JOLIET — Roberto Gonzales advocated for examining and resolving road blocks faced by undocumented youths – not just high achievers – to address what he says is the biggest civil rights issue today.
Gonzales, a Harvard University professor, spoke at the inaugural “Sharing the Dream” conference at the University of St. Francis, where he shared his insights on the problems afflicting undocumented children.
The all-day conference focused on undocumented students and invited educators, legal experts and advocates from across Illinois.
Gonzales said there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Of those, about 2.5 million have been in the nation since childhood. They face economic, social and mental health challenges.
“This is perhaps the biggest civil rights issue of our time,” he said.
Eric Ruiz, USF associate director of admissions and multicultural initiatives coordinator, was one of the conference organizers. He’s worked with undocumented students in the past and said he wanted a conference addressing the issue in a suburban area, where it doesn’t receive as much attention.
“In Chicago, the issue of undocumented students is common language," Ruiz said. "Out here, it’s not common language, so we have to make it common language."
During Gonzales’s speech, he said the 2001 DREAM Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy have “moved the needle” on the needs of undocumented people. However, focusing on those unable to enter college or earn jobs obscures the reality of the lives of undocumented youths, he said.
“If we’re only looking at these higher level issues for higher achievers, we’re missing the vast majority of the community and their needs,” he said after the speech.
Those realities include children growing up in low-income households, living with parents who are undocumented and seeing peers overcome barriers they cannot surmount. When undocumented children transition to adulthood, they “awaken to a nightmare,” he said.
“They find themselves stuck and on the outside looking in,” he said.
Undocumented youths find themselves unable to access the same opportunities as their friends and endure isolation because of their status or issues in their families, he said. Their school experience is also negative and as they age, they have little trust in adults and experience daily contact with legal limitations.
Gonzales recommended training programs for school staff and faculty on awareness and support for undocumented youths. He also recommended resource centers, liaisons and the creation of visible networks of mentors, teachers and others for undocumented youths.