(Un)studied Complicity: Cross-examining Undocumented Immigrant Student Participation in the U.S. Education System

Guest interview featuring Alonso

As part of the UndocuScholarship series at My Undocumented Life, we had the opportunity to interview Alonso who is currently the Middle School & Family Engagement Director and Ethnic Studies Adjunct Faculty at Salt Lake Community College. Alonso has written extensively on immigration and education-related research. In this post, Alonso shares with us his insights in regard to what it means to be undocumented in higher education. 

  1. Can you share with us what motivates you to work with and focus your theorization with and about undocumented student experiences in higher education?

At age 11, I migrated from Peru to the United States and grew up in Utah. About six months after my arrival, I fell out of status and became undocumented. I have written more about my upbringing in Utah and college-going journey in a conservative state in this article. It was not until late 2012, a couple of months before my 23rd birthday, that my Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) notice of approval arrived in the mailbox in the apartment complex where I lived with my mother and brother.

Logo credit: Eva Diaz

Since obtaining DACA, my understanding and relationship with this country (and other nation-states) have shifted. I am no longer a passive consumer of political ideologies. I have learned to interrogate everything. One of the ideas I examine in my current research is undocumented immigrant student participation in U.S. higher education. For me, the question of participation takes on a philosophical turn as I am not only concerned with the immediate, material participation of undocumented immigrants in higher education (e.g., enrollment, retention, support services, graduation, etc.). I am also interested in questioning how the participation of undocumented immigrants in educational institutions is ultimately an extension (and extends the temporality) of coloniality on stolen land. I guess one can say what motivates my research is my personal experience and questioning my role as an undocumented immigrant in land-back movements towards Indigenous liberation.

In my research, professional, and personal life, I cross-examine how undocumented immigrant student participation in U.S.-based education systems explicitly and implicitly shapes our social thinking. If we understand formalized educational institutions in a Foucauldian (1979) sense, we can argue educational institutions are meant to produce docile bodies to maintain social order and discipline. In this way, educational institutions pervade students with ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, civil/ized and uncivil/ized, etc. Undocumented immigrant students are no exception. The education system also indoctrinates us, which ultimately creates what Dr. Gerardo R. López and I (2021) call the re/production of docile illegalized bodies. One way to understand this concept is how schools can turn undocumented immigrants into passive consumers and supporters of an imperialist regime. Without even being aware of it, schools can (and do) teach undocumented immigrants to uphold and promote colonial values that oppress Indigenous communities in the land in which we are settlers.

  1. What advice would you share with educators and administrators who work with undocumented college students? 

Center undocumented immigrant students, but also our communities at large. In our work with undocumented immigrant students in higher education, we cannot afford to lose sight that illegality affects 11,000,000+ people in the land many of us only know or recognize today as the United States. I want to make clear that I mention the latter because for me, the work we do with undocumented immigrants must exist in tandem with the long-lasting efforts to revert the dispossession of Indigenous land in colonized nation-states.

In working with and for undocumented immigrant students, figure out how to leverage institutional resources to reinvest in y/our local undocumented immigrant communities. For example, do you know which local restaurants or small businesses are owned by undocumented immigrants and how to cater from these restaurants or vendors for school-wide events? Are there any local print shops or apparel printing companies owned by undocumented immigrants to order event swag? Also, find ways to pay undocumented immigrant students or community members who participate in focus groups or surveys to provide feedback about their experiences at your school. Again, think about leveraging institutional resources because we should be reinvesting these funds in our local communities and undocumented immigrants form part of our communities.  

  1. What impact do you hope your work may have within the nexus of education and migration studies?

Honestly, I want my research to open avenues in academia to think differently about illegality in the United States. I draw a lot of knowledge and inspiration from public intellectuals on Twitter who we should cite and continue citing in academic and public scholarship, including @frijoliz, @cesarmvm, @migrantscribble. Often, academics refuse to tap into the work of public intellectuals because it lacks the peer-review process they like to uphold. I think the complete opposite. The work of the public intellectuals has pushed me to think about the conditions of illegality in ways that academia never has. I am excited to also write in ways that are more approachable, or perhaps less intimidating, to people with whom I share virtual and physical space. I am tired of unnecessarily lengthy research articles that lead to nowhere. I am more interested in conversation-style pieces that reflect relationships between two or more people rather than objectifying, scientific takes for the academic spotlight. The research we produce needs to be accessible, so I am also working on making my scholarship more available and sharing widely with anyone interested in reading it. 

  1. In your experience working collaboratively with professors and college students, can you share some key considerations for undocumented folks who would like to, or are asked to, join a collaborative research project? 

Photo credit: Mathilda Khoo

Relationships are key. I have been fortunate to collaborate with professors and colleagues with whom I already have strong relationships. In some instances, our relationships preceded even the idea of us writing together. For example, my mentors Caitlin Cahill, David Quijada Cerecer, and I formed part of a Youth Participatory Action Research collective in Salt Lake City, Utah. Together, we worked with high school-age youth researchers to engage in community-based research projects concerning topics that interested them, including but not limited to education, immigration, and grassroots community mapping. It was not until after we all lived in different states that we began theorizing and writing down ideas that we eventually immortalized in manuscripts. In other instances, as my mentor Gerardo R. López and I documented in our 2021 article, our relationship started with the intention to co-write a piece. However, I consider our relationship unique because Dr. López did not invite me into the project as a mere illegalized subject or participant on whom to conduct research but rather a co-researcher. In other words, Dr. López brought me in as a partner in crime of sorts, and not a research subject. I think this is important to mention because I have also experienced instances when academics have approached me to co-write pieces with them not because of my academic and intellectual interests but simply because of my material positionality as an illegalized immigrant. That approach alone is wrong.

When considering new research and writing collaborations, I encourage undocumented immigrants first to question the intentions of the people who want to write with them. Why do they want to write with me and about which topics? I think writing collaborations are probably more straightforward when the research topics are not directly related to illegalization and illegality. However, when writing about illegalization and illegality, be extra careful. Ask yourself, what are their intentions for engaging in this subject? What is their political agenda in immigration and how might this influence their writing and their approach to writing (Reyna Rivarola & López, 2021)? Why have they invited me to write? Is it because I am undocumented and will make their work seem more valid (Reyna Rivarola & López, 2021)? Or is it because they truly want to co-theorize about illegality in ways that have not been considered before? I think it is important for undocumented immigrant intellectuals to question the intentions of their mentors and colleagues in bringing them along in projects. Again, relationships are key.  

  1. In some of your publications you include the expressions and experiences of students, some who are undocumented. How and why is incorporating their perspectives a part of your methodology? 

I remember when I was first introduced to academic research about undocumented immigrant students. I was then an undocumented immigrant undergraduate student in college in Utah and was excited to read scholarly work about the experiences of fellow undocumented immigrants in school. It was not until I became more exposed to the scholarship of U.S.-based Black women intellectuals (see Collins, 2008; hooks, 2000; Smith et al., 2021 – for full title of articles see reference list below; these articles can be accessed through search engines or public and school libraries—if your local or school library does not have access to these articles, submit a request for them and any other titles of your interest) that I began considering how the research concerning the experiences of undocumented immigrant students was largely produced by people who (1) had never experienced illegalization, but most importantly (2) who did not read, cite nor center the intellectual work of undocumented immigrants across their papers. As Gerardo R. López and I point out in our 2021 piece, the words of undocumented immigrants cannot merely be concentrated in the findings section of a research article (if you are interested in accessing this article, please email me for a copy). In fact, scholars of immigration must read and build on the intellectual work of undocumented immigrants and incorporate such perspectives and theorizations to create new methodologies, frameworks, and theoretical underpinnings that center illegalized perspectives. This practice is precisely how we can begin thinking beyond the colonial logics that currently bind research with and about this population.

  1. How do you engage with reflexivity about your own experience and how do you see this practice tied to your research approach and intentions?

I have learned to recognize my areas of growth. When I first started high school and college in the United States, I was a passionate Dreamer. Dreamer, of course, is a term that stems from the Dream Act and speaks to undocumented immigrants who want to be model citizens. I was one of those who would fight for the Dream Act and advocate for the band-aid solutions to illegalization in the United States, not understanding it as a broader issue. Now, I think differently. I have read and read and read, and I have had conversations with people in many fields, constantly challenging my perspectives and working through their theorizations about issues directly and indirectly tied to immigration and illegalization. In this process, I have also learned to recognize the importance of approaching my work through a trauma-informed lens, also understanding how I, as a person, scholar, and professional, can cause, and have caused, harm. For example, without knowing it I may also have said something that triggered a fellow undocumented immigrant. Or simply because I am undocumented immigrant it does not mean I understand what every undocumented immigrant experiences. Through this realization, I am learning to be better, not repeat mistakes I have made in the past, and understand the ripple effects of my actions as a scholar and as a settler in the Indigenous land I know today as the United States. The knowledge that I, too, am part of the problem and that I need to take accountability for my actions continues to be instrumental to my ever-expanding understanding of growth. 

ALONSO is the Middle School & Family Engagement Director and Ethnic Studies Adjunct Faculty at Salt Lake Community College. Originally from Lima, Peru, Alonso migrated to Utah when he was 11 years of age. His research is concerned with issues of how undocumented immigrants experience formalized and informalized education in the United States. Find him on Twitter @areynarivarola.


Collins, P. H. (2008). Black feminist thought. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. South End Press.

Reyna Rivarola, A. R. (2017). “Undocumented” ways of navigating complex sociopolitical realities in higher education: A critical race counterstory. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 3(1), 101-125. Retrieved from http://ecommons.luc.edu/jcshesa/vol3/iss1/6

Reyna Rivarola, A. R., & López, G. R. (2021). Moscasmetiches, and methodologies: Exploring power, subjectivity, and voice when researching the undocumented. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 34(8) 733-745. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2021.1930262 

Smith, C. A., Williams, E. L., Wadud, I. A., Pirtle, W. N. L., & The Cite Black Women Collective. (2021). Cite Black Women: A critical praxis (a statement). Feminist Anthropology, 2(1), 10-17. https://doi.org/10.1002/fea2.12040


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