Undocumented youth, or those young people living in the United States without legal immigration status, encounter significant challenges at important moments in their life, such as looking for their first part-time job or securing a driver’s licence. When they apply for college, they find they are ineligible for many scholarships and all forms of federal financial aid. For many scholars, these significant challenges mean that being undocumented functions as a ‘master status’ – a key aspect of their identity that has a marked influence on their life experiences. Scholars such as Roberto Gonzales argue that for some undocumented youth, ‘learning to be illegal’ is synonymous with experiences of exclusion during the transition to adulthood.
Although legal status certainly shapes undocumented youths’ experiences in applying to and attending college, Laura Enriquez reminds us that other aspects of undocumented students’ identity, such as race or class, also play a significant role in persistent inequalities that shape undocumented college students’ experiences – particularly those feelings of not belonging on a college campus. Enriquez shows that being poor and a first-generation college student influences undocumented students’ likelihood of stopping out of school both earlier in the life course and to greater effect than legal status does. Consequently, she concludes that undocumented status does not function as a master status, but rather, serves as a ‘final straw’ that imparts feelings of not belonging rooted in exclusionary experiences, which tip the scale in the direction of withdrawing or dropping out of college. Her research questions whether undocumented status acts as a master status at all, choosing instead to underscore its affective and relational influence when combined with other master status identities such as race or class.
Our Identities article, ‘Master status or intersectional identity? Undocumented students’ sense of belonging on a college campus’, reconsiders the utility of the master status concept, regardless of whether it is used in reference to legal status, race, class or other social grouping, in favour of an intersectional one. We focus on a unique subgroup of undocumented college students who have successfully transitioned from high school to college and are currently enrolled at a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) located in a low-resource, majority-Latino community in Central California, USA. We consider how a variety of salient identities, including undocumented status, being poor or working class, and the first in the family to attend college, shapes students’ sense of belonging on a college campus. Moreover, we take seriously the social and structural context of the campus in which undocumented students are embedded, as well as the immigration policy context of the state, which we have referred to elsewhere as ‘nested contexts of reception’ to assess whether an HSI may offer a more inclusive or exclusionary environment.
Our research focuses on undocumented college students attending a Hispanic Serving Institution. We found that being undocumented does not rise to the level of a master status in conditioning students’ sense of belonging. Yet, neither do the (largely uncontested in the research literature) master statuses of ethnicity or class. Our findings reveal that multiple identities combine to shape students’ sense of belonging in interdependent ways that students do not easily or necessarily distinguish from each other. Instead, they become fused in undocumented students’ discourse and understanding of their sense of belonging as expressed though experiences of inclusion and exclusion.
Using focus group data with undocumented students at an HSI, we show that students rarely identify legal status in isolation or implicate it as the sole source of adversity. Instead, students’ reveal a sense of belonging rooted in multiple dimensions of identity including ethnicity and class.
Our research focuses on a college campus where most students are Latino, working class, and the first in their families to attend college, and where the campus climate is characterised by undocumented students as inclusive. In this context of relative advantage, when compared to the experiences of undocumented youth more generally or undocumented students attending colleges with less favourable campus climates, undocumented students are empowered and experience a resilience that facilitates an intersectional identity over an undocumented one. Our findings suggest that undocumented students may be more likely to emphasise their intersectional social location over a single master status in the context of an inclusive student body and campus environment.
Though we question the utility of the master status concept over one rooted in intersectionality, we do not mean to imply that disparities rooted in undocumented legal status cease to matter in students’ perceptions of belonging. Nor do we believe that campuses that strive for a more inclusive and welcoming climate always succeed in addressing inequities faced by underrepresented students. In fact, at the time of this writing, undocumented students are demanding more protections on campus and greater access to resources and services, demands that are particularly salient given the current political climate, which includes a rise in anti-immigrant policies and executive orders by the Trump administration, on the eve of the next election. Colleges and universities must provide these additional resources and services to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to and support of undocumented students and ensure their educational incorporation.
Blog post by Zulema Valdez and Tanya Golash-Boza, University of California, USA
Read the full article: Valdez, Zulema & Golash-Boza, Tanya. Master status or intersectional identity? Undocumented students’ sense of belonging on a college campus. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1534452