Growing Up in the Shadows: How Unauthorized Status Puts Immigrant Youth at Risk


By Carola Suárez-Orozco, PhD (Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UCLA, Chair of the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration)

What are the implications of growing up in the shadows of our society?

Over a million young people in United States live in limbo status, without formal documentation. Many were brought here as young children and spent most of their formative years in our neighborhoods, attending our schools, and internalizing a sense of themselves as young Americans.

Some were brought by their parents as babies across the Southern border. Others were toddlers who came when their parents began their education. Still others flew across the globe on tourist visas in mid-childhood. Some came as teens when their families sought asylum but aged out as the legalization process took over a decade to unfold.

As children, none made the decision to break national policies. All came to suffer the consequences of their parents’ choices, our nation’s broken immigration system and our policy makers’ stalemate.

What are the consequences for the 1.1 million unauthorized young people in our nation and the 4.5 million citizen children who have unauthorized parents – a total of an estimated 5.6 million young people? This is one of many topics that the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration considered as we examined the evidence on research on immigration.


Growing Up in the Shadows infographic
Infographic designed by Thomas Kleczka (

Other important Facts:

Unauthorized children and youth…

  • are ineligible for all health care except for perinatal and emergency room care;
  • are less likely to have early child care services or subsidies for which they may be eligible accessed by their unauthorized parents
  • show disadvantages as they enter school (along with their citizen peers with unauthorized parents);
  • often come to realize for the first time that they are undocumented in high school;
  • are ineligible for federal student funding as well as state funding in many states; thus, college is out of reach for many;
  • face no legal work options, even for the determined who make it through college;
  • are often very civically engaged and active in their communities.

For a comprehensive consideration of this topic, using an interdisciplinary framework read: “Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status” in the Harvard Educational Review (2011).

For a consideration of the mental health issues, read: “No Place to Belong: Contextualizing Concepts of Mental Health Among Undocumented Immigrant Youth in the United States” in American Behavioral Scientist (2013).

To hear the perspectives and experiences of several young Americans who have come of age in the shadows of undocumented status, watch APA’s “UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS” video:

For more detail on what psychologists should know about immigration reference Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century, the full report by the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration (2012):

This is Part Three in a series of blog posts on the topic of immigration. Part One of the series examines how good immigration reform policy keeps families together. Part Two of the series is by 2011 APA President Melba Vasquez who discusses how psychology debunks many myths about immigrants.

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