UCI Chicano/Latino studies associate professor Laura Enriquez is acutely aware of the toll COVID-19 is taking on undocumented students at California’s state universities. The director of the UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity (UC PromISE), she was in the middle of a two-year multi-campus study to understand the immigrant student experience across the University of California and California State University systems when the pandemic added a new, painful data point. Pivoting quickly to capture the moment, Enriquez and her research team added COVID-19 questions to the survey being taken by 3,500 undocumented students and U.S. citizen students with undocumented or legal immigrant parents. The responses, which the team finished collecting in June, are a critical reminder of the importance human, financial, and educational resources play in helping immigrant communities thrive.
“We’re seeing a lot of overlap in the experiences between undocumented students and their U.S. born peers who have undocumented parents. They are significantly more disadvantaged then those who have legal immigrant parents. And COVID has made these differences even more stark,” she says. She hopes the findings - detailed in several reports set to be released later this year - will fuel new policies aimed at creating equitable opportunities for undocumented students state- and nationwide.
In July, the UCI Academic Senate recognized Enriquez with the Early-Career Faculty Award for Research. The honor spotlights the young scholar’s outstanding disciplinary contributions, which former department chair Louis DeSipio applauds as both groundbreaking and policy relevant.
“Professor Enriquez has emerged at this relatively early stage in her professional career as a leading mentor and scholar on the relationship between immigration status and life course of young adult undocumented immigrants and their family members,” says Louis DeSipio, professor of Chicano/Latino studies and political science. “Moreover, her intellectually creative research makes significant contributions to shaping public policy.”
Enriquez’s work illuminates how undocumented immigration status shapes the opportunities and relationships of young adults. She’s explored the topic from multiple angles, including education, family, relationships and health. Her recent book, Of Love and Papers: How Immigration Policy Affects Romance and Family, details how family life and romantic relationships are complicated and compromised by documentation status. Other award-winning studies have taken a hard look at how immigration laws create multigenerational punishment as the challenges of undocumented status are shared with citizen family members in mixed-status families.
Her research has been funded by the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence, the Ford Foundation, Social Science Research Council, Haynes Foundation, UC Office of the President, and UC Institute for Mexico and the US. Findings, published widely in top-tier journals including Social Problems, the Journal of Marriage and Family, Race and Social Problems, and others. Her work, coupled with her campus service, have helped earn her recognition by the American Sociological Association Latino Sociology Section, the Social Sciences Dean’s Office, Dynamic Womxn of UCI and the Latino Excellence and Achievement Initiative on campus.
“I’m thankful to be part of a community that inspires and enables me to pursue a topic of great importance,” she says. “From my mentors who helped me become the scholar I am, to the students, colleagues and staff with whom I work, being part of a community energizes and inspires me to keep moving forward.”
For her, these efforts began as an undergraduate student activist at Pomona College. She spent long hours listening to undocumented high school students’ stories about obstacles encountered in their educational pathways. She turned their experiences into action through advice for students navigating the college application process and shared best practices and program development for her alma mater. The work became the focus of her senior thesis and opened her eyes to the importance research findings can play in an understudied, high need area.
She continued pursuing the topic as a graduate student at UCLA where she published several studies that uplifted student voices as they advocated for educational access and federal immigration reform. When she completed her Ph.D. in 2014, she joined the UCI faculty – first as a competitive Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Scholar in sociology, then as a tenure-track assistant professor in Chicano/Latino studies. Her arrival coincided with system-wide and campus efforts to expand services for undocumented students. Enriquez wasted no time in getting involved, agreeing to lead a group of undocumented and allied students in their efforts to conduct a systemwide study of UC undocumented student needs with the intention of informing programming and practice.
These efforts evolved into the Undocumented Student Equity Project, which is dedicated to conducting rigorous empirical research to inform institutional policies and practices that will advance equity and inclusion for undocumented students. The initial study interviewed over 150 students and surveyed 500, developing a comprehensive report on policies to effect institutional change and several journal articles. This initial effort has been followed by a series of additional studies to further inform efforts to advance equity in undocumented students’ academic experiences, and mental health and wellbeing.
Enriquez has worked closely with the UCI DREAM Center to translate her research into practice. She worked hand-in-hand with the center’s inaugural director to establish programming while seeking valued input from UCI’s undocumented student population.
“UCI has been home to one of the highest numbers of undocumented students across the UC for years, but support for their educational pathway had trailed other campuses. Listening to students, drawing on our research, and being creative has pushed UCI to the forefront,” Enriquez says. She worked tirelessly with campus colleagues on furthering the center’s programs, taught a class on the undocumented student experience, and advocated for funding from both UCI and the UC Office of the President.
What started as one staff-funded position became a robust, full-fledged center. The UCI DREAM Center now includes three full-time staff members, nearly half a dozen graduate student scholars in residence, and several undergraduate student fellows – all of whom are still available as remote resources during the pandemic.
“A bright spot in our UC PromISE findings indicates that students who’ve utilized campus services, including DREAM Centers are less likely to report a very high COVID impact on different aspects of their lives,” she says. “That tells us that something positive is going on with resource use – and that we need to understand it more so campuses can maximize the effect of their efforts.”
In all her projects, Enriquez makes space for undergraduate and graduate student researchers. “Being a mentor is important to me because I was fortunate to have amazing Latina mentors throughout my career and I feel a responsibility to carry on that legacy,” she says. “The students who find their way to me are searching for a way to do research that will uplift their communities. Their perspectives are integral to our ability to conduct compassionate research that creates change. I aim to help them build the tools they need to carry out their vision .”
The publications, honors and service hours she’s logged in pursuit of change are laudable for a seasoned academic, let alone a relatively young professor just five years into her career on campus.
“I feel a sense of urgency about my work because there are lives at stake,” she says. “There’s just no way to hear our undocumented students’ stories and not act. That creates a fire that connects everything I do – and there’s still so much more work to be done.”
-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences