Harvard Educational Review
  1. Shifting Boundaries

    Immigrant Youth Negotiating National, State, and Small-Town Politics

    Alexis M. Silver

    Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018. 200 pp. $27.95 (paper).

    As our world currently experiences the highest historical peak of migration flows, scholars have begun to challenge long-held beliefs about the experience of migrants (IOM, 2017). The United States, in particular, has experienced geographic changes in domestic immigration flows from large metropolitan cities to suburban and rural contexts. In fact, according to the Migration Policy Institute, the growth in the US immigrant population in the first two decades of the 2000s took place primarily in the southern and central US (Terrazas, 2011). Researchers have thus coined the term “new destinations” to describe the local contexts where immigrants have chosen to reside in the US and which have consequently seen the foreign-born population grow. How, then, have these new destinations received the influx of immigrant families in their communities and schools? What has the experience of individual immigrants been as they navigate new lives in towns, cities, and states that are unfamiliar with their language, culture, and life perspective?

    In Shifting Boundaries: Immigrant Youth Negotiating National, State, and Small-Town Politics, Alexis M. Silver narrows in on the experience of young immigrants living in North Carolina, a new destination state, with the goal of helping readers understand how policies (local, state, and federal) interact and impact immigrant youths’ incorporation into the United States. She builds on existing theories of immigration and incorporation by spotlighting the rapidly changing nature of policies at every level, which, she argues, impacted the transition from adolescence to adulthood for youth in the first two decades of the 2000s differently than for youth growing up before that time. A major contribution of her book is her concept of “tectonic incorporation,” which describes how the youth she studied “navigate political and institutional structures that moved unpredictably” around them (p. 9). By using the metaphor of tectonic plates sliding in different directions and making it difficult for youth to find their footing, Silver provides a useful way of understanding the spectrum of experiences of young immigrants in new destinations.

    Silver depicts the experience of young immigrants in a small town in North Carolina, which she calls Allen Creek. This study location allows her to illuminate the context of a small town of eight thousand people and the consequences of an increase in labor demands that led to a significant demographic shift from the late 1990s to early 2000s. She conducted seven years of ethnographic and interview research in Allen Creek, from 2007 to 2015. During her data collection, about half of the population was Latino, primarily originating from Mexico and Guatemala. By 2015 she had conducted seventy-nine interviews, 60 percent of which were with unauthorized youth. Although she set out to study how a small-town community context influenced the incorporation of youth living in it, implementation of various state and federal policies during her data collection led to a new question about “how individual lives become entangled in institutional-, state-, and federal-level policies that alternately define immigrant young adults as incorporated members of unwanted outsiders” (p. 2).

    In Shifting Boundaries, Silver concentrates on the stories of 1.5-generation youth, who she defines as young immigrants who were brought to the US as children. These youth were raised among citizen peers who were Latino, black, or white. Silver interviews all groups of students from the high school and compares the experiences of second-generation citizen students with unauthorized 1.5-generation youth. She also considers the experiences of all Latinos in Allen Creek to account for the spillover effects of policies intended for unauthorized immigrants.

    In each of the six chapters between the introduction and conclusion, Silver seeks to illustrate tectonic incorporation by focusing on specific interactions among local, institutional, state, or federal level contexts with the circumstances of 1.5-generation unauthorized youth in order to more deeply understand youths’ integration processes. In chapter 1 she begins by reviewing the existing literature on incorporation, assimilation, and belonging. She approaches her findings as examples of “bumpy-line assimilation”—immigrant incorporation occurring on various dimensions . . . with different rates” (p. 13). This perspective is different from past theories which viewed assimilation as a process that was simple and lacked variation across the immigrant population. Silver presents this foundational knowledge to then build on the idea of complex forms of assimilation by focusing on the role of immigration status. This context-providing chapter helps the reader understand the destabilizing nature of youths’ transition from adolescence to adulthood and to begin to see the tectonic incorporation idea she tries to illustrate throughout her book.

    In chapter 2 Silver turns to a more in-depth look of the local context as she paints a picture of the small-town policies of Allen Creek. She wants to show “how policy shifts at the local level, enabled by federal legislation, can breed fear” (p. 18). She shows how the drastic change in demographics in the late 1990s and early 2000s catalyzed inhabitants of this small town to propose or accept policies that created a social and physical distance between the town’s Latino population and the white and black populations. For instance, white parents in Allen Creek rejected a school integration plan for fear of how an increase in the immigrant student population would negatively affect their children’s education. An effective component of this particular chapter is the description of the various neighborhoods in Allen Creek, which illustrates the importance of critically evaluating the role of various enclaves in town, the potential mechanisms for local racial and ethnic relations, and the strategies employed to integrate immigrants into the community.

    Chapter 3 moves to the institutional context, in particular how the secondary school in town sought to serve its growing Latino student population. This chapter offers a glimmer of hope as Silver describes the various organizations and strategies the high school utilized to try to mitigate the negative climate permeating local relations between immigrants and nonimmigrants. It also provides the reader with a concrete example of educators trying to find solutions within an increasingly hostile political environment. It is clear from this chapter that the majority of 1.5- and second-generation Latino high school students in Allen Creek felt a connection to their school. One major example of the way the high school exhibited its desire to provide stability to Latino students was to hire a Latino vice principal, whose voice Silver sought out and included in this chapter. However, the school staff did not demographically mirror the student body, and only three staff were Latino. While the students received the most support from all school staff in completing schoolwork, the students told Silver that their connection to their ethnic heritage became stronger as a result of spending their school days and extracurricular time with mostly Latino students. Despite the turmoil on the federal and state levels that often made Latino students feel like outsiders, Silver argues that the high school was able to implement strategies to address discrimination and increase resources for its Latino students.

    Once students graduated or left high school, they were at greater risk of destabilization as a result of the exclusionary immigration policies surrounding them. Silver’s long-term experience with the students allowed her to describe the consequences of young unauthorized adults being barred from the typical pathways of higher education and labor that lead to upward socioeconomic mobility. For example, she shares the story of Carmen, a nineteen-year-old who wanted to become a nurse but saw no point in paying, out of pocket, out-of-state tuition for a degree she would be unable to use after graduation. Silver explains that even after the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which granted temporary work permits to many of the unauthorized youth in her sample, the exclusionary policies of North Carolina around driver’s licenses and financial aid access at the community college level led to stagnation in the lives of young adults who benefited from the program. The chapter’s focus on the transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a necessary continuation of Gonzales’s (2016) work on master status because it zooms in on a small-town context in an exclusionary state. It also shows how the implementation of DACA widely varies because of the freedom given to states around immigration policy.

    Chapter 5 addresses DACA as well as the less-understood temporary protected status program (TPS). This chapter’s excellent explanation of these policies and discussion of their implementation is reminiscent of the concept of street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1983). Silver discusses the ways institutional gatekeepers sought to approach youth with DACA and TPS, or liminally legal youth. While DACA became more recognized by the general public because of the manner in which President Obama announced the program and the consequent media attention, the experiences of families and youth with TPS are less understood as a protected immigration status and often misinterpreted as an unauthorized status. Silver describes an example of a student whose high school guidance counselor incorrectly advised her that she was ineligible for in-state tuition because he thought TPS meant she was undocumented. While she was ultimately able to enroll, Patricia had to continue her battle with community college staff to prove that she was not undocumented and deserved to be there. This led her to stop postsecondary education and resulted in a protracted path of achieving her goal of becoming a nurse. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of unauthorized youth experiences, Silver points out that despite the difficulty in being recognized as legitimate, those with DACA or TPS undoubtedly benefited from these liminally legal statuses because of the access they provided.

    The final chapter provides a useful summary of the immigrant rights movement to date, specifically the role of youth in its success and how DACA can be seen as a product of this movement. Silver helps readers understand the complexity of the immigrant youth movement by pointing out that while youth activism was a form of resistance to the exclusionary policies and a complicated sense of belonging, there are also some unauthorized youth who did not feel comfortable being part of the movement. Many of the youth who saw their involvement in activism as a buffer also identified as high-achieving DREAMers. Other unauthorized youth who were not college bound often did not see themselves fitting into that identity. Some who went straight into the labor market could not afford to be vocal about their undocumented status, especially in the context of North Carolina. Silver spoke to youth who, because of their experience in Allen Creek, lost faith in change coming from the existing political system. These examples hint at the longer-term repercussions of current events on the civic engagement of youth. Silver’s portrayal of the different ways youth interpreted the immigrant movement also bolsters her main argument: these youth show a spectrum of incorporation paths depending on their interactions with different policy contexts. The chapter ends on a productive note by recommending policies that embrace a multipronged approach to incorporation. Silver confronts the reality of the Trump administration and calls for a focus on schools and community-based programs to leverage the access they have to youth in order to help improve youths’ sense of belonging and community engagement.

    Shifting Boundaries introduces readers to the unique experiences of unauthorized immigrant youth in one local US context while reminding readers about the variation existing in immigrant incorporation across the United States. Her book provides a strong foundation for continued study of the long-term effects of recent enforcement policies. By introducing tectonic incorporation as a framework and illustrating it with real-life stories, Silver gives readers a tool through which we can extend her work and develop our understanding of immigrants’ experiences in new destinations. In fact, one cannot help but wonder how these youth continue to experience their integration and how Silver’s findings may have changed amid rapidly changing political contexts. Her approach to conveying this important argument is balanced in its urgency and illumination of the resources that unauthorized immigrant youth should be allowed to bring into our educational system and labor market. As she eloquently states, “Once public officials begin to recognize immigrant youth as a resource to invest in rather than a threat or burden to be dealt with, the walls of exclusion that have long stifled growth of so many will begin to crumble” (p. 158).
    Sarah A. Rendón García 


    Gonzales, R. G. (2016). Lives in limbo: Undocumented and coming of age in America. Oakland: University of California Press.

    International Organization for Migration [IOM]. (2017). World migration report 2018. United Nations. doi: 10.18356/f45862f3-en

    Lipsky, M. (1983). Street-level bureaucracy: The dilemmas of the individual in public service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Terrazas, A. (2011). Immigrants in new-destination states. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/immigrants-new-destination-states
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