Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Colette Daiute


Luis Barrios

Committee Members

Luis Barrios

Michelle Fine

Jennifer Ayala

Curtis Hardin

Subject Categories

Educational Psychology | Social Psychology | Social Psychology and Interaction


Immigration, Immigration Studies, Higher Education, Mixed Methodology, Discourse, Attitudes


A key element of investigating attitudes towards unauthorized immigrants in the United States has been political orientation, yet few studies have examined the influence of such orientation on labels relevant to the immigration debate. The current dissertation project examined these attitudes among young adults using survey, focus group, and interview methodologies. Level of agreement on various statements regarding unauthorized immigrants was examined in Study I, definitions given for the labels ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’ were explored in Study II, and the lived experience of undocumented youth in two community colleges was investigated in Study III. It was hypothesized that: I) attitudes concerning unauthorized immigrants are a function of present social labels, regardless of political orientation; II) social label definitions reflect distinct cognitive processes; and III) the lived experiences of undocumented students reflect the respective social environments of an urban and suburban community college. Participants in Study I were 744 (463 urban/272 suburban) young adults, all who were recruited from “New York Community College” (NYCC, urban) and “New Jersey Community College” (NYCC, suburban); participants in Study II were 14 (8 NYCC, 6 NJCC) young adults; and participants in Study III were 7 (4 NYCC, 3 NJCC) young adults. Participants in Study I were asked to complete an attitude on unauthorized immigrants scale, followed by the General System Justification scale, and finally a self-reported social label exposure measure. Participants in Study II were asked to generate definitions for the labels ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’. Participants in Study III were asked about their life experiences as undocumented young adults in either NY or NJ. Contrary to hypothesis I, statistical analysis demonstrated that the priming of social labels did not account for attitudes, but it was rather the participants’ college that reflected divergent attitudes. Moreover, urban college students reported seeing and hearing the term ‘undocumented’ more often from others, while suburban college students reported seeing and hearing the terms ‘illegal’ and ‘alien’ more. Values analysis in Study II demonstrated a pattern of dichotomous and legal-centered thinking with the ‘illegal’ definitions, while situational and circumstantial thinking was present with the ‘undocumented’ definitions. Values analysis in Study III reflected a pattern of shared and unshared beliefs and principles regarding themselves, others, and the future centered on “growing up undocumented” in NY and NJ. Specifically, regardless of location, students who reported being undocumented held values concerning perseverance and the need to hide their status but also to be understood by others; while depending on location, values either reflected the importance of improving one’s family condition, or one’s own personal trajectory. Findings are discussed in the context of the U.S. immigration debate discourse. Implications for understanding how the presence of others and social labels influence sociopolitical attitudes, as well as how social environment directly impacts psychological development in undocumented youth, are considered.