.08, SD = 1.68); assisting community members with translation (M = 1.84, SD = 1.53); mentoring young people (M = 1.72, SD = 1.55); community organizing (M = 1.57, SD = 1.69); and providing advice or advocacy to community members (M = 1.51, SD = 1.54). On average, participants reported engaging in the following activities roughly once per month: volunteering in a place of worship, school, or community center (M = 1.45, SD = 1.54); taking care of elders or children in the community (M = 1.57, SD = 1.69); and protesting (M = 0.88, SD = 1.23).

With regard to RQ2, there were significant group differences in the kinds of family and community responsibility activities participants engaged in based on gender, DACA status, and first-generation-to-college status. No significant differences were observed in the kinds of family and community responsibility activities participants engaged in based on family income status. The types of supports undocumented undergraduates provided family significantly varied by gender across nearly all domains, with women providing significantly more support to their families than their male peers. Significantly higher proportions of women provided support translating (75.6% vs. 63.8% of men), χ2(1, 789) = 13.01, p < .001, ETA = .13; helping family with errands (69.1% vs. 57.9% of men), χ2(1, 789) = 10.52, p = .001, ETA = .12; giving advice (63.7% vs. 50.7% of men), χ2(1, 789) = 13.61, p < .001, ETA = .13; and tutoring family members (51.2% vs. 38.4% of men), χ2(1, 789) = 12.78, p < .001, ETA = .13. Similar levels of engagement in community activities occurred for both men and women, whereas men reported significantly higher levels of engagement in advocacy for their community than women (68.1% of men vs. 60.1% of women), χ2(1, 789) = 4.6 P = .03, ETA = .077.

Overall, those with DACA reported engaging in specific family responsibilities in higher proportions than those without DACA, and those without DACA reported engaging in more community responsibilities in higher proportions than DACA recipients. Those with DACA reported providing help with errands to family members in significantly higher proportions (66.8%) than those without DACA (57.0%), χ2(1,751) = 6.69, p = .01, ETA = .09. Those with DACA reported providing help with translation for family members in significantly higher proportions (79.1%) than those without DACA (50.0%), χ2(1,751) = 64.46, p < .001, ETA = .29; however, those without DACA reported providing translation for community members in significantly higher proportions (82.1%) than those with DACA (73.5%), albeit with a smaller effect size, χ2(1,751) = 6.43, p = .02, ETA = .09. Those with DACA reported providing advice to family members in significantly higher proportions (63.5%) than those without DACA (43.9%), χ2(1,751) = 25.13, p < .001, ETA = .18; however, those without DACA reported providing advice to community members in significantly higher proportions (72.0%) than DACA recipients (60.3%), χ2(1,751) = 9.24, p = .002, ETA = .11. Those without DACA reported volunteering in significantly higher proportions (67.1%) than those with DACA (55.9%), χ2(1,751) = 8.15, p = .004, ETA = .11; also, those without DACA reported providing child and elder care to community members in higher proportions (56.9%) than their peers with DACA (35.0%), χ2(1,751) = 30.84, p < .001, ETA = .21.

First-generation-to-college students reported providing help with translation to family members in significantly higher proportions (77.3%) than those with at least one college-educated parent (65.8%), χ2(1,668) = 9.21, p = .002, ETA = .12. There were no significant differences in reports of civic engagement activities by first-generation-to-college status.

Next, the various ways in which these family and community responsibilities were experienced (RQ3) and the ways in which collective contribution played a role (RQ4) in the daily lives of participants were explored through the three portraits of Latino youth.


Figure 1. Monicas family map


From left to right: Dad (Ecuador), Mom, brother, niece, sister-in-law, brother, sister-in-law, family friend, sister, self, partner, sisters boyfriend, sister.

My parents were really, like, I think at the beginning they were more excited for me to attend [this highly selective four-year college] than I was. Because I was more worried financial wise. But they were like, Well get through this together.

Monica is a 22-year-old fourth-year college student majoring in anthropology. At the age of six, she moved from South America to the United States with both of her parents and older siblings after having lived in another large Western industrialized country for three years. Monica is the fourth of five children in a mixed-status family and currently lives with all her family members in a small apartment in a gateway immigrant community. In her family map, she drew her family in descending order: her father and mother, followed by her older brother carrying her newborn niece, her sister-in-law, then her second brother and his wife, an older sister, a family friend, herself and her boyfriend, and her younger sister and her boyfriend (see Figure 1). In her narrative, she revealed that all her family members lived in the same house except her father, who moved back to Ecuador. In her family map and throughout the interview, it became evident that family was very important in Monicas life; they serve as a source of support and motivation for her to continue her education despite the barriers she faces, just as she serves as a source of support for them.

Her description of how she selected a college illuminates the ways in which they show mutual support and value collective contribution. Monica describes how her family is at the forefront of her thoughts when making the decision about going to college. She notes, I didn't really see college as something I had to get done. It was more like once I graduate high school, Id try to find a job to help my family.

All the familys decisions revolve around whats best for the family as a group. Monica talks about the ways in which her familys well-being was central to her decisions about where to go to college. She describes that despite being accepted to four-year colleges, she was willing to sacrifice that opportunity to attend a community college because they are a less expensive option. She notes, Im not gonna be the one that puts the family in jeopardy just so I can be the only one out of the five kids to go to college. She feared the financial strain attending college would put on her family because her father had just suffered an injury at work and was let go from his job. She says:

Coming from a low-income family [where] theres five kids and Im the second youngest. My older siblings also wanted to go to college so it was more like if I was gonna go to this school, I was gonna pay for it on my own cause I didnt see it fair to ask my parents to be the only one to pay for.

In the end, she decided to attend a four-year college after her brother insisted she apply and her parents told her they would make it work:

My parents and my brothers were motivating, like they would tell me that I had to go. . .

My parents were really, like, I think at the beginning they were more excited for me to attend [this highly selective four-year college] than I was. Because I was more worried financial wise. But they were like Well get through this together.

Despite the unlimited barriers undocumented students face and the constraints they encounter in higher education, the narrative of Monica illuminates the collective effort, support, and encouragement she received from her family to attend a highly selective four-year college. The narrative of Monica demonstrates how she places her family at the center of her educational decisions in the instances where she describes her concerns and mindfulness of the financial circumstances that can potentially affect her younger siblings. However, we also see how those financial concerns are collectively lifted off her shoulders through the words of encouragement by her brother and other family members who keep in mind the importance of Monica attending a highly selective institution that will ultimately benefit the family in the long term.

Looking further into her narrative, we learn that Monicas undocumented father role modeled this sense of responsibility to the family two years earlier when he moved back to Ecuador to take care of his elderly mother. In doing so, he sacrificed potentially never seeing his wife, children, and grandchild again because his undocumented status would make it nearly impossible to return to the United States. Yet, despite returning to Ecuador, he was still very much connected to his family. When we look again at the family map, we see Monica has drawn her parents holding hands, representing a transnational family unity that transcends well beyond national borders.

For Monica, her motivation to do well in school came from the sense of responsibility to her family. All my high school and my middle school I just felt like I just have to stick to school, this is my only way out. This is my only way of making sure my family gets better things in life. She demonstrates a heightened sense of responsibility to her family in the interview when she shares her decision to move back home to help her family after her father returned to Ecuador. She says,

My first two years when my dad was here, I would try to help out at home with food or something cause I already worked. So Id help with food or little things. But two years ago my dad left the U.S. and . . . I felt the pressure to help more at home. . . . So I went back home and I just help with rent, cable, food, . . . Its a lot of financial responsibilities at home.

For Monica, her responsibilities are matched by her familys commitment to helping her succeed.

Her community also played an instrumental role in supporting her through college, but also as an outlet to give back. She says,

I would go and share my story at churches and then sometimes if I was fortunate or if the people would want to donate, they would donate some money like that. So it was spreading my story. That was also an interesting experience cause sometimes I would get a reaction like Were proud of you cause even though we dont know you, youre there and trying to do the right thing. . . . And while sharing my story I was also trying to promote the CA Dream Act, and I was like, Im here to tell you that as a citizen, you should take action.

Although Monica did not have the privileges afforded by DACA, she did have access to state-level financial aid through the CA Dream Act (AB 540, 2017). This access and her experiences in college propelled her to do more for her community by advocating and volunteering, both in church and through organized student outreach events in the community. She notes that she felt called to give back to the community and volunteer more of her time because of the access she was afforded from the labor of previous generations.

We have free time but I think we feel the responsibility to give back to the community. Or at least I did. Like, this is what the past generations had given me and I think the reason why I got more involved after the CA Dream Act . . . it gave me free time to get involved&

At the same time, she describes the ways in which she must balance these community activities with those of family: I had more free time to get involved on campus and to study but . . . it was like I still had to worry about paying back home and stuff. So it was like, we still have financial troubles. As mentioned, her family was instrumental in her decision to attend a four-year institution and providing guidance to navigate the higher education system as an undocumented student. The ways in which she relies on the guidance from those in her family who went to college before her come through in her narrative. Throughout the narrative, she talks about her father and older brother as a key source of why and how she got to the college she currently attends. She says,

A lot of the teachers who also knew my older brother went to a community college [because of his undocumented status] so they were like, He did that so that he could help your family, so you need to make sure you take advantage of that and go to a university.

Beyond the financial support and advice provided between these family members, which is also captured in the quantitative data, Monicas story reveals the way she honors her familys sacrifices by continuing her education. Furthermore, it is important to note the important contribution of having an older brother who made the initial sacrifice of taking the community college route to give back to his family and place them in a better position; learning from his experience and sacrifices, he ultimately wants better for Monica. Thus, he encouraged her and understands the value and opportunities that will be presented to Monica by attending an elite institution.

In this sense, by attending a four-year college, Monica is acknowledging her brothers sacrifice to help the family, and in return also helping her family by going to college. She poignantly states,

Every time you go into a class and you write your first name and your family name, youre representing us [(family)]. So take school seriously. I think that was what prepared me for school. It was like I was representing the family, like all my siblings and me were representing our family and their work every time we put our name down, every time our name was called. So I think thats what prepared me to do the best.

In return, Monica is highly aware of the responsibility that comes with being enrolled in an elite institution and being granted this opportunity and support by her family members. Consequently, one of Monicas goals is to follow in her brothers footsteps and create a pathway for her younger siblings to have these college opportunities in the near future by best representing her family through taking her education seriously and preparing to be in a position that will ultimately bring more resources to the family. However, her liminal legal status might serve as a roadblock in the future, possibly limiting her forms of contribution to her family and community because of the lack of opportunities that might be presented to her after college.

Monicas experience not only sheds light on the significant contribution that her family plays in providing financial, emotional, and motivational support, but also illustrates that family support pattern does not follow a unidirectional lane. More precisely, family support is a reciprocal process, in which both parts simultaneously make decisions based on a value of collective contribution that operates beyond physical and transnational borders.


[College] made me open my mind and realize that getting here was not just me. It was a bunch of people that helped me along the way so its practically my duty to give back.

Julio is a 19-year-old man who arrived in the United States at the age of six from Mexico with his parents and older brother. He aspires to get a Ph.D. in a science field. His education and aspirations have been further supported by his familys ongoing expectation that he will continue his education, as well as their financial support. Julio is a gifted student whose success is mitigated by his undocumented status. At the opening of the interview, we learn how he ended up at his current college.

Well my first choice was [one of the top private schools] and um, I received a full scholarship but then since my DACA social [identification number] hadnt gone through yet they had to like revoke the scholarship, so then two months later it finally came in but by then it was too late. So then I started looking into the [public colleges]. [My current college] was the one that was giving me the most financial aid so I chose [it].

Although not his first choice, the public four-year institution has proved to be a place where he can thrive, one where he feels he belongs and is able to be open about who he is and his undocumented status, as compared with his high school.

Much like the quantitative data revealed, Julios family provided support in paying tuition, much like other male participants in the national study. He notes, In the middle of the school year I got behind my dorm payment so I was thinking this is gonna be the breaking point and maybe Im gonna have to take a break but my parents got loans and that was able to help me continue college. In this statement, Julios first reaction, as described, is to sacrifice his education, taking a break to raise funds to pay for school. However, his parents were able to financially contribute to Julios education so that he did not have to take a break.

Reflecting on the ways in which Julio is supported in college, we learn that Julio has a number of people who support him. This is reflected in his depiction of his family map (see Figure 2). His family seems to play a central role in his life, and after examining the map more closely, we learn that his friends also play a significant role. They are depicted as the large group of faces stacked behind him.

Figure 2. Julios family map


From left to right: Dad, Mom, older brother, self, partner, friends (behind)

The first one is my father and my mom, and then my brother and me. Thats four of us with our family. And then this guy hes my partner and behind me is all the friends I have met throughout this school year so I feel like all of them are practically my family. We have shared so much.

He notes throughout his interview that his friends provide him with emotional support to cope with both the stresses of being a college student and the difficulties that come along with his undocumented status, such as concerns about deportations of family members. Throughout his narrative, Julio conveys the burden of this liminal status, as he notes that he has sought help from various people regarding questions such as, Will this affect me in the future if I get my degree revoked if I no longer have DACA?

Ultimately, we learn that his parents have played a central role in his life, particularly in shaping his ideas about giving back in terms of social responsibilities. He notes, Because [my parents] are so giving it made me realize that I have to do something that would not only benefit me but other people. As a result, the role of Julios parents has been influential in his educational trajectory; they have contributed in many ways, from providing him with emotional and financial support to shaping his values that will determine his career orientation, benefitting not only him but also other members of his community. Julio reflects how the notion of collective contribution has developed within him over time, particularly with regard to success. He notes,

Well throughout late middle school I thought success was money. And the richer you are the more successful you are. Then in high school I realized that maybe it meant having family and friends along the way. Then in college I realized success is like when you are able to provide for your family and for other people and give back to your community. So in college Ive learned that theres a whole humanity part to successnot financial.

Julios narrative has shed light on his development in college and shaping his values and making meaning of success by being able to provide for his family and community. He embodies this giving back most saliently through his contributions to his family. He mentions, Every now and then I have to help my parents you know pay for groceries. So right now Im taking a summer job to help with that and you know to pay a small portion of what they have given me all my life. Following the initial investment provided by his family to contribute to his education, Julio already is returning the favor; he is helping to support his family not only by paying for the groceries but also by transmitting college knowledge to his younger cousins.

Right now that Im home for the summer Im tutoring my cousins even though some of them are in elementary. I am telling them this is what a college application looks like so start getting familiar with it. I gotta to make sure my family and my extended family is ready for college.

Although Julio has an older brother who attended college, he is the one in his family who provides information about how to prepare for college: Because [my older brother] didnt know there was AB540, and he could do this and that, and get scholarships here and there. So Im actually like the first one to bring all these resources to my family and my extended family and things like that. His valuing of contribution extends to deciding on a career that would be for the benefit of common good, while also balancing his own personal fulfillment:

Well in the beginning [my parents] wanted me to be a doctor but when I told them I wanted to go into research, at first it created a conflict. They were like, No, you should become a doctor. Youll help more people that way. But then I made them realize if Im the guy making the, the medicine, then maybe Im gonna help even more people than just a surgery. So weve had discussions about that but we came to good terms.

Julios narratives highlight how his liminal legal status and his contribution to his family and community will have a lasting impact beyond the limitations imposed by immigration policy.

Well right now the DACA law . . . well Im not sure if itsits not a law, but if they were to revoke the DACA benefits then, likeor completely get rid of the DREAM Act, even though it hasnt even passed, but if they were to get rid of it I can see that I would have to rethink my career . . . I wont be able to practice my career and then I might have to take a minimum wage job or move back to Mexico.

The barriers imposed by Julios liminal legal status not only determine his long-term career goals but also highlight the potential scenario of the valuable loss of human talent in the United States if he returns to his birth country. In addition, this will impede his efforts to contribute to his family and community through his career as a researcher given that he is aspiring to earn a Ph.D. in a science field. While his family has invested in his education, Julio also has assumed the responsibility to share the knowledge he has gained by transmitting college knowledge to his extended family members; however, Julios liminal legal status affects his aspirations to contribute to his family and community. Overall, it seems that these are more than just personal strategies to cope to legal barriers; they are reflections of peoples responses to situations that they are unable to control, especially when their future is determined by specific legislation.


Figure 3. Esperanzas family map


From left to right: Self, Mom, Dad, pets; Clockwise: AB540 student club [pseudonym; blurred], Undocumented Community in Northern California [location obscured; blurred], Extended family in Mexico.

Note. Image is blurred to protect participant identity.

College became something that I knew was going to be better for my future, for my family, and for my community.

Esperanza is a 22-year-old transfer student who grew up with her parents as an only child in Northern California. Through her narrative and family map, Esperanza weaves a story of resilience, maturity, and connection. She was a high-achieving student, attending a progressive school that had a reputation for sending students directly into four-year colleges. However, because of financial barriers, she decided to attend community college first, which she described as the best decision of my life.

In her family map (see Figure 3), she is featured prominently, and through her interview narrative, we learn that she is surrounded by various family and community members who have contributed to her persistence in college. The community college setting was a formative place where Esperanza felt supported and was able to braid together the threads of family, community, and self. As she described in her interview narrative when reflecting on her time at the community college, College became something that like I knew was going to be better for my future, for my family, and for my community. Despite having transferred to a four-year institution hundreds of miles away, her family and certain community members are still present in her family map.

She begins to unpack her family map to her interviewer by describing her immediate family: My family . . . they saw me stressed out so they were ready to make sacrifices and thats why even though Im far away from them I know Im doing it for me and for them cause I know theyre making a lot of sacrifices like financially and emotionally. Regardless of distance, Esperanza acknowledges the collective sacrifices that have been made, which serve as important reminders toward her persistence in college; she has a full village with members who have contributed toward her educational goals.

Further, moving down the map, she sheds light on her family in Mexico, who sit beneath her under an arrow. She describes,

My family in Mexico City. Cause Im from Mexico City because theyre also my blood relatives. And even though I dont see them, I havent seen them in 16 years, the reason why Im here and the reason why Im getting an education is also because of them, and for them.

Esperanza acknowledges the importance of becoming the first in her family to graduate from college in the United States and how meaningful it will be to her extended family in Mexico.

The importance of community within the community college is illustrated in Esperanzas family map and narrative. She goes on to describe the impact of the various communities she is a part of, one a club for undocumented students, and the other the community outside the walls of her community college, labeled the Undocumented Community in Northern California (the exact location is obscured to protect participants identity); despite being far away and not knowing each individual, she considers this community to be an integral part of her family. A large section of the family map is dedicated to members of the AB540 student club (pseudonym) at her community college, standing under a prominent banner with their club name (the image has been blurred to protect identities). The family map has 10 individuals pictured under the AB540 student club banner, which represents the larger community of allies, counselors, and advisors who have supported her along the way in their educational journey at the community college and beyond. She illustrates the validation and empowerment she received through the multiple communities she belongs to. In the discussion of her family map, she talks about the inspiration she received from her community to pursue a higher education and the benefits of getting an education.

The AB540 student club became a central part of her family within the community college she attended for more than four years. She became very close with other group members, and she remains connected to them despite having transferred to a four-year college across the state. She describes her peers in the club as though they are still with her: Weve become so close that I know everything about them and they know everything about me, and weve been through so much together weve all been on this journey. She shared the student rallies and educational workshops, which were geared toward undocumented student success and facilitated by members of the faculty at her community college. In her narrative, she states, The people who supported our group and the people who kinda make it happen because, you know, were students and if it was just us there wouldnt be like the group that we are. Her experience at the community college provided her with an understanding of the importance of building community and giving back.

This sense of giving back was something that she could further realize through obtaining DACA status. On entering community college, her dream was to become a nurse, but she was swiftly discouraged by a counselor: [They] told me I couldnt uh apply because they have to do like background checks and you have to do work in hospitals um but uh after that I well I was devastated& This changed with DACA, however, which opened up more possibilities for her to engage in paid work in the field she desired. She states, So having DACA really gives me the opportunity to really apply to something that, you know, is gonna help me and I dont have to settle for. And I can do for like, if it wasnt for DACA, I wouldnt have been able to get the RA position. She goes on to describe the ways in which the opportunities opened to her by her DACA status went hand in hand with her desires to contribute to her community.

The potential for community involvement weighed heavily in Esperanzas college transfer decision. Yet after transferring to the highly selective four-year institution she chose, she still yearned for more community involvement. Esperanzas commitment to community involvement reflects the high levels of engagement observed in the large sample of survey respondents. While at the four-year college, she became involved with the undocumented student club (pseudonym) on campus but felt that she was not able to work as closely with the community as she was used to. She describes, Even with [the undocumented student club], we dont work as much with the community and I think that has to do with the fact that, you know, those communities dont have access to an institution like this. Her strong desire to connect with the undocumented community off campus was limited by the exclusivity the college campus created. We can see the loud absence of community further echoed in the tensions between her visual and verbal narratives. Despite the undocumented student organization being heavily featured in her verbal narrative, it bears no presence on her family map; in fact, she does not identify a campus community within her four-year institution in her drawing at all.

Esperanza yearns to make connections with her community to better serve them and bumps up against the limitations of her current environment. She describes not only that she feels the desire to contribute, but that it is fundamental to her own ability to effect change. She shares,

I need them to know me too cause theyre like, you know, [inaudible] communities, the ones that I wanna work with dont have access to this kinds of institutions. So theyre gonna be like, Oh, this person who graduated from a [this college] all of a sudden wants to come help us, what does she know? So I think one of the key things is thats why I also wanna work a lot with communities. Cause I wanna stay grounded.

Esperanza understands the importance of staying close and connected to the community she aspires to work closely with, and gaining the respect and trust of these communities is important in her work.

Esperanzas unique experience with her particular community college began a transformative journey that has led to her passion for social activism and civic engagement. Despite being far away from home and attending a highly selective public four-year college, she still maintains close ties with both her community college and her Northern California community. Through her narrative and identity map, she represents a student who is driven by multiple communities, one who is not only dedicated to her academic achievements but also incredibly committed to the well-being of others.


The mixed-method analysis provides a rich understanding of the ways in which undocumented undergraduates are thriving by contributing to their families and their communities despite the obstacles they face. The quantitative analysis of Latino undocumented undergraduates reveals the high levels of engagement of this population in social responsibilities. The majority of the undocumented students surveyed reported a variety of ways in which they contributed to their families and communities by translating, providing advice, mentoring young people, and engaging in causes they cared about. This finding corroborates the work by Suárez-Orozco and colleagues (2015).

The quantitative data revealed a number of group differences patterns in engagement based on DACA status, first-generation-to-college status, and gender with regard to participation in a variety of family and community activities. There were no observed differences, however, with regard to family income status. Previous literature suggests that low-income students from a variety of ethnic/racial and immigrant generation backgrounds engaged in these types of activities as a normative part of their development (Katsiaficas, 2015). These findings extend this work to suggest that contributing to family and community is particularly developmentally salient for undocumented undergraduates regardless of their family income level.

There were few quantitative differences with regard to first-generation college students. Specifically, those who were the first in their families to attend college reported helping their family members with translation more often than those who were not the first in their families to attend college, and they reported receiving less advice from family members. Furthermore, those with DACA reported having more family responsibilities than those without DACA status, whereas those without DACA status reported having more community responsibilities. The intersections of undocumented status, DACA status, and first-generation-to-college status may interact in complex, nuanced ways. These findings were deepened by our qualitative analysis.

Women reported providing more support to their families than their male peers across a variety of domains. This finding is in line with others, who found that as immigrant-origin female adolescents develop into women, they often take on the burden of household and family responsibilities in immigrant-origin families (Suárez-Orozco & Qin, 2006; Valenzuela, 1999). Further, young women often take on the role of caretaker in their families, particularly when affected by undocumented status (Muñoz & Maldonado, 2011). As Espín (1999) noted, immigrant young women become the keepers of culture in their families and communities (Espín, 1999). As their families migrate from contexts often marked by collectivistic to individualistic values, maintaining the values of social relationships and interdependence often falls on young women (Greenfield, 2009). However, the qualitative portraits remind us that despite these patterns, across the board, Latina/o undocumented undergraduates are highly engaged in their families and communities in a variety of ways.

In alignment with the majority of the undocumented students in the survey, the qualitative portraits complement the quantitative data, revealing a great deal about the multidimensional nature of contribution to and from family and community. Each of the portraits of undocumented undergraduates demonstrated the ways in which they contributed to their families in tangible ways, through financial contributions of paying rent or utilities, or transmitting college knowledge to extended family members. All described their own needs alongside those of their family members, never forgetting those who came before them, the sacrifices they made, or the weight of their own decisions in their family members lives.

Further, the qualitative portraits illuminated what we may have missed (Marks & Abo-Zena, 2013) had we not collected the verbal and visual narratives in our parallel data sets. There were a variety of ways to contribute to families and communities beyond what was captured by the quantitative measure. For example, Esperanza felt a strong need to give back to her community and to share her knowledge with as many others as she could, often participating in rallies and demonstrations to support undocumented students rights; she shared what scholars refer to as counternarratives, the telling of stories and narratives of those people whose experiences are not often toldthose on the margins of society (Diaz-Strong, Gomez, Luna-Darte, & Meiners, 2014, p. 223; see also Solis, 2004). This particular type of contribution was not captured by the measure and would have been difficult to access through surveys. Julio contributed by wanting to help others beyond his community through working for the public good. Monica was intricately involved with her family, getting through each of lifes major hurdles with their help. The nuances of these lived experiences of collective contribution were amplified by these visual and verbal narrative techniques.

Beyond what was captured quantitatively, the qualitative portraits also revealed an additional important theme of contribution: The act of being in college was seen as a major contribution to the family and to the community. For Monica, her brother only attended community college, and she feared that choosing the path of attending a four-year college would put too much of a financial burden on her family. After speaking with her family members extensively, she resolved to attend as a way to honor her brothers sacrifice and to represent her family. Julio did so in a different way; he wanted to make sure that his immediate and extended family members were prepared for college, and he shared the knowledge pathways that he had gained from attending school with his relatives. Esperanza noted how being the first in her family to graduate from college in the United States was meaningful for her extended family left behind in Mexico.

In each of these ways, these three students demonstrate an important theme that would have been missed had we not explored these questions qualitatively: Contribution takes the form of attending college and further feeds what they can give back. Thus, attending school and going further than ones parents with regard to educational attainment expands the notions of contribution. This finding extends the work of Fuligni (2001, 2007), which demonstrates that highly valuing family obligations is related to higher educational aspirations with diverse immigrant-origin adolescents (both foreign born and those with foreign-born parents). For undocumented undergraduates, attending college was a way to honor the sacrifices that ones family had made and was an important form of contribution, one that might be overlooked by typical theories of positive youth development (Katsiaficas et al., 2016; Louie, 2012; Smith, 2006). Additionally, this finding builds on the work of Smith (2006) and Louie (2012) on the concept of immigrant bargain, as undocumented students described their contribution of attending college as a form of honoring their parents sacrifice.

At the same time, the multifaceted nature of contribution demonstrated in this study also aligns with (and to a certain extent also extends) the scholarship on immigrant populations generally, as well as that on documented immigrants, working-class populations, and students who are first in their families to go to college (e.g., Katsiaficas, 2015; Lerner et al., 2002; Silva, 2016). The findings from this study align with research on students who are first in their families or in the first generation to go to college; these studies have found that family and extended family provide a lot of support for pursuit and continuation of college education despite parents lack of postsecondary education (Carolan-Silva & Reyes, 2013; Ceja, 2004, 2006; P. A. Pérez & McDonough, 2008). In particular, for many Latina/o first-generation college students, parents and extended family members contribute to their motivation and aspirations to pursue a college education (Carolan-Silva & Reyes, 2013; Ceja, 2004, 2006; P. A. Pérez & McDonough, 2008), similar to the portraits of Monica, Julio, and Esperanza. The three portraits demonstrate how parents, other family members, especially siblings, and extended families influenced these individuals aspirations to pursue a college education. In addition, Julio demonstrates how he contributes back to the family by motivating and teaching his cousins about college. However, something to consider is that studies on working-class students have found that although parents and family members may provide a sense of aspiration and motivation to pursue college for working-class students, their limited knowledge about navigating the higher education structures may affect these students persistence and success in college (Silva, 2016). Thus, institutions and practitioners must consider the support needed by undocumented college students, given the limitations of the type of support provided by family to first-generation and working-class students.

In sum, despite not having a direct pathway to citizenship, these youths are demonstrating the fundamental acts of citizenship through their contributions to their communities (Nicholls, 2013). The vast majority of the participants in the survey reported contributing to their communities in a variety of ways, including translating for community members, advocating on their behalf, and mentoring young people. The interviews and visuals provided in-depth information into the significance of contribution for the three Latino undocumented students to be engaged in and give back to their family and community during this stage of their lives. These findings are particularly striking in the face of current developmental theories, which suggest that college-age emerging adults enter into a period that is characterized as self-focused (Arnett, 2000). These students are anything but; emerging into adulthood seems to instill an awakening of the ways in which they can further contribute to their families and communities.

The role of parents and family members in undocumented students lives is also highlighted in these data. In addition, these innovative measures, both with the quantitative scales and verbal and visual narratives, helped to capture the bidirectional nature of family contributions. Undocumented parents serve not only as their childrens caretakers but also as their financial supportthe self-sacrificers who go without so their children can have, and their inspiration and motivation to attend and persist through college.

The value of collective contribution was both learned from and modeled by students family members. For instance, the undocumented students presented in the qualitative data recognize the sacrifices their families have made, and they understand the significance of fulfilling their educational goals. Their family and community have granted them with academic, emotional, and financial support that has contributed to their academic success thus far. In return, they are driven by the investment they have received that symbolizes the assets of their independence and the need to thrive to attain their educational goals in order to become future investors in their family and community.

Taken together, these findings highlight the centrality of families in undocumented students lives. Strikingly, the ways in which undocumented students define family varies from their nuclear family members to community writ largefrom proximal relatives living in the same home to those with whom they hold hands across international borders, and from those who contribute to their lives and those whom they contribute to. We can see the ways in which undocumented parents of undocumented college students play a critical role in their childrens lives. Yet, despite the integral role that undocumented parents play in their childrens lives, they have been left out of recent executive actions that temporarily protect them from deportation. Without such protections in place, undocumented undergraduates, most of whom have parents who share their status, struggle with the fears of the ever-present threat of deportations and prolonged family separations.


This study is an attempt to lay the groundwork for understanding the positive developmental processes for undocumented emerging adults. This study was subject to several limitations. Although we employed novel strategies to recruit participants for our survey, it is possible that the students who participated in the survey are among those who are most active and open about their status. Those who are most disengaged, distrusting, and in the shadows are less likely to have participated in this study. It should also be noted that a large proportion of students in our survey sample were attending college in the most UndocuFriendly states; in particular, the majority of the sample resided in six states that had a state-level DREAM Act during the period of data collection (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). States with DREAM Act policies not only have equitable tuition cost policies, where public institutions charge undocumented students in-state tuition fees, but also offer state financial aid based on eligibility as determined by each of those states. Further, the majority of respondents attended colleges in California, which is considered a progressive state for undocumented students considering it offers access to in-state tuition and state grants for undocumented students (Nienhusser, 2015; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). Additionally, the qualitative segment of this study only included the narratives of Latino students attending a highly selective public institution in California. Although the sample also included students from states with a hostile or oblivious attitude toward undocumented students, and undocumented immigrants more generally, it is likely that students facing the most difficult environments are underrepresented in these data (see Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015, for more details on these state-level policy implications). Moreover, given the sample from one type of institution, research on the contributions of undocumented students in various institutional contexts (community colleges, colleges that are not highly selective, private colleges) and in non-UndocuFriendly states or states without state grants for undocumented students may have yielded different results. For example, a greater proportion of community college students generally work more hours and are more likely to enroll on a part-time basis (American Association of Community Colleges, 2018; Radwin, Wine, Siegel, & Bryan, 2013; Teranishi, Alcantar, & Nguyen, 2015), which may also influence the types and levels of contribution for undocumented students. Although the qualitative sample is from students enrolled in a four-year college, two cases do provide a glimpse into the contributions of undocumented community college students. In Monicas narrative, we learn of her brothers sacrifices in attending community college because it presented a more affordable option for the family and allowed her to enroll directly in a four-year college. In Esperanzas case, she transferred from a community college and described that experience as a formative one in her civic engagement.

Additionally, although it could be said that working undocumented adults may be able to contribute more to their family than those who are enrolled in college, our intent was to recognize the various ways in which students contribute to their families and communities, having a lasting impact.

Finally, because of our precautions to ensure participant anonymity, we were unable to connect the quantitative and qualitative data points, which would have allowed for deeper and more richly contextualized portraits and further explanation of our quantitative analyses. The anonymous participation does not allow for longitudinal investigations for understanding these processes over time, which would be a critical next step to understanding the processes behind these developmental phenomena. Further, future work should understand the linkages between participating in these domains and developmental and academic outcomes.


In sum, Latino undocumented college students continue to enter American higher education institutions and remain engaged with their families and communities. The ways in which they engage with their families and in their communities have important implications for the people they will become (Lerner et al., 2003; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). Perhaps more important, however, their engagement in these ways has important implications for what type of society we will become (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). Latino undocumented undergraduates are exhibiting a social connectedness to those outside of schoolswhat Danielle Allen (2014) has called a critical piece to educating citizens for our democracy. Yet they are caught in a liminal legal status with no direct pathway to citizenship. As a society, we must ask fundamental questions about how we can build on these social resources to make our democracy and our communities stronger, recognizing immigrants as a resource to strengthen the social fabric of our society.


1. In November 2014, there was an attempt to expand DACA by lengthening the time to 3 years and extend deferred action to undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents; this is referred to as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. However, the new executive orders have yet to be implemented (as of September 2018). It is important to note that DAPA excludes undocumented parents of undocumented children and only provides temporary relief, not a permanent solution nor a path to citizenship.

2. It is important to note that the university is one of 10 colleges comprising the University of California (UC) higher education system given the large financial commitment by the president in 2013 (Lee, 2013) that specifically allocated funds to provide additional support services for undocumented students. Aside from student support services, in 2011, the state of California started offering state grant aid for undocumented college students called the California DREAM Act (for details, see the guide developed by Immigrants Rising (Jodaitis, 2018). Additionally, some of the earliest efforts to support undocumented students were from California, including Leticia A. vs. the UC Regents and CSU Board of Trustees (1986), which ask[ed] public colleges and universities to treat undocumented students as residents for tuition purposes (The AB 540 College Access Network, n.d., p. 17), and Assembly Bill 540, which granted undocumented students in-state tuition fees in 2001 (AB 540, 2017).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 12, 2018, p. 1-48
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22505, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:31:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Dalal Katsiaficas
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    E-mail Author
    DALAL KATSIAFICAS is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her current research focuses on exploring the social development of immigrant-origin youth in a variety of educational settings, with regard to the development of multiple identities and social and academic engagement. Her most recent publication is: Katsiaficas, D. (2017). “I know I’m an adult when . . . I can care for myself and others”: Social responsibilities and emerging into adulthood for community college students. Emerging Adulthood. doi:10.1177/2167696817698301. This study examines the social responsibilities of community college students at they emerge into adulthood. Findings reveal that as young people emerge into adulthood, contributing to family and community comes to the forefront and becomes a fundamental aspect of their adult identities. Another recent publication is: Katsiaficas, D., Alcantar, C. M., Hernandez, E., Gutierrez, M. N., Samayoa, E., Texis, O. R., & Williams, Z. (2016). Important theoretical and methodological turning points for understanding contribution with undocumented undergraduates. Qualitative Psychology, 3(1), 7–25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/qup0000043; this study describes innovative methodological techniques (e.g., pluralistic qualitative methods) used with a participatory action research (PAR) framework to explore the positive youth development of undocumented undergraduates.
  • Edwin Hernandez
    California State University, San Bernardino
    E-mail Author
    EDWIN HERNANDEZ is an assistant professor in the Counseling and Guidance program in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling at California State University, San Bernardino. He is also a researcher for the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research examines issues of equity and access in education, with a focus on institutional culture and how it shapes students’ experiences across the educational pipeline.
  • Cynthia Alcantar
    Pitzer College
    E-mail Author
    CYNTHIA M. ALCANTAR is a postdoctoral scholar and visiting professor of sociology at Pitzer College. She is also a researcher for the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education (IGE) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her research focuses on issues of college access and college completion for underrepresented populations, especially as it relates to higher education policy and practice.
  • Erick Samayoa
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    ERICK SAMAYOA recently graduated from UCLA with a double major in sociology and Chicano studies. He is interested in immigrants' adaptation processes, structural opportunity, and global inequity.
  • Maria Nava Gutierrez
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    MARIA NAVA GUTIERREZ is a graduate from the UCLA Philosophy and Chicana/o Studies programs and a current law student. Her research interests are centered on mental health issues within the undocumented community and legal advocacy.
  • Zyshia Williams
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    ZYSHIA WILLIAMS is a junior lease analyst at MBG Consulting in Chicago. Her research interests include education equity, immigrant integration, and environmental and food justice.
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