Harvard Educational Review
  1. Youth Held at the Border

    Immigration, Education, and the Politics of Inclusion

    Lisa (Leigh) Patel

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2013.125 pp. $27.95 (paper).

    Without a doubt, newcomer immigrant youth are some of the most capable residents in the nation. They are often skilled beyond their years and manage more responsibilities than lots of adults. If green cards and passports were awarded based on merit, most of the young people in this book, and countless others, would be offered them swiftly and without reservation. (p. 88)
    On Friday, June 7, 2013, 224 Republicans in Congress voted yay on Representative Steve King’s (R-IA) amendment to defund the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for the coming year. Though mostly symbolic, the vote was another sign of trouble in the effort toward establishing comprehensive immigration reform and was a blow against the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation that grants qualifying undocumented youth a six-year path to citizenship conditional on completion of college or military service. But behind the current news cycle on immigration are the real lives of young people, by some estimation 2.1 million of them (Gonzales, 2011), who come of age in undocumented status.
    In the Boston public high school where Leigh Patel worked and collected the stories and experiences featured in Youth Held at the Border, undocumented immigrant youth struggle, especially during their junior and senior years, when, unlike their peers “with papers,” they cannot dream about and eagerly plan for college. Undocumented status is a state of limbo for these young people, where the normalcy of their American teenage lives—its aspirations, its routines, its predictable conflicts with parents and authority—entangles itself daily with the threat or actuality of deportation by the government. Common to many, this world nonetheless remains elusive to a majority of Americans, including many teachers who teach undocumented immigrant youth every day. Through Patel’s account, we meet young people whose extraordinary lives sit at the intersection of the American Dream and the American reality of what Patel rightfully names a “politics of inclusion” (p. xvi), an often inflexible and unyielding set of rules about entry into a mainstream and prosperous life in this society. The young people featured in this book learn early that, having crossed a first border into the United States, they must face myriad others in their pursuit of a good life.

    In her book, Patel takes us into the intimate spaces of the lives of young people struggling to live out the promise of their immigrant journeys. With Wana and Lina, we experience how, despite the national mythology of the lone striver, U.S. immigration policies favor having connections and some preexisting social capital. Wana is forced to resort to a green-card marriage in order to stay. We learn that Lina’s sister, who is in the U.S. legally, would have an easier time sponsoring Lina were she still living in faraway Niger. Matthias, who joins his father in the United States after growing up without him in Cape Verde, shows us the patterns of familial separation and disruption at the heart of the socioemotional challenges that particularly affect students like him. We also meet Jean, a young man whose promising future is not enough to convince an immigration judge to extend his visa. Jean compares his story to that of Eric Balderas, a high-profile DREAMer who was in the news at the time. Unlike Balderas, Jean came to the United States after kindergarten, at sixteen years of age, and is not a Harvard undergraduate. Yet both young men—and all the youth Patel features—have done what we usually reward young people for in this country: worked hard, stayed in school, been good to family and community. But in the stories of Eric and Jean, Patel aptly illuminates the consequences of deeming some young people more worthy of inclusion than others. As she puts it, “The designation of age limitations for pathways to citizenship is at best arbitrary and at worst willfully ignorant” (p. 72).

    While the first half of the book consists of these rich ethnographic portraits, in its second half Patel raises a broader critique of the structural social apparatus underlying the lives of these young people. She deploys Pratt’s (1991) zones of contact framework in her work with undocumented youth, seeking to afford young people opportunities to, in the Freirean mode, use these zones of contact to interrogate their own lives and become empowered to change them. She does this through both an internship program and by inviting youth to enroll and participate in the college courses she teaches. She relates an illustrative moment, a time when Patel and students from Franklin High are walking around her college campus discussing their relative disadvantages vis-à-vis Patel’s white, mostly middle-class, full-citizen college students. One of those high school students, Davey, begins to question the idea. After establishing that, unlike him and his peers, the college students are mostly monolingual and probably are not expected to balance education with work so that they can support families abroad, he asks, “How come some people got it so good when they may be not as smart?” (p. 106). Davey’s question is poignant because Patel has made us readers fully aware of the struggle and strife that forged his critical eye.

    Given the broad scope of the story she aims to tell, Patel does encounter some challenges weaving personal stories with broad currents in socioeconomics, politics, and history. She overstates some points, as in her discussion of the differences between what she calls “learning” and “studenting,” and at other times her claims are undersupported, as in her discussion of the impacts of global capitalism. In either case, it is not that Patel’s points are incorrect but, rather, that at times she does not give the reader sufficient information, evidence, or nuance with which to evaluate her claims. Nonetheless, it is precisely Patel’s sweeping vision and her deliberate and activist authorial voice that make this book unusually accessible and compelling to a broad audience. Youth Held at the Border succeeds at the difficult task of addressing an incredibly prescient and complex issue in lay terms without comprising complexity.

    Patel is the kind of writer and scholar that the education sector often creates, one who is personally invested but also self-aware of how this deep investment affects her scholarship. She accounts for this in a manner described by Michelle Fine in the foreword as her “graceful reflexivity” (p. x). She is transparent not only about her own immigrant story and the way it brings her closer to the young people she encounters but also about her present privilege and the ways that she herself can be complicit in injustice. Patel is also the kind of writer and scholar that education requires, one who is unafraid to tackle the immense web of threads that comprise educational phenomena, even if that means weaving together different methods and media. It is no surprise that in Youth Held at the Border Patel has written the kind of book that education needs: a book careful to mold overpoliticized debates—in this case immigration—to the shape of the everyday lives, hearts, and minds of young people. This is a book that sounds a moral call we must heed.


    Gonzales, R. G. (2011). Learning to be illegal: Undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood. American Sociological Review, 76(4), 602–619.

    Pratt, M. L. (1991). Arts of the contact zone. Profession, 91, 33–40.
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    Book Notes

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    Creating Innovators
    Tony Wagner (supplementary video material produced by Robert A. Compton)

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    Youth Held at the Border
    Lisa (Leigh) Patel