Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Lynch School of Education

Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education and the Politics of Inclusion

Youth Held At the Border by Dr. Lisa Patel

Dr. Lisa (Leigh) Patel, associate professor in the Lynch School of Education, has been working on researching and writing her latest book Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education and the Politics of Inclusion (Teachers College Press) for almost seven years.

She spent the majority of those years working with an all-immigrant high school in Boston, Mass. conducting ethnographic research on both young people and teachers. Her long-term relationships with immigrant youth and their families have helped her to interweave and intertwine their personal stories with important analysis about immigrant law, health, and education.

She sat down with us to talk about the new book as well as discuss some of her findings and possible solutions for immigrant students in the United States.

Can you give me a quick preview of your new book, Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education and the Politics of Inclusion?

The book is about immigrant youth in the United States and how they encounter borders of all different kinds. We might naturally think of borders as just nation-state borders but these immigrant youth encounter a lot of cultural and racial borders, borders in schooling—borders that occur because they are mostly low-income youth of color.

Can you speak to some of the specific findings in the book?

I think there are two main things that the book really speaks to in terms of findings:

The first main finding is that we tend to over simplify certain problems, in education and other applied fields. For example, when we talk about immigrant students, we don’t even call them immigrant students, we call them English-Language Learners (ELL). So we get into this mindset that if we just fix one piece of the problem, in this case the English language fluency piece, that all of the gates will be thrown wide open and these young people will have no more problems with college access.  

But one of the really big points of the book is that there are lots of social factors that intertwine in everyone’s life—in this case, immigrant students’ lives—that cause society to be either a series of open doors, or conversely, a series of closed doors.

Secondly, in the book, I try to point to some policies that seem to have in mind what they view as a “normal” secondary student and what kind of support their parents should be providing and how laws around financial aid are constructed from this mythical idea of a typical adolescent.

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of our education system for immigrant students?

One of the biggest strengths for us is that all residents of this county are entitled to a free and appropriate K-12 education. And that’s huge. This philosophy reflects such a wide open ethic of inclusion. It reflects what I like to think of as both the “talk of investing in our future” and the “walk of investing in our future.” That has a great deal of promise in it. And it’s promising that we have that as a core ethic.

In terms of weaknesses, we tend to really focus in on this language thing with immigrant students and that’s hugely important. But, having worked really closely with immigrant communities for a while and coming from an immigrant family myself, language isn’t even in my top five things to worry about when it comes to immigrant kids. Because usually when people are here as immigrants, they are so incredibly motivated to learn the language and be the success story. So we have to make it difficult for them not to succeed—and we’re doing a pretty good job of that.

Also, we don’t pay nearly as much attention to the context that kids are in. We put way too much faith that even if we did get the language learning piece right, that it would open up these doors. And all we need to do is take a look at the stratification of the United States to be reminded that that is a naive proposition.

Outside of a change in policy, what kinds of things can teachers and administrators do to help with the solution?

I think when administrators and teachers can get to know their students well—it makes all kinds of things much more possible. I’d love for young people to go to a school and know that at least one person really cares if they don’t show up that day.

That being said, I think that policy absolutely constricts that—there are a lot of requirements that make it seem really impossible in the eyes of teachers and administrators to just know their students. But I think that getting to know the background of these immigrant students and putting it into context is a huge first step.

How do you think that this work is going to add to your field?

I really hope that within the field that the book helps people to stop being overly disciplinarily bounded when they are looking at a phenomenon like immigration. This book does not respect disciplinary boundaries at all—I talk about families, schools, homes, law, and labor because all of those things make up our lives. 

So if people just had this as a takeaway---sometimes quality research means not obeying disciplinary boundaries.

What do you hope that other readers take away from the book?

I wrote the book as if I was having a conversation with a neighbor down the street thinking, “How would I get them to change their minds about immigration?

The impact that I hope it has beyond the academy is that it makes people see that we’re talking about immigration in hugely insufficient ways. We’re having such a shallow level of conversation about individuals’ actions and the reality is that most of immigration happens because of the push and pull between much wealthier nations and much poorer nations.

Dr. Lisa (Leigh) Patel, Lynch School Associate Professor
Dr. Lisa (Leigh) Patel, Lynch School Associate Professor