Navigating Research with Undocumented Immigrants as an Undocumented Immigrant



In my time as a PhD student in sociology, I have encountered very few undocumented graduate students doing work with undocumented communities. We know little about how many students are enrolled in graduate programs across the country and it is difficult to find role models or learn about how undocumented immigrants navigate research.

In this post, I want to address a few questions I have been working through as an undocumented PhD student: how do undocumented people conduct research with undocumented individuals, families, and communities? How do we negotiate our positionalities as undocumented immigrants and researchers? What does it mean to give back to our communities? Lastly, how do we talk about these issues when there are few of us in graduate school?

How do undocumented people conduct research with undocumented individuals, families, and communities?

A PhD seemed like one of the few viable pathways to pursue since I could not envision using my degree after college graduation. However, the struggles that I faced and the struggles of undocumented immigrants pushed me to ask questions. I could have chosen to pursue research on any number of issues, but I was drawn to research with undocumented immigrants because of a desire to do something about what my family experienced and what people in my community experienced. A mentor once told me that finding something that you do not have to venture far to find is worth investigating. This advice has held true; the research I have done has taken place in my community and on my campus. I’ve done work with undocumented college students and people in detention. This research has kept me going and is a constant reminder of why I continue to do the work.

I encourage you to build a network of support to help you hone the methodological skills you need, workshop ideas, and provide feedback on your work. Think about the work you want to pursue, why you are driven to ask certain questions, and whether this work is sustainable.

How do we negotiate our positionalities as undocumented immigrants and researchers?

One of the common critiques that I’ve encountered is that doing work with your community may be considered “me-search,” implying that the work is about you and lacking rigor. However, this is easy to challenge since you will still face issues, including moral and ethical dilemmas. Identifying as part of the community you work with does not make the research process easier. You may have an easier time getting access, but your work will still need to be rigorous and theoretically informed.

Further, negotiating your positionality is an ongoing process and it is helpful to check in with yourself and ask if you are satisfied with the work you are doing and why you are doing it. Despite all the obstacles that I have faced in graduate school and the uncertainty of my future after I receive my PhD, I have to recognize the privileged position that I’ve been in. Few people in my community have the opportunity to attend college, much less graduate school. Pursuing a PhD has given me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences and pursue work I am passionate about.

I am in the dissertation stage and most days are good. I get to write and have the space, support, and a community to do my best work. I’ve learned from many immigrants along this path about their families, their migration journeys, their struggles, successes, and what keeps them going each day.

What does it mean to give back to our communities?

When I first started graduate school, I envisioned that giving back to my community would be directly aligned with the research that I pursued. However, I have found that this is often a difficult process. Research is lengthy and does not always align with the immediate needs of our communities. However, I’ve learned to be conscious of my intentions by not committing to something I cannot accomplish. I have also found smaller ways to give back to my community alongside my research. This includes community organizing, presenting my work, and mentoring students interested in research. I’ve also been cautious about not imposing what I feel my community needs, instead I challenge myself to listen and give back what people ask of me.

Unfortunately, finding a balance between my work and giving back has been difficult. People in marginalized positions are often tasked with giving back in many more ways than people in more privileged positions. This can be draining and result in long days or take time from the work that we need to accomplish to meet our milestones. The few of us in graduate school are often expected to represent our communities or take up work that otherwise would never be done. I encourage you to find ways to give back to your community that are sustainable and motivating.

How do we talk about these issues when there are few of us in graduate school?

Building a network of support among undocumented PhD students is difficult. There are so few of us. Spaces like My Undocumented Life blog are invaluable. I encourage you to seek help when you feel like you need it because doing research can be an emotionally draining process. Seeking help does not mean that we become disempowered or imply that we can’t do the work. This might mean seeking professional help, having a friend you can confide in within your program, finding both advisors and mentors, or even keeping a journal about your experiences.

These are difficult questions and navigating and negotiating research as an undocumented immigrant is an ongoing process. I hope that my insights can provide a starting point for you to ask yourself these and other questions along your path.

downloadThis post is part of the series UndocuGrads: Navigating Graduate School as an Undocumented Student where undocumented graduate school students and alumni share tips and knowledge about navigating graduate school. Many thanks to UndocuScholars for making this series possible. As an extension of the UndocuScholars project launched in 2014 at UCLA, the ongoing efforts of UndocuScholars are to engage institutional agents, college and university students, scholars, and community advocacy partners to create and further build on sustainable and effective best practices for undocumented students in higher education.

And many thanks to Elspeth Michaels for her design of the image for the series. To see more of her work, check out her website here.

Dani‘s research centers on children of immigrants, undocumented students, and the experiences of people in detention. He is involved in immigrant rights organizing and hopes to continue to find ways to place research into practice.


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Categories: Applying to Grad School, Navigating Grad School, Research, UndocuGrads: Stories of former and current undocumented grad students

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