Feelings of Non-Belonging in the Undocumented Student Population

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Invisibilty, isolation and non-belonging are common feelings in the undocumented student population. What we don’t hear about often is the connection between these feelings of isolation and mental health illnesses. Mental Health is a topic that is more and more becoming a prevalent focus on our college campuses. I believe it is important to discuss the feelings of undocumented students and why this puts them more at risk for mental illnesses in the future. I reference the article No Place to Belong: Contextualizing Concepts of Mental Health Among Undocumented Immigrant Youth In the United States through out this post.

Just imagine your time in high school and all the rights of passage that you were able to participate in. For many undocumented students, these rights of passage became rude awakenings as they found one day out they were barred from participating in them. How would it feel to wake up one day and feel that your whole life has basically been a lie?

This transition from adolescence in high school to certain rights of passage seems to become an issue over night. While documented students were getting their drivers license, applying for colleges and aid, or finding part-time jobs, undocumented students found their status as an impenetrable barrier (Gonzalez, Suarez-Orozco, Dedios, 2013). Many students don’t even know they are undocumented until these issues arise and again, it is like waking up to a nightmare.

Many of the respondents in Gonzales’s study began to see their status as their ultimate identity and withdrew socially and emotionally from others at the end of their high school years. One respondent described not wanting to constantly explain to her friends why she wasn’t going to college, driving etc. so she just stopped going out all together (Gonzalez et al., 2013). Not building on relationships during this time is crucial to development. These students were putting themselves at a disadvantage with out even knowing it.

What I also found interesting in this research article was the common theme among the respondents of no sense for their future. They looked to an uncertain adulthood as they had to shift their focuses and throw away their dreams. There have been reforms out there to give some hope for students such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA provides students with temporary protection from deportation as well as a temporary work permit. There are still barriers though with this legislation that have caused new anxieties and ambiguities for these students.

As outlined above, undocumented students are vulnerable to poor mental health outcomes. Many students do have a strong resiliency and have been able to maintain and grow their social and emotional connections through out their adolescence into their college years. What the article mentions though and should be considered for future research is talking about identity with these students and building a narrative of their identity that includes but is not limited to their undocumented status (Gonzalez et al., 2013). For these students, the conversation needs to start early and will likely come from mentors, counselors and community members whom work with this population inside and outside of the education system.


Gonzalez, R., Suarez-Orozco, C., & Dedios-Sanguineti, M. (2013). No place to belong: contextualizing concepts of mental health among undocumented immigrant youth in the united states. American Behavioral Scientist, 57 (8) 1174–1199.