Undocumented Americans

What is it like to grow up as an undocumented youth in America? In "Undocumented Americans," three undocumented youth who arrived as young children — Jong-Min, Pedro and Silvia — share their stories of how they are fighting hard to achieve their piece of the American dream. Their experiences are emblematic of the struggles of millions of undocumented children and youth in America who deal daily with isolation from peers, the struggle to pursue an education, fears of detention and deportation, and the trauma of separation from family and loved ones. This video calls for valuing the contributions of and caring for all members of our society, even those without documentation.


Answers to Your Questions about Undocumented Youth in America

1. How many undocumented children and youth live in America?

There are one million children under 18i and 4.4 million under 30ii living in America out of the estimated total of 11.1 million undocumented immigrantsiii living in America. These young people are not the only ones affected by undocumented status. Nearly half of undocumented adults are parents of minorsiv, many of whom are citizens. There are an estimated 5.5 million children with at least one undocumented parent, 4.5 million of whom were born here making them U.S. citizensv. These kinds of “mixed-status” family situations are very common with an estimated nine million people living in families that contain at least one undocumented adult and one citizen childvi.

2. How does being undocumented negatively affect well-being?

In the video, Jong-Min, Pedro and Silvia all describe the negative impacts that their undocumented status has had on their lives. Jong-Min shared how being undocumented feels like being in an “invisible prison”. Pedro had the traumatic experience of being held in an actual prison for 24 hours for simply being found on a Greyhound bus on his way back to college.

Silvia had to go through the ordeal of her mother trying to flee prosecution for being undocumented and having a seizure while doing so. Being undocumented has created significant obstacles for these three bright, ambitious individuals to fulfilling their hopes and dreams. And they are not alone. Many undocumented immigrant children and youth are frequently subject to experiences likevii:

  • racial profiling
  • ongoing discrimination
  • exposure to gangs
  • immigration raids in their communities
  • arbitrary stopping of family members to check their documentation status
  • being forcibly taken or separated from their families
  • returning home to find their families have been taken away
  • placement in detention camps or the child welfare system
  • deportation

These stressful experiences can lead to a number of negative emotional and behavioral outcomes including anxiety, fear, depression, anger, social isolation and lack of a sense of belonging. And, of course, separation from their families can be particularly traumatizing for children and youth. For young children whose undocumented parents have been detained or even deported, the impact can be severe. Researchers have found that they often experience in the short term, frequent crying, withdrawal, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, anger, anxiety and depression. Over time, these can lead to more severe issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, poor identity formation, difficulty forming relationships, feelings of persecution, distrust of institutions and authority figures, acting out behaviors and difficulties at schoolvii.

3. What does the video tell us about what it means to be an American?

America is a nation of immigrants. Over our history, generations of immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families have come to this country and made it what it is today. Pedro, Jong-Min and Silvia demonstrate traits we highly value in American society; they are all ambitious and motivated, intelligent and conscientious young people. They want to do great things and are committed to serving their communities. Jong-Min wants to become a Supreme Court justice, Pedro is a teacher and Silvia does volunteer community art work with children separated from their undocumented parents. This level of engagement and activism represents the American experience that most of us imagine. Having immigrated to the U.S. at such young ages, like so many undocumented youth, they acculturated to the same American language, culture and values that their U.S.-born peers did. However, undocumented youth in America experience a different reality — a different America.  Researchvii shows that continued discrimination toward immigrants by greater society can make acculturation difficult and has negative mental health consequences (e.g., depression, anxiety and social isolation).  

4. Why should we as a society care about undocumented youth?

We should care because their opportunities and potential for success are frequently limited, but more importantly, the discrimination, isolation and fear that they go through should not be experienced by any child or adolescent in our society. We should care because the discrimination, isolation,and fear that undocumented youth go through should not be experienced by any child or adolescent in our society. These children have limited opportunities and potential for success. Many of these youth drop out of school and become disaffected, continuing the cycle of poverty. Those who do graduate high school find access to college limited, with few choices or funding opportunities. It is difficult to pursue options for legalization, and they can’t drive, vote or fully participate in the society in which they grew up. In extreme cases, some undocumented youth become so hopeless that they turn to suicide. The detention and deportation of their parents/caregivers can be devastating. Losing their support system severely undermines their potential for future success. Our society should value their rights, mental health needs and wellbeing because it benefits all of us in the long-term. All of our society’s children should be given the opportunity to thrive and succeed regardless of their documentation status. As Silvia said “caring about this matters”. Given the challenges undocumented youth and children with undocumented parents face, showing support through mentoring or volunteer work could make all the difference.

5. Who is to blame for putting undocumented youth in this situation?

People come to this country for a number of reasons (i.e., search for work, family reunification and humanitarian refuge). Most often, it is to provide a better opportunity for their children and families. While some undocumented immigrants do cross the border illegally, about 40 percent are individuals who entered legally on a visa which has since expiredvii. Navigating the U.S. immigration system to gain legal status is extremely difficult. For undocumented parents, returning to their country of origin and leaving their children behind is an option that would be traumatic for all parties concerned. Reuniting with their children may take years, especially when complicated by financial hurdles and immigration regulations. The longer the separation, the more complicated the family reunification and the greater the likelihood that their children will suffer psychologically. The children caught in the middle do not deserve the negative outcomes of family separation regardless of the reasons their parents are out of status. Assigning blame is not productive. What matters most is that undocumented youth and children of undocumented parents deserve the same opportunities for health and wellbeing as any child growing up in America.


i. Passel & Cohn, 2011 - http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/02/01/unauthorized-immigrant-population-brnational-and-state-trends-2010/ 

ii. Passel & Lopez, 2012 - http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/08/14/up-to-1-7-million-unauthorized-immigrant-youth-may-benefit-from-new-deportation-rules/ 

iii. Passel & Cohn, 2012 - http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/12/06/unauthorized-immigrants-11-1-million-in-2011/ 

iv. Taylor, Lopez, Passel & Motel, 2011 - http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/12/01/unauthorized-immigrants-length-of-residency-patterns-of-parenthood/ 

v. Passel & Cohn, 2011 - http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/02/01/unauthorized-immigrant-population-brnational-and-state-trends-2010/ 

vi. Taylor, Lopez, Passel & Motel, 2011 - http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/12/01/unauthorized-immigrants-length-of-residency-patterns-of-parenthood/ 

vii. APA, 2012 - http://www.apa.org/topics/immigration/report.aspx