The leadership challenge: undocumented youths in social movement coalitions in the United States

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This article examines the challenges undocumented youths face when joining and leading social movement coalitions. It relies on a case study of New York and New Jersey to bridge the gap between the literatures on social movement coalitions and undocumented migration. I argue that the success of undocumented youths within a coalition depends on establishing and maintaining leadership over the movement. I show that leadership has implications on youths’ ability to manage movement structure and the diversity of goals across partner organizations. Not without difficulties, the New Jersey coalition assembled behind a single ‘face’ of the movement, streamlined its decision-making process and all members agreed to keep undocumented youths as the leaders of the movement. On the other hand, undocumented youths in New York joined a pre-existing coalition made up of ‘heavy weights’ with vast resources. They struggled to establish clear leadership over a vast coalition of groups with diverse objectives, not all of whom agreed to sacrifice some of their goals for the sake of undocumented youths. Ultimately, the diversity of goals within the New York coalition proved to be too great of an obstacle for the movement to be successful. The article is based on 72 interviews conducted in 2015 with young immigrant activists (documented and undocumented), community organizers, union members and elected officials involved in the campaigns for in-state tuition and state financial aid in New York and New Jersey.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)549-566
Number of pages18
JournalSocial Movement Studies
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2021


  • Undocumented youths
  • coalitions
  • diversity
  • leadership
  • state policy


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