Learning Lessons of Hope From Those Who Have Little

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If you had lived your whole life in a place where you legally weren’t allowed, how would you remain hopeful about the future?

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States wake up to this reality every day. To Eric Chun Lung Chen, Ph.D., they represent the voiceless whom he wants to give a voice to.

Chen, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), has spent the past several years researching the quality of resilience, as manifested in the educational and career pursuits of undocumented immigrant students. He has focused most intently on “DREAMers,” roughly 700,000 undocumented individuals who were brought into the United States at a very young age. They were given a temporary relief from deportation in 2012 under former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The act had been considered, but not passed, by Congress in 2010.

The DREAMers’ experience deeply resonates with Chen, who was born in Taiwan and came to the states as an international student to attend graduate school. In addition to the common adjustment challenges associated with being an immigrant, he found the bureaucracy and uncertainty he encountered in obtaining his employment-based immigration visas and green card to be stressful, taking almost a decade to complete.

“When one’s own identity seems to be stigmatized as a result of being a marginalized member of society, how does that stigmatized identity impact one’s mental health? I’m particularly interested in the sense of self, and how it changes over time as it relates to one’s resilience and interpersonal relationships,” he said.

“If I were one of them, I might have given up hope a long time ago.”

DACA and the Sense of Self

Two years ago, Chen and GSE students conducted a research study, where they spent more than a year recruiting and interviewing a dozen undocumented Latinos who benefited from DACA. Their study focused on DREAMers’ experiences of self, their interpersonal relationships, and their future pursuits in the wake of DACA.

What Chen found was that although the DREAMers were relieved that they didn’t have to worry about being deported for the time being, that relief was tempered by an increased sense of responsibility for their parents as well as their siblings who remained undocumented.

“So it’s a mixed blessing. On one hand, they perceive their future to be brighter for them to pursue more educational and work opportunities. On the other hand, they now experience pressure from their undocumented family members to seek better-paying jobs,” Chen said.

More recently, he and his students completed a study on the educational decision-making processes of 10 female Spanish-speaking DREAMers on what factors motivated them to pursue a college education. The study specifically examined gender-based barriers and expectations. One significant finding was that those Latina students who did not seek help from school personnel in their college admissions process did so out of fear of disclosing their undocumented status. Individuals who did disclose their status were not provided with adequate resources or support because of the school staff’s lack of awareness and knowledge of how to assist DREAMers. This was less the case at small, more individualized high schools.

Parents seemed to be the greatest source of support and motivation for DREAMers’ college pursuits, especially when they experienced feelings of hopelessness. With regard to gender roles, some participants felt conflicted in their need to take on household responsibilities and to pursue a higher education.

A Need That Is Greater Than Ever

Such studies are difficult to conduct, in part because of the time and effort it takes to recruit undocumented immigrants and earn their trust, said Chen. But the recent presidential election has made the work more important than ever, and Chen sees a greater need to translate an abstract concept like immigration into a narrative about flesh-and-blood individuals with dignity.

As someone who teaches future school counselors, mental health counselors, and psychologists, Chen said there’s a practical purpose as well—to encourage a dialogue that builds a connection through diversity.

“I want my students to be prepared when they work with DREAMers after they graduate, to have an empathic understanding of their struggles, to offer support, and to advocate for them rather than say, ‘Your family broke the law, and you should go back to your country.’ I don’t think that’s consistent with Fordham’s mission of social justice and respect [for]human dignity,” he said.

“Regardless of our personal views, I hope my research helps bridge the political divide by sharing DREAMers’ voices, fears, and their audacious hopes for the uncertain future. Hopefully and realistically, they’re going to continue to live among us, so let’s find a way to support them so they can fulfill their dreams and become productive members of our society.”

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