Paradox of Performing Exceptionalism: Complicating the Deserving/ Underserving Binary of Undocumented Youth Attending Elite Institutions

  • Claudia A. Anguiano
  • Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera


This article examines the problematic labels of “deserving” and “undeserving” within a broader context of undocumented immigration. Specifically, we interrogate the categorization of “deservingness” that imposes distinctions between “good” versus “bad” immigrants. We demonstrate these categories are assumed and subverted by undocumented youth in order to challenge disempowerment and racism experienced at both an interpersonal and institutional level. Our findings reveal how narratives of hard work and perseverance mitigate stigma to help youth reframe narratives of “undeservingness” at a micro-level of analysis. By contrast, racialization shapes individuals’ experiences and motivations for activism at the macro-level. This study highlights narrative strategies used by youth to frame their accounts of inclusion and exclusion. It also contributes to the scholarship of undocumented youth in higher education through its examination of the experiences of Latin@ undocumented students in northeastern elite private institutions.