Dr. William Perez, born San Salvador, El Salvador, and who came to the United States when he was 10, is a Professor at Claremont Graduate University as well as a writer who focuses on immigrant student achievement, linguistic and cultural diversity, and educational policy. His new book, “We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing The American Dream,” blends the inspirational stories of optimism and perseverance of undocumented students with the critical policy implications of the continuing neglect of comprehensive immigration reform.
For more info about Dr. Perez , please check out his website:
The following is our exclusive interview with Dr. Perez:
Spar & Bernstein: How did you come to write the book? What inspired it?
Dr. Perez: In 2006, I began a research study to examine the educational experiences of college-going undocumented students. My primary motivation for starting this research project was the complete lack of research on the topic. I felt it was important for educational researchers to conduct research that would inform policy discussions regarding the Dream Act. The case studies profiled in “We ARE Americans,” came from 102 interviews we conducted.
S&B: How long did the book take you? And was it easy to write or hard?
Dr. Perez: With the assistance of three graduate students, it took us about eight months to interview 102 undocumented and formerly undocumented students and survey 182 undocumented students across the country. In some ways the book was easy to write due to the rich narratives from the students. It was somewhat difficult to write the book in a style that was accessible to most readers while still maintaining the necessary academic content to inform policy discussions. It took me about a year to write the book.
S&B: What was the most inspiring experience you discovered writing the book? And on the flip side, what disturbed you greatly?
Dr. Perez: I was most inspired by the commitment to service demonstrated by undocumented students. Despite all the challenges they faced, they still prioritized giving back to the community and remaining involved in immigration reform activism. In many ways it was difficult to hear students describe the challenges they face on a daily basis, and the often discouraging remarks from teachers and counselors.
S&B: What are you hoping that people pick up from reading your book?
Dr. Perez: My primary goal is to inform the American public and policy makers about the various contributions that undocumented students make to American society. These students are not only bright and motivated, they genuinely care about improving themselves and their communities. These contributions are often not recognized during policy discussions and I felt it was important to highlight them.
S&B: What are the lasting emotional effects of experiencing constant fear of deportation? In other words, what does it do to the psyche?
Dr. Perez: Over time these negative experiences can certainly have lasting effects. However, something that came up in my conversation with students was the importance of the support they received from family, teachers, friends, and other adult figures. These support systems help them manage the challenges they face. Unfortunately, undocumented students who drop out of high school or who do not continue on to college may not have these important support networks and may suffer lasting negative effects.
S&B: What is your own personal connection to the subject of immigration reform?
Dr. Perez: I’m connected to the issue in several ways. Not only am I an immigrant but I was undocumented when I first came to U.S. from El Salvador. My family came to escape the civil war and to look for a better way of life. It was not until IRCA that I was able to legalize my status which allowed me to attend Pomona College with full financial aid, and eventually earn my Ph.D. from Stanford University. As a university professor I am an academic expert on immigrant youth. I feel an obligation as a scholar and as person who has experienced directly the benefits of legalization to inform the public discourse regarding the merits of providing a path to legalization to undocumented students and their families. The research literature is very clear: Undocumented immigrants make an undeniable social, civic, and economic contribution to American society and the law must be changed to recognized this fact.
S&B: What do you feel in your heart of hearts will happen with immigration reform in 2010? And beyond 2010?
Dr. Perez: I still think there is a strong possibility for both CIR and the DREAM Act in 2010. Worse case scenario, we pass the DREAM Act in 2010 and CIR in 2011 or shortly thereafter. Immigration reform during the Obama administration is not a matter of IF, it’s a a matter of WHEN.
S&B: If you could change the immigration laws yourself, what would it be?
Dr. Perez: Provide a path to legalization to the 12 million individuals living in the US without legal status without any of the draconian punishments that are currently being circulated in the Senate version of CIR for example. There is no point in punishing people that have already suffered various forms of exploitation on the part of American employers. Improve the immigration quota system in a way that is more responsive to labor demands so we don’t create an incentive for employers to circumvent immigration and labor laws. Allocate sufficient resources for the processing of immigration paperwork so people don’t have to wait years for their applications to be processed. Border militarization is not the most effective use of resources. I absolutely agree that the US has every right to regulate the flow of people in and out of its borders, but it must do so in a smart and humane way.
S&B: What would surprise the average American about the undocumented?
Dr. Perez: I think what most people will find surprising is how much undocumented students care for the well being of their communities and ALL Americans. In terms of their civic participation, they are in fact, more Americans than most. Their high level of optimism is also quite admirable.
S&B: What is your next book?
Dr. Perez: My next book is being published by Harvard University Press in 2011. The working title is, “Exceptional Students, Marginal Lives: Academic & Civic Engagement Among Undocumented Latino Youths.” The book is an examination of the schooling experiences of undocumented Latino students and the potential loss of talent to American society if we don’t provide them with a path to legalization.
Below is a video of Dr. Perez offering a description of his book: