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University of California Press
Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America / Edition 1

Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America / Edition 1

by Roberto G. Gonzales, Jose Antonio Vargas
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“My world seems upside down. I have grown up but I feel like I’m moving backward. And I can’t do anything about it.” –Esperanza

Over two million of the nation’s eleven million undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States since childhood. Due to a broken immigration system, they grow up to uncertain futures. In Lives in Limbo, Roberto G. Gonzales introduces us to two groups: the college-goers, like Ricardo, who had good grades and a strong network of community support that propelled him to college and DREAM Act organizing but still landed in a factory job a few short years after graduation, and the early-exiters, like Gabriel, who failed to make meaningful connections in high school and started navigating dead-end jobs, immigration checkpoints, and a world narrowly circumscribed by legal limitations. This vivid ethnography explores why highly educated undocumented youth share similar work and life outcomes with their less-educated peers, despite the fact that higher education is touted as the path to integration and success in America. Mining the results of an extraordinary twelve-year study that followed 150 undocumented young adults in Los Angeles, Lives in Limbo exposes the failures of a system that integrates children into K-12 schools but ultimately denies them the rewards of their labor.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287266
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 92,025
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Roberto G. Gonzales is Professor of Education at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. His work has been featured in such social science journals as the American Sociological Review and Current Anthropology, as well as in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

Read an Excerpt

Lives in Limbo

Undocumented and Coming of Age in America

By Roberto G. Gonzales


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96241-5


Contested Membership over Time

It was what many had been hoping for: some sort of relief. But did it come too late? And was it enough? On the evening of Thursday, November 20, 2014, US president Barack Obama went on live television to announce a new administrative action to reform the US immigration system. Obama began, "Today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it. ... It's been this way for decades. And for decades, we haven't done much about it." Responding to growing discontent among immigrant rights groups, the president and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) together issued a memorandum expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program of 2012. DACA — instituted by a DHS directive rather than congressional action — provided temporary work permits and deportation relief to more than 664,000 young undocumented immigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood. The 2014 expansion announced by President Obama eliminated DACA's upper age ceiling of thirty-one years and introduced a new program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Permanent Residents (DAPA), to provide deportation relief and work permits to an estimated 3.5 million undocumented immigrants with US-born children.

The president's actions followed a series of aborted legislative attempts to provide the nation's eleven million undocumented immigrants with a pathway to legalization. Legislation targeting undocumented immigrant youth, formally known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, had gained some political traction since first being introduced in 2001 but had not been able to pass Congress. As time passed without congressional action, immigrant communities grew increasingly desperate for reform. Their world was shrinking. Ramped-up deportations sowed fear across the country. Every passing day presented another blocked opportunity to get an education or to work, to connect with family members in one's country of origin, and to make a true home in the United States.

These actions also came more than thirteen years after the initial introduction of the DREAM Act and many years of disappointment that young people and their families had experienced watching time go by without legislation being passed. Policy makers like to say that change takes time and occurs incrementally. But legislative decisions take place at a great distance from people's lived reality. For those waiting for immigration reform, time has been cruel and unyielding.

I was wrapping up this book and trying to figure out what these administrative changes would mean for a group of undocumented young adults in Los Angeles whom I had been following for nearly twelve years. I was especially curious about what this new program would mean for them, how they would respond, and who would be left out.

Back in Los Angeles, Maria Betancourt, one of the young people whose lives I had followed between 2003 and 2014, reacted to the president's announcement with mixed emotions. In 2012, she had been an undocumented resident eligible for the DACA program, and she had been excited to apply, saving for over six months to come up with the $465 application fee. But now, as a thirty-one-year-old with only a high school diploma, her DACA status was not sufficient to raise her standard of living. With her work permit, Maria was able to apply legitimately for a cashier job at a local drug store, but her hourly wage was not enough to lift her family out of poverty.

When she was younger, Maria had aspired to become a dental assistant. She had enrolled in community college but had quit by the end of the semester because her studies would be useless without "those nine digits." Now, even with the nine-digit social security number granted by DACA, Maria did not expect to be able to return to school. She had two children and was expecting a third. Her husband Ramon, also undocumented, was unable to apply for immigration relief or a work permit because of the long shadow cast by previous gang ties and crimes he had committed as a teenager.

In the November 2014 announcement, Obama forcefully argued, "We're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids." But the distinction between "criminals" and caring, productive family members was not so clear for the Betancourts. Ramon had worked hard over the years to establish a life removed from gang ties and to be a good husband and father. He had severed ties with many of the guys from his old neighborhood, he had begun volunteering at his church, and he had worked very hard so he could help to financially support his family. But the president's words provided no offer of relief for people like Ramon, no notion of rehabilitation. Though his crimes had been committed long ago, these new programs provided Ramon with little hope for the future. Despite his connection to his church, his many years of hard work, and the steps he had taken to get his life on track, Ramon was structurally locked out.

Across the country in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Esperanza Rivas was firmly situated among the politically "deserving" — with the exception of her undocumented status. In contrast to Ramon's criminal past, Esperanza's teen years made her a poster child for the proposed DREAM Act legislation. She had been adored by teachers and classmates alike when she was in high school in Long Beach, California, where she was at the top of her class, ran cross-country, and was a member of the marching band.

But time was not on Esperanza's side. When she graduated from the University of California in 2006, no federal programs existed to provide her with a legal work permit. She was forced to take a job from a narrow range of bad choices. She kept her hopes up by advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act with a group of friends, but her advocacy could not provide an escape from the strains of low-wage work and life "under the radar."

In 2012 Esperanza moved to Milwaukee to be close to her mom and sister. Even after receiving DACA status later that year, Esperanza struggled to support her one-year-old son as a single mom. She used her work permit to secure one job at a bank and another at a hotel — jobs similar to those she had held as an undocumented worker. At age thirty-two, her work history did not allow her to compete for jobs commensurate with a University of California education. "What sucks about this," she told me, "is yeah, I have a work permit. So what? I've missed out on so much time. While my friends have been busy building their careers with internships and entry-level jobs that have given them real experience, on the job, I've got to start from scratch. Nobody is going to hire a thirty-two-year-old for those jobs. Besides, it's hard to make any long-term plans. [DACA] isn't legal status. It's not citizenship. I don't know when it might end. I might get my hopes up and then I'm back where I was before. This is so tiring."

A change in immigration status years ago might have made a huge impact on Esperanza's life, but after years of lost opportunities its arrival is less consequential, as it is for many others like her. And for those like Maria, and especially Ramon, it just may have come too late. Now that they are in their early thirties, DACA fails to meet their fuller needs. What they require is an entire set of policies that would support and integrate them. Policies based on the deserving/undeserving distinction disadvantage far more of the population than they benefit, and do not even adequately address the life complexities of those singled out as "deserving."

Why do high-achieving undocumented young adults like Esperanza ultimately share similar work and life outcomes with their less educated peers, even as higher education is treated as the path to integration and success in America by politicians advocating for immigration reform? And what is the function of school if all of these young people are destined to be laborers? Drawing on interviews and fieldwork over nearly twelve years with 150 undocumented young adults in Los Angeles, this book provides some interesting answers.


Maria, Ramon, and Esperanza have much in common. All three were born in Mexico but migrated to the United States before the age of twelve and have spent most of their lives in Los Angeles. Their time lived in the United States provides them important experiences from which to make claims about their social membership, but their immigration status dramatically shrinks their everyday lives. Scholars refer to these young people as "Americans in waiting" and as "impossible subjects," but their experiences of belonging are far more complex than indicated by political or academic discourse. Indeed, a complex web of polarizing rhetoric regarding the place of immigrants in American society entangles the lives of these young undocumented Mexican immigrants. Descriptions such as "innocent" and "deserving" vie with ones such as "illegal" that conflate nationality, immigration status, and outsiderness.

Current academic debates on immigration focus on questions of membership and rights, joining a long tradition in social science that examines borders and exclusion from formal citizenship within the boundaries of liberal democratic states. The general public is also keenly interested in immigration issues and questions of inclusion and exclusion. Formal and informal, public and private conceptions of citizenship are tied to questions of belonging.

Historically, national membership has been defined in relation to a bounded community where the rules of legal citizenship set the parameters of belonging and exclusion. But recent work in the field of immigration studies takes a different view of membership, treating citizenship as "the rules and meanings of political and cultural membership." More and more scholars have been challenging the long-standing belief that the nation-state is the sole actor to determine membership and endow rights. Recent trends in globalization, human rights, and multiculturalism have made national boundaries less consequential for determining membership, and as persons with a long-term presence in receiving states undocumented immigrants like Maria, Ramon, and Esperanza enjoy spaces of belonging that supersede legal citizenship. Differing old and new views of membership raise critical questions about the relevance of territorial presence for belonging — they beg the question: is residing within a community sufficient grounds for asserting membership, or does one first need to be recognized as a member?

Scholarly debates around the definition of "citizenship" are not just abstractions; these debates have real consequences for the lives of non-citizens. Migrants today cross national borders in almost every Western nation, not only to work but also to make their homes. Increased global interdependence of capital and markets for goods, services, and workers has led to unprecedented levels of settlement of undocumented migrant populations in traditional immigrant-receiving countries as well as countries that have not historically seen significant levels of immigration. Undocumented migrants create families and establish homes in territories where they have come to work yet do not have full legal rights. Regulating undocumented (also known as unauthorized, irregular, or illegal) populations is a high-priority objective of national policy in host countries, with each nation finding its own answers to the questions of political inclusion and social welfare provision for undocumented residents.

Throughout my many years of community and academic work I have met hundreds of undocumented young people struggling to reconcile these conflicting meanings of membership. Despite wide acceptance of children as a protected class, countries like the United States face the growing challenge of how to best provide for children's well-being given the political popularity of strong enforcement stances and stringent policies against undocumented immigration. This tension has produced a broad range of responses, with implications for local communities, services, and protections. In many countries, the scales tip more toward enforcement than protection. Since the mid-1990s in the United States, immigration laws and enforcement practices have diminished noncitizens' rights and have made neighborhoods and public spaces insecure. Even mundane acts such as driving, waiting for the bus, or socializing in a public park can lead to police questioning, detention, and deportation. These trends instill fear and anxiety within large, settled immigrant populations that include citizens, legal immigrants, and undocumented residents. At the same time, however, policies aimed at integrating immigrants have increased their access to higher education, given them means to participate in local elections, and allowed them access to a baseline of services such as health care. These inclusionary acts provide important opportunities for undocumented residents to establish connections, form relationships, and participate in the day-to-day life of their communities.

Many immigrants living in the United States today belong to mixed-status families, where some members have some form of immigration status while others do not, and some members are adults and others are children. In this book I focus on undocumented members of what sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut termed the 1.5 generation, young people who were born in Mexico and who began their American lives as children. Together, undocumented immigrants like these number 2.1 million people; almost half of them are now adults.

Young people in the 1.5 generation were raised with the expectation that as adults they would find better opportunities than those afforded to their parents. Their schooling prepared them for better jobs. Instead, as undocumented Americans, they must reconsider their basic assumptions about the link between their efforts to acculturate and the rights they have as adults and must revise their long-standing expectations about their futures while watching their documented and American-born friends advance, weighing options and beginning careers. They must negotiate membership in the national community as part of a group that is culturally integrated but legally excluded. As sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee point out, "Assimilation ... happens to people while they are making other plans." The limitations faced by undocumented young people make clear that successful assimilation and full membership depend on the host country's willingness to include them. As the saying goes, "It takes two to tango."

This book wrestles with conflicting understandings of undocumented immigrants to reveal the gap between individual feelings of belonging and the exclusion enforced by the society in which they live. It focuses on undocumented Mexican young adults living in Los Angeles, California. Mexicans constitute the largest immigrant group in the United States. They also make up the largest share among undocumented immigrants. And more undocumented immigrants — the majority of whom are of Mexican descent — live in Los Angeles than any other place in the country. Given the racialized history of Mexicans in the United States, this book's framing questions of belonging and exclusion play out in complex ways. However, while the circumstances of undocumented Mexican youth merit special attention, it is important to point out that many of the issues raised in this book relate to the broader population of undocumented immigrant youth and young adults living in the United States.

For twelve years, I listened to the stories and observed the daily activities of young men and women with "roots on the wrong side of their lives." Their stories of being ni de aquí ni de allá (from neither here nor there) describe personal experiences of belonging and exclusion under the contemporary US immigration system. Sitting on factory benches, living room couches, and folding chairs in community centers across the five-county Los Angeles metropolitan area, I listened to personal narratives of belonging and exclusion and how these conflicting experiences often changed over time. Despite painful experiences of exclusion in their own lives, many of my respondents maintained faith in the American dream. And despite vitriolic public discourse and government practices designed to keep them at the margins, these young people found or fashioned ways to engage in the social and political life of their communities.

During my visits with these young people over the years, I have observed changes in their lives — different partners, new jobs, accumulated debt, and flattened aspirations. I have often been surprised by the ways in which they have responded to change. Despite the differences in their educational trajectories, they now view illegality as the most salient feature of their lives, trumping all of their achievements and overwhelming almost all of their other roles and identities.


Excerpted from Lives in Limbo by Roberto G. Gonzales. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas

1. Contested Membership over Time 2. Undocumented Young Adults in Los Angeles: College-Goers and Early Exiters
3. Childhood: Inclusion and Belonging
4. School as a Site of Belonging and Conflict
5. Adolescence: Beginning the Transition to Illegality
6. Early Exiters: Learning to Live on the Margins
7. College-Goers: Managing the Distance between Aspirations and Reality
8. Adulthood: How Immigration Status Becomes a Master Status
9. Conclusion: Managing Lives in Limbo


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