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



Navigating Exclusion

In 2008 Diana, age eighteen, was sitting in class when a voice over the intercom requested that she report to the main office.1 Two months later, she recalled that August afternoon:

Oh my god . . . I felt something really [she pauses, struggling to find the right words]. Inside of me, like, something bad was going to happen. I told myself that something bad was about to happen, and I got there [to the office], and that lady said, “I’m sorry but you can’t keep coming to school anymore.” They told me that I couldn’t study there anymore because I didn’t have a Social Security number or a green card. And after, I cried because all of my dreams and everything, they just disappeared.

The administration caught their mistake the week that Diana began community college. Less than a month after Diana enrolled, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) passed a resolution barring undocumented students from attending community colleges throughout the state (North Carolina Community College System 2008). Relying on a strict interpretation of the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the NCCCS board had determined postsecondary education to be a state benefit and had thus deemed unauthorized immigrants ineligible to enroll.2 Diana knew about the ban on undocumented students, but because no one mentioned her status when she registered for classes, she thought she was safe. After her admission was revoked, Diana returned home, ashamed and heartbroken.

She withdrew into her room and barely spoke to anyone for a week. Gradually, Diana emerged from her state of shock, and from her bedroom, and began making plans to apply to four-year colleges. Four-year colleges were not affected by the ban, but they were far more expensive and she had already missed the deadline to apply. She did not find her way back to school that year, or the year after, even after the ban on undocumented immigrants was overturned. Instead, she joined her mother and older sisters at a paper factory, where she worked from seven in the morning until five in the evening. The factory was over an hour’s drive from their home, and the early mornings left her exhausted. She abandoned her plans to return to college, deciding instead to focus on work.

I got to know Diana during the seven years of fieldwork and interview research I conducted in the town that I call Allen Creek, North Carolina. In the following pages, I tell the stories of 1.5-generation youth like Diana to illustrate how individual lives become entangled in institutional-, state-, and federal-level policies that alternately define immigrant youth and young adults as incorporated members or unwanted outsiders. The 1.5 generation are immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, while the second generation are the US-born children of immigrants. Because both 1.5- and second-generation immigrants have largely grown up in the United States, they have similar access to cultural and linguistic capital and often have similar experiences in primary and secondary school. While not all within the 1.5 generation lack immigration authorization, many do. As they attempt to apply for college and enter the labor market, the nearly two million 1.5-generation unauthorized immigrants in the country face extensive obstacles that their second-generation peers do not. In new-destination states, or states that have recently experienced demographic shifts as a result of new immigration flows, unauthorized 1.5-generation youth like Diana faced particularly hostile political climates as they aged into the early stages of adulthood.

Though this book focuses primarily on 1.5-generation unauthorized youth, I also incorporate stories from their second-generation citizen peers to distinguish the impacts that shifting policies had on each group. They too faced racism, expectations of illegality, and threats to their safety and security as they feared the deportation of their unauthorized parents and siblings. In small-town settings with recent in-flows of immigrants, Latinos were conspicuous and anti-immigrant hostility spilled over to affect the entire Latino community, regardless of immigration status. As communities throughout North Carolina grappled with how to respond to growing Latino immigration, proposed anti-immigrant legislation became a recurring feature in the state’s General Assembly.

Frustrated by the political bravado but limited action at the federal level, state governments increasingly enacted policies aimed at immigrants in the first decade of the 2000s. Research has shown that the devolution of immigration enforcement from the federal to state level has created more exclusionary living environments for immigrants, particularly in conservative states and localities with less immigration experience (Bada et al. 2010; Brettle and Nibbs 2011; Coleman 2012; Coleman and Kocher 2011; Flores 2014; Furuseth and Smith 2010; Hagan, Rodriguez, and Castro 2011; Olivas 2007; Ramakrishnan and Wong 2010; Varsanyi et al. 2012; Wishnie 2001). Exclusionary laws and ordinances have been particularly prevalent in new-destination areas, such as the South (Leerkes, Leach, and Bachmeier 2012), where large percentages of Latino populations comprise unauthorized immigrants. As new immigrant populations came into contact with communities that had very little experience with immigration, tensions flared and new-destination sites became hotbeds for growing anti-immigrant legislation. Yet, even within hostile contexts, research has repeatedly shown that immigrants establish connections to their communities of residence, often as a result of local interactions (Marrow 2011; Silver 2012).

Immigration policies catapulted to the top of the political agenda in North Carolina as the state witnessed unprecedented growth in its Latino population in the 1990s and early 2000s. According to the US Census, the foreign-born population in North Carolina grew at a rate of 273.7 percent between 1990 and 2000, the fastest rate of growth in the country. Among children of immigrants, the growth was even faster at a 508 percent rate of increase between 1990 and 2008 (Fortuny 2010). The vast majority of this population growth was fueled by Latino immigrants. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population in the state increased by 394 percent (Kochhar, Suro, and Tofoya 2005), and by 2010, the total Latino population had reached eight hundred thousand, comprising 8.4 percent of the state’s population (Passel, Cohn, and Lopez 2011). As the state’s demographic profile shifted, politicians and school administrators grappled with how to respond effectively to the new and largely unauthorized population. As institutional policies became more restrictive and local immigration enforcement increased, youth like Diana became increasingly aware of the anti-immigrant climate in their home state. For Diana and many of her peers, this realization was heartbreaking, as they had come to embrace North Carolina as their home.

Diana had moved to the United States from Guatemala when she was eleven years old. She crossed the border with her younger sister and older brother and twenty-one other immigrants. When I asked Diana if she was scared crossing over at such a young age, she said that she remembered feeling hot and exhausted under the scorching sun, but not scared. She focused on the excitement of seeing her parents. Diana’s father had left Guatemala when she was just six years old, followed three years later by her mother. The children missed their parents terribly and were ecstatic when, two years later, their parents arranged for a coyote (human smuggler) to bring the three youngest children to North Carolina. Three years later, after saving enough money, they sent for the two eldest sisters as well.

Diana was thrilled to be reunited with her parents, but her adjustment to North Carolina was bumpy. She remembers seeing her mobile home on arrival and feeling shocked because she had assumed that their house in the United States would be bigger than their home in Guatemala. Moreover, communication in school was difficult, until a bilingual Mexican girl in her class befriended her and helped translate. After school, Diana’s mother brought her to the house of an older white woman in town, where she had been working as a part-time domestic worker for over a year when Diana arrived. Michelle, her employer, took an immediate liking to Diana and her siblings and tutored them in English. When Diana graduated from high school in 2008, Michelle offered to pay Diana’s community college tuition, which amounted to about thirty-five hundred dollars per semester at out-of-state rates. Diana leapt at the opportunity, but when the NCCCS banned unauthorized immigrant students, Diana’s plans crumbled around her. When the community college ban was overturned in 2009, Diana did not reenroll in college. She explained her decision to work full-time: “I didn’t have a choice.” Diana’s mother was sick, and the dust from the paper factory exacerbated her lung problems. Eventually, her health issues became so severe that she had to stop working. Compounding their difficulties, Diana’s father had an accident that caused him to drastically reduce his hours at his construction job. Diana could not justify going to school when she felt that her family was relying on her to help pay the bills.

Diana shifted her ambitions for college onto her younger sister, Nuria. In 2011, Nuria had already secured a partial college scholarship with the help of her high school AVID adviser.3 Michelle promised to pay the remainder of Nuria’s tuition, and Diana and her siblings would help pay for books and supplies. Diana decided that once she helped put Nuria through college in the United States, she would return to Guatemala to complete her own education. She had misgivings about returning to a place that she could scarcely remember, but she saw no other way to avoid the hardships that her parents had endured for so long. She laid out her options:

I’ll probably go back to Guatemala. . . . Right now, I’ll be working to help Nuria until she’s through college. . . . But after that, I think I’ll go back to Guatemala. I have cousins and land and a house there. I don’t remember too much about Guatemala, but I’ll probably go to school there. That’s what I’m planning to do. It’s an advantage to know English and Spanish over there, and I have my diploma from here from high school, so I think that will help me a lot. It’s going to feel weird though. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, but if I have to go, I will go. I would have a better life. I probably would go to college there since I couldn’t go here, and graduate and have a better job. And be legal.

The idea of separating from her family again saddened Diana deeply. Nonetheless, she believed she would have better work opportunities without the constraints of her unauthorized immigration status.

Diana’s opportunities changed suddenly when President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) on June 15, 2012. An action of prosecutorial discretion, DACA provided protection from deportation and work permits to unauthorized immigrants under the age of thirty-one who were brought to the United States before their sixteenth birthday, were educated in US schools, had no criminal history, and were enrolled in school or had earned high school diplomas or GEDs or served in the military. Though it was not a cure-all policy, DACA aimed to address some of the unequal opportunities between eligible unauthorized 1.5-generation immigrants and their authorized immigrant and second-generation peers.

DACA gave Diana a reason to stay in the United States, and it motivated her to return to college. Yet out-of-state tuition remained a barrier to enrolling in college, and her plans of obtaining a driver’s license were delayed when the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) temporarily ceased issuing licenses to DACA beneficiaries in response to public backlash against the federal policy. Although Diana viewed DACA as a step toward inclusion, pushback from state legislators and institutional administrators quickly reminded her that her opportunities remained obstructed. Moreover, because DACA was implemented through prosecutorial discretion, it did not offer Diana or other beneficiaries permanent protection. Nonetheless, Diana leveraged her new work permit to apply for a job working as an assistant in a nearby realty office owned by a friend of her godmother’s. And while the high cost of tuition delayed her path back to college, after saving money for a year, she enrolled part-time in community college. She hoped to eventually graduate with an associate’s degree, but she knew that her time line to completion would be slow given the high cost of out-of-state tuition. Though Diana was acutely aware of the limitations of DACA, she was relieved that it allowed her to remain with her family and friends in the place that she considered home.

Allen Creek, Diana’s hometown and the site of this study, was a small town of approximately eight thousand people, of whom about four thousand were Latino, primarily of Mexican and Guatemalan origin. Thanks in part to a proportionately large coethnic community, caring teachers and coaches, and a church that she attended regularly, Diana found a place of belonging in North Carolina even as she became increasingly aware that she was considered an outsider in the United States. When she began to face exclusionary policies at the state level, however, Diana realized that her home state was not a shelter in an unwelcoming country. Instead, North Carolina became a hostile state in a nation that, at the time of the study, moved to grant more opportunities to young immigrants who had arrived in the country as children.

North Carolina: A New Immigrant Destination in the New US South

North Carolina was among a handful of states implementing aggressive anti-immigration enforcement measures and limiting resources for unauthorized immigrants during the first two decades of the 2000s. Immigration policies catapulted to the top of the political agenda as North Carolina witnessed a rapid growth in its Latino population in the 1990s and early 2000s. During the 1990s, immigrants were dispersing into new-destination areas at unprecedented rates. Migration to nontraditional destinations resulted from selective border fortification along traditional routes of entry, as well as growing labor demands in states with laxer labor laws and simultaneous dwindling labor demands in traditional urban industrial centers (Massey and Capoferro 2008). New-destination states were largely concentrated in the South, where labor demands in manufacturing and food processing outpaced supply.

For immigrant youth who grew up in North Carolina, the president’s announcement of DACA was the first time that they had seen policies shift toward inclusion. For years prior to DACA, both state and federal policies had trended toward more restrictions. As efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform stalled in the US Congress, new-destination states and states with more conservative governments led the charge in increasing local-level enforcement policies and surveillance of immigrants (Bada et al. 2010; Capps et al. 2011; Coleman 2012; Olivas 2007; Pham 2004; Ramakrishnan and Wong 2010; Rodríguez, Chisti, and Nortman 2010; Varsanyi 2010; Varsanyi et al. 2012; Wishnie 2001). Given the rapid influx of immigrants to a region that previously had very few immigrants outside its metropolitan areas, it was not entirely surprising that the political atmosphere in the Southeast became charged as the population reacted. Hispanic population growth was higher in the South than in any other region of the country (Ennis, Ríos-Vargas, and Albert 2011; Passel, Cohn, and Lopez 2011), and the demographic shift prompted many scholars to term the region the “New (Nuevo) South” (Mohl 2003; B. Smith 2001; Smith and Furuseth 2006). The New South, however, approached issues of race and ethnicity in ways highly reminiscent of those of the Old South.

Anti-immigrant legislation in the region climaxed in 2011, when Alabama passed the most severe anti-immigration bill in the nation. Alabama’s HB 56 included provisions allowing local police to check immigration status at all police stops and arrests, penalizing people who transported or knowingly employed undocumented immigrants, barring undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits or attending public colleges and universities, and requiring all public elementary and secondary schools to collect information about students’ immigration status.4 Only Arizona, a border state, came close to enacting such a strict policy with its SB 1070, which gained national attention for its provision allowing police officers to request proof of identification from all persons suspected of being in the country without legal documentation. Although Arizona was the first state to enact a policy allowing police officers to request official documentation from people who had not been apprehended for criminal activity, communities throughout the South had been patrolling and setting up routine traffic stops strategically targeting Latino neighborhoods for years (American Civil Liberties Union and Rights Working Group 2009; Coleman 2012; Shahshahani 2010, 5). Moreover, formal partnerships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allowing local police forces to begin deportation proceedings were, and continue to be, largely concentrated in the Southeast (Capps et al. 2011).

The devolution of immigration law to the state level reached new heights during the first decade of the 2000s (Bada et al. 2010; Coleman 2009, 2012; Gilbert 2009; Rodríguez, Chisti, and Nortman 2010; Varsanyi 2010; Varsanyi et al. 2012; Wishnie 2001). Targeting young immigrants specifically, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama passed bills between 2008 and 2011 prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling in public institutions of higher education. Sixteen other states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington) passed laws granting in-state tuition to undocumented students who attended high schools in the same state, and state university systems in Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island established policies to offer in-state tuition to unauthorized students (National Conference of State Legislatures 2015). In less welcoming states, such as North Carolina, reactive policies emerged as legislators and political pundits treated state and national membership as statuses to be protected from an immigrant or “Latino threat” (Chavez 2008). The resultant political landscape was a “multilayered jurisdictional patchwork” of confusing and even conflicting policies at the institutional, local, state, and federal levels (Varsanyi et al. 2012). DACA and the subsequent state-level responses provided fertile ground for the growth of conflicting messages in this multilayered environment.

When DACA was announced, eligible youth in North Carolina hoped that the policy would facilitate pathways to higher education, upwardly mobile jobs, and permanent residence. Many linked the temporary policy to the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (or DREAM) Act and expected it to benefit them in the same way.5 First introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act was intended to offer undocumented youth a pathway to citizenship, provided that they met certain age, educational, and moral requirements. Despite several failed attempts to pass the act in the Senate and Congress, the DREAM Act remains a hope for the approximately 1.8 million eligible youth and young adults who yearn for secure futures in the United States where they grew up.

DACA was not as comprehensive as the DREAM Act, and it did not provide the long-term certainty of legislation. Yet the policy had measurable impacts on the lives of its beneficiaries who were able to obtain new jobs, increase their earnings, open up bank accounts, acquire credit cards, enroll in school, obtain driver’s licenses, and, in some cases, travel abroad as a result of their authorized presence (Gonzales and Terriquez 2013; Gonzales, Terriquez, and Ruszczyk 2014; Hipsman, Gómez-Aguiñaga, and Capps 2016). Nonetheless, DACA beneficiaries in North Carolina continued to struggle against a hostile state climate even as their opportunities increased with DACA.

DACA beneficiaries in North Carolina were not granted in-state tuition rates as a result of their newly acquired legal presence. Moreover, although beneficiaries in the state were thrilled to get driver’s licenses and the independence that came with being able to drive, they were disheartened that the licenses were marked with the phrase, “LEGAL PRESENCE NO LAWFUL STATUS” (see Figure I.1). Thus, even with the temporary authorization granted by DACA, official documentation from North Carolina reminded beneficiaries in bright red letters of their outsider status in their home state.

Figure I.1. Sample of a North Carolina driver’s license for DACA beneficiaries.

Source: North Carolina Department of Transportation (2013).

For youth like Diana, DACA offered protection from deportation and greater access to more stable jobs, but it did nothing to ensure that mixed-status families would remain intact, nor did it facilitate a clear pathway to membership or an easy route to upward mobility.

Tectonic Incorporation: Argument and Contribution to Theory

Diana’s story illustrates what I call “tectonic incorporation” (see Figure I.2). As Diana traversed her path from high school to her first full-time job, she was forced to navigate political and institutional structures that moved unpredictably around her. Teachers, family friends, and a mostly welcoming high school offered her spaces of inclusion, but her journey to adulthood was marked with bitter disappointments as she struggled to gain access to college and the workforce. These contexts—families and friends, primary and secondary schools, nonprofit institutions and activist groups, local policies and law enforcement, colleges and university policies, and state and federal policies—all interact with one another to form a layered and unstable context of reception for unauthorized immigrant youth. Diana found herself constantly adapting her plans, ambitions, and identity as she responded to legislative and institutional shifts that often conflicted.

Figure I.2. Tectonic incorporation model.

Like tectonic plates, the structures on which Diana stood moved underneath her feet. As policies shifted and one plate slid in one direction or the other, Diana was forced to regain her footing and change her plans to accommodate to the new landscape. Political and institutional shifts at times felt like earthquakes, pitching Diana into chasms of near helplessness. But when policies became more accommodating and plates at institutional and political levels converged, they could also act like mountains, propelling Diana upward and closer to her goals. Unlike tectonic shifts, however, political and institutional shifts are not slow moving and are often unpredictable. For example, the community college policy on undocumented students shifted back and forth five times between 2000 and 2008, illustrating how figurative tectonic shifts caused immigrant youth in North Carolina to scramble for secure footing as they attempted to further their educations and gain necessary skills and credentials for their first adult jobs.

This book highlights the important and interactive influences of federal, state, and local policies in shaping a very complex context of reception for immigrant youth coming of age in the early twenty-first century. Focusing on the instability of institutional and governmental policies, I argue that young unauthorized immigrants do not, and cannot, follow a linear path to incorporation because they do not stand on solid ground. Rather, the social institutions in which they are involved, and the institutional, local, state, and federal policies that determine their access to resources, all act as tectonic plates, sometimes moving them toward incorporation and other times shifting them farther toward the margins. When the plates move in concert with one another toward membership, the foundation on which unauthorized immigrant youth navigate their pathways to adulthood can feel sturdy. When state and federal policies move in opposite directions, these movements reveal fault lines and destabilize youth. Unauthorized youth who experience backslides in their trajectories may retreat from their ambitions out of fear of repeated disappointment. Consequently, many will be poorly positioned to take full advantage of programs like DACA that emerge unexpectedly. In contrast, when policies like DACA disappear, youth are left at the edge of the precipice, unsure whether they will be able to reach the summits of the mountains they began to climb or tumble backward, watching their dreams slip from their grasp.

Like Diana, most unauthorized immigrant youth growing up in North Carolina during the early 2000s struggled to achieve upward mobility and gain a full sense of membership. Although previous research has highlighted the importance of acknowledging complex local contexts (Cebulko and Silver 2016; Ellis and Almgren 2009; Marrow 2011; Schmalzbauer 2014; R. Smith 2014) and unique “historical conjunctures” (R. Smith 2014; Wimmer 2008, 2013), literature about immigrant youth has typically underemphasized the overlapping influences of institutional, local, state, and federal immigration policies. Youth in different states and localities face very different contexts of reception. Thus, as youth in hostile states may feel state-level policies sliding them toward the margins even as federal-level contexts offer them more protections, youth in more welcoming states may benefit from protective state and institutional policies even when federal policies shift onto less secure terrain. However, youth in more hostile states may feel magnified impacts of hostile federal policies.

In North Carolina, the increasing hostility at the state level marked a harsh introduction to early adulthood for unauthorized immigrants in Allen Creek. In spite of their unauthorized immigration status, many had felt nurtured and supported while growing up in their small-town community. As in other new-destination areas (Marrow 2011; Schmalzbauer 2014), the unauthorized immigrant youth in Allen Creek expressed a love for the bucolic surroundings, peacefulness, and intimacy of their community. Moreover, many expressed deep gratitude for their teachers, coaches, and neighbors who supported them and helped them persevere through high school. This small-town support helped shelter youth from the harsh political climate in the state, and teachers did a remarkable job of encouraging students to remain in high school despite the uncertain payoff at the end. Especially as community colleges shut their doors to unauthorized youth and state colleges continued to charge out-of-state tuition, social network support was crucial to helping youth maintain feelings of membership in their community and school.

Upon high school graduation, however, the impact of exclusionary policies at the state level amplified, and unauthorized youth began to lament their exclusion from institutions of higher education and fear for their safety as police checkpoints proliferated throughout the region. Though eligible youth found that their anxiety was partially tempered by a more hospitable federal environment after the implementation of DACA, it was far from a comprehensive antidote. Though DACA increased access to resources for beneficiaries throughout the nation, without a pathway to lawful status, beneficiaries remained second-class residents (Gonzales, Terriquez, and Ruszczyk 2014). Moreover, DACA did not erase the fears about deportation for beneficiaries who remained connected to unauthorized family members (Aranda and Vaquera 2015; Gonzales and Terriquez 2013), nor did it protect beneficiaries from racial profiling (Aranda and Vaquera 2015).

Particularly in states with high barriers to resources such as postsecondary education, DACA beneficiaries could not reap the full benefits of the policy in the way that their peers in more welcoming states could (Cebulko and Silver 2016). When the political landscape moved again with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the federal climate threatened to further magnify the influences of hostile state policies in North Carolina. When DACA was rescinded in 2017, beneficiaries knew that state policies would do little to protect them if Congress did not pass legislation to maintain the protections and opportunities DACA provided.

Though US-born, second-generation youth did not face the same barriers to advancement as their unauthorized peers, they nonetheless felt the impacts of the hostile political climate in North Carolina. Like other research in nontraditional destinations has shown (Romero 2006; Schmalzbauer 2014), Latino citizens in North Carolina frequently faced assumptions of foreign origin and illegality by people in their community. Consequently, Latino citizens in North Carolina worried about harassment and judgment from police, DMV workers, store clerks, and other citizens who viewed them with suspicion. Moreover, they feared family separation, as many had parents, siblings, or other close relatives who lacked immigration authorization and were therefore vulnerable to deportation. Thus, as other research has found (Aranda, Menjívar, and Donato 2014; Ebert and Ovink 2014; Esbenshade and Ozburt 2008; Szkupinski Quiroga, Medina, and Glick 2014; Valdez 2016), the repercussions of immigration enforcement tended to spill over to affect Latinos in general. While unauthorized immigrants are of course the most structurally vulnerable to exclusionary policies, the impacts of these policies extend beyond their immediate targets to affect documented and US-born Latinos as well.

Though existing theories of immigrant and second-generation incorporation acknowledge complex contexts of reception, they underemphasize the impacts of rapidly shifting policies at various layers (Alba and Nee 2003; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes and Zhou 1993). Thus, established theories do not easily map onto the unauthorized youth transitioning to adulthood in the first and second decade of the 2000s in new immigrant destinations. The unauthorized youth who grew up in Allen Creek did not gradually gain access to mainstream institutions and, in the process, “remake the mainstream” (Alba and Nee 2003). But neither did they downwardly assimilate into the margins of society in response to pervasive racism and destructive social pressures (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes and Zhou 1993; Rumbaut 2005). Instead, they followed “bumpy-line” pathways to incorporation (Gans 1992) as they responded to overlapping and constantly changing policies that interacted with one another in unpredictable ways. And though Herbert Gans vaguely theorized more disjointed pathways to immigrant incorporation, “bumpy-line” assimilation theory does not account for local contexts embedded within multilayered environments, nor does it detail how these contexts move and shift, affecting immigrants’ feelings of membership and belonging in various settings simultaneously and within one generation.

The immigrant youth in North Carolina described fragmented incorporation experiences as they traversed constantly shifting landscapes in various settings. Their experiences more closely aligned with pluralistic models of incorporation that describe how immigrants assimilate across various social dimensions at different rates (Bean, Brown, and Bachmeier 2015; Marrow 2011; Telles and Ortiz 2008). For example, immigrants may become more economically or educationally integrated before becoming residentially integrated. However, previous models of multidimensional incorporation have downplayed the constantly shifting nature of these overlapping contexts of reception. I argue that incongruent and unstable governmental and institutional polices in the early 2000s and 2010s created a disjointed process of incorporation for unauthorized immigrant youth. And while barriers to membership were of course the highest for unauthorized immigrant youth, second-generation Latino citizens also confronted challenges because of racial profiling as well as intimate connections to unauthorized immigrants.

Data, Methods, and Research Site

By the time I initiated my research in 2007, immigration to the South was no longer a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, immigrants continued to struggle against a hostile reception. In the following chapters, I tell the stories of youth growing up in immigrant families in a town that I call Allen Creek. At the time of the study, Allen Creek had a population of just over eight thousand residents, and was approximately 50 percent Latino, 30 percent white, and 20 percent black. The town witnessed a vast increase in its Latino population during the 1990s, as immigrants were drawn to the region to fill jobs in poultry plants and manufacturing. Prior to this in-migration, the town’s population was approximately five thousand people and was made up almost exclusively of black and white residents.

Southern communities like Allen Creek were a world apart from the traditional immigrant destinations of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and youth who had moved from other states noted and (mostly) welcomed the difference. As Armando, an eighteen-year-old Mexican American who moved from Bakersfield, California, stated, “I’d never seen like a lot of animals, farms, and stuff. That was surprising. And also, the people I guess. I was used to having classes with, like, full of Hispanic students, and then I came here and it was a mixture, so that was different . . . [but] I wouldn’t like to live in a big city. I like the small city where kinda everyone knows everyone around here and they know where every place is at, and the diversity I guess.” Armando felt comfortable in North Carolina, and he appreciated Allen Creek’s pastoral surroundings and the diversity of the small-town community.

But the Allen Creek community was far from idyllic. If the close-knit relationships and farmlands conjured up romantic images of small-town America, the odor of the chicken plant quickly shattered any picture of bucolic tranquility. Allen Creek embodied all of the complexity of real small-town America. McDonalds, Taco Bell, and AutoZone stores interrupted the strawberry fields and cow pastures. The quaint churches, with signs in both English and Spanish, looked out of place next to the two strip malls on either side of the highway. A low-flying aircraft occasionally passed overhead searching for illegal marijuana fields, and the town’s liveliest attraction was the large Walmart that stood off the highway leading into town. Selene, an eighteen-year-old US-born child of Mexican and Guatemalan parents, described Allen Creek as “small, and there’s nothing to do. There’s no mall and nowhere to go to the movies. Usually what people do is go to the Walmart and walk around. Or people go to McDonalds and hang out. But I was born here, so I like it. It’s small and calm.”

Selene’s comments were echoed by most of the youth I spoke to in Allen Creek. Like generations of teenagers from small towns, they all complained that there was nothing to do. The small commercial zones along the highway offered two Mexican restaurants, one department store, a nail salon, a dollar store, and a pizza parlor. Gas stations and the Walmart became sites where teens socialized. The charming downtown was even sleepier, with a small diner, an even smaller coffee shop, a couple of tractor and agricultural equipment and hardware stores, and a few office buildings. Despite nearly universal laments about boredom and small-town gossip, and frequent grievances about racism and discrimination on the part of black and Latino youth, most of the youth in Allen Creek liked the sense of small-town familiarity that came from knowing everyone in town. Allen Creek was home, and it was comfortable.

The small-town familiarity made me feel uniquely conspicuous when I first began my research. Over time, I learned to ignore the quizzical stares and gradually felt more comfortable approaching people to ask them about their experiences living in the small community. The more time I spent in Allen Creek, the more I began to feel like a member of the community, while simultaneously realizing that I was really an outsider in virtually every way. I am a white woman in my thirties. Although I am from a small town, I hail from suburban New Jersey, a far cry from this small Southern community. I once asked a man sitting next to me on the bleachers where the visiting soccer team was from. He told me, “They’re from a town near Dunlan, you know, where the tractor pull is.” I smiled when he said this. Not only did I not know where Dunlan was; I did not even know what a tractor pull was. I immediately looked it up when I got home. I knew I had considerable ground to cover if I wanted to become an accepted and trusted member of the community.

Luckily, I was not at a complete disadvantage, given that I speak Spanish and know a great deal about immigration both from my research and training and my personal life. I myself am the daughter of an immigrant and can relate on some level to the conflicting cultural pressures discussed by the youth in Allen Creek. My mother is from Norway and has a very different immigration narrative from the stories of the parents of the adolescents in my study. My mother moved to marry my father, and although her accent and even her culture differentiated her from her new neighbors, her Western European heritage allowed her, and my sister and me, to integrate into our surroundings quite easily.

Most of the immigrant families in Allen Creek had moved in search of better labor opportunities or to escape the dangers of urban violence either in their home countries or in urban areas of the United States. They were marked as clear outsiders when they moved to the small Southern community. Residents were uneasy with their new neighbors and all of the new Spanish-language products and store signs. They saw their town changing before their eyes. And though the town had overcome some of its initial growing pains, new struggles emerged between the established white population and the immigrant community as the schools became increasingly Latino.

Targeting the high school as my primary site of data collection, I began my research by observing and assisting in AVID college preparatory classes. Gradually, I expanded my engagement in the community. During the initial four-year study period from April 2007 to June 2011, I tutored high school students, volunteered at a community-based Latino Outreach Center, attended high school soccer games, played in pickup soccer games, taught salsa lessons to teenagers, attended county commissioners’ meetings, mentored high school senior projects, and occasionally went out for meals with community members. I also conducted seventy-nine in-depth interviews with youth and key adult participants whom I met at the high school, at the Latino Outreach Center, or through individuals I got to know through my research. Sixty-three of these initial interviews were with youth: twenty unauthorized immigrants, three youths with temporary protected status (TPS),6 sixteen citizen children of Latino immigrants, eleven black US-born citizens, and thirteen white US-born citizens (see Table I.1). Compared to their relative population in the town’s high school, Latino youth, most of whom were Mexican and Guatemalan, were overrepresented in the interviewed sample. The student body comprised approximately 41 percent Latinos, 34 percent whites, and 25 percent blacks. Interviews offered insight into comparative perspectives of undocumented youth and their documented and citizen peers of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In 2011, I moved to New York and my contact with the youth became less frequent and largely Internet based. I returned to North Carolina twice in 2012 to revisit and reinterview a subsample of fifteen respondents. I returned once before President Obama’s announcement of DACA and once after. I continued to follow up with these respondents via phone interviews and conversations and through one additional visit to North Carolina in 2015. The fifteen respondents I selected for follow-up interviews had taken a wide variety of paths since high school. Though I would have ideally followed up with the entire original group of unauthorized youth, I was unable to connect with all of them when I returned in 2012. I reinterviewed thirteen of the original noncitizen sample (twelve unauthorized; one had TPS) and two citizen youths from the original sample.

Table I.1. In-Depth Interview Sample

When I first began my research, my initial aim was to discover how the small-town community influenced the incorporation process for youth from immigrant families. I did not anticipate all of the institutional and political shifts at both the state and federal levels. As I spent time with the youth in Allen Creek, however, I watched as they scrambled to make to new plans every time a policy shifted and the ground fell out from under them. I thus increasingly came to see their small-town experience as one that was in motion, as well as intrinsically linked to the larger state and federal contexts, which also shifted unpredictably.

The youth in the study aged into early adulthood during the Great Recession of 2008–11, a time period when working-class jobs offered increasingly less security and tuition costs grew (Grusky, Western, and Wimer 2011; Terriquez 2014). Moreover, and likely relatedly, they transitioned into early adulthood during a highly contentious time period in which politicians debated their right to reside, work, and go to school. Though the political vitriol reported in the popular press was largely directed at adult labor migrants in the region, the stories of the youth, more so than those of their parents, spoke to the demographic shift taking place in the Southeast. The study participants, raised in a small Southern community and educated in Southern schools, were the new North Carolinians and the new Southerners.

Outline of the Book

The remainder of this book details the experiences of unauthorized and liminally legal 1.5-generation Latino youth in North Carolina during the first two decades of the 2000s. Their stories are contextualized by the stories of their US-born Latino, black, and white peers, as well as the perspectives of their parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors. Throughout the book, I examine how constantly shifting policies at various levels prevented unauthorized immigrant youth from finding a full sense of membership in the country and state that they considered home. After developing the theoretical grounding of the book in Chapter 1, I examine in each subsequent chapter one tectonic interaction by focusing on a local-, institutional-, state-, or federal-level context and exploring how that context intersects with concentric contexts to frame the incorporation experiences of 1.5-generation unauthorized immigrants and, to a lesser extent, their second-generation peers.

In Chapter 1, I provide more background about the political and social climate at both the national level and in North Carolina during the time of the study. I build on key studies of immigrant incorporation in both new and established destinations (Alba and Nee 2003; Bean, Brown, and Bachmeier 2015; Gans 1992; Marrow 2011; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Schmalzbauer 2014; Telles and Ortiz 2008) as I discuss how local, state, and federal policies and environments take on magnified or diminished influence in the lives of unauthorized immigrant youth depending on how these layered contexts move and respond to one another. By unpacking and illustrating in more detail my concept of tectonic incorporation, this chapter demonstrates how shifting multilayered contexts destabilize unauthorized immigrant youth as they attempt to navigate their pathways to adulthood. Moreover, I explain how disruptions in the multilayered context spill over to affect second-generation youth.

Chapter 2 focuses on the local context and the proposed local policies that emerged in response to immigration and associated population growth in Allen Creek. The chapter vividly depicts the research site of Allen Creek and describes how the community, its schools, and other local organizations framed the context of reception for Latino youth and their families. This chapter emphasizes how policy shifts at the local level, enabled by federal legislation, can breed fear among both immigrants and second-generation youth, even as community social supports remain strong.

In Chapter 3, I focus on the institutional context as I discuss how secondary school policies slowly adapted to the growing Latino student population and interacted with local- and state-level contexts. Utilizing ethnographic and interview data, the chapter illustrates how school clubs and supportive teachers helped buffer the undercurrents of racialized and class tensions that pervaded classroom, hallway, and community interactions. The chapter also examines how gender, time of arrival, and legal status affected students’ attachments to school and ability to access supportive school programs.

Chapter 4 follows the youth out of high school and focuses on the exclusionary landscapes that unauthorized youth faced after high school graduation at the state and federal levels. The chapter also details a key shift at the federal level by highlighting DACA and emphasizing the ways in which the hostile state climate limited the impact of DACA. Even after DACA, many beneficiaries saw few opportunities for career advancement. Highly restrictive tuition policies and a weak state infrastructure of financial support programs largely excluded them from postsecondary education. Consequently, they struggled to acquire the necessary credentials to access upwardly mobile jobs.

Chapter 5 discusses how the federal programs of DACA and TPS positively affected young beneficiaries even when state and institutional policies curtailed the inclusionary impacts of these liminal statuses. The chapter focuses on youth who were well positioned to utilize DACA as a means toward advancement and security and juxtaposes their narratives of exclusion prior to DACA to their narratives of advancement and inclusion after the policy’s adoption. The chapter also highlights the benefits of having TPS but points out that policy shifts in response to DACA complicated the lives of immigrants with TPS, as institutional gatekeepers struggled to differentiate between the two groups of immigrants. Though Chapter 5 illustrates how liminally legal statuses offered youth some advantages and an imperfect sense of membership even within a hostile state climate, the chapter emphasizes that youth would feel far more secure were these statuses made permanent and if they facilitated equal access to resources such as in-state tuition. When the Trump administration rescinded DACA in 2017, beneficiaries were poised to lose the jobs they had secured under the policy if Congress did not pass a legislative replacement before its expiration.

Chapter 6 discusses how some youth buffered the destabilizing impacts of constantly shifting policies by joining activist groups. Within these groups, they created spheres of membership and developed strong bonds with social contacts that they met through activist campaigns. Others, however, felt alienated from activism because of frustration with years of exclusion and disappointments at both the state and federal levels.

Finally, I revisit the main theme of tectonic incorporation as I discuss the North Carolina context in the 2000s and 2010s. The Conclusion reiterates how incongruent and inconsistent policies affected unauthorized immigrant youth and, by extension, their second-generation peers in North Carolina as they traversed journeys to early adulthood. Moreover, the chapter suggests ways in which tectonic incorporation may play out in states that are more welcoming to immigrants, particularly in the context of an increasingly hostile federal context. Consequently, I recommend policies to foster the advancement and incorporation of immigrant youth in the United States.


1. To protect the anonymity of the individuals in this study, the name of the research site and all research participants are pseudonyms. When it does not affect the relationships I describe between community members, I also occasionally change small biographical details for certain individuals who would otherwise be identifiable by their jobs and particular characteristics. I consulted study participants to ensure that these minor changes felt close to their identities and roles. The names of political officials have not been changed, unless they were government officials local to the research site, in which case I either replaced names with pseudonyms or did not use a name at all. While I did not change the names of major universities, I changed the names of smaller colleges and community colleges close to the primary research site.

2. Throughout the book I use “undocumented” and “unauthorized” to describe the statuses of immigrants without authorization to reside in the United States. “Second-generation” immigrants refer to individuals who were born in the United States to at least one foreign-born immigrant parent. I use the term “1.5-generation” immigrants to refer to individuals who were born outside the United States but migrated or were brought to the United States before the age of fourteen. Three of the 1.5-generation youth in the study had TPS, but the remaining twenty lacked immigration authorization. Finally, when I discuss “children of immigrants,” I am referring to first-, second-, and 1.5-generation immigrants, regardless of immigration status.

3. AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) is an educational program designed to propel students in the academic middle toward four-year college. For more information on the program, which is available at schools in forty-five states, see

4. Elements of Alabama’s HB 56 were repealed or permanently blocked in a settlement after several lawsuits were filed by the US Department of Justice and a coalition of civil rights groups.

5. Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, S.B. 1291, 107th Cong. (2001).

6. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately. USCIS may grant TPS to eligible nationals of certain countries (or parts of countries), who are already in the United States. Eligible individuals without nationality who last resided in the designated country may also be granted TPS.” See