Week 12 Learning To Be Illegal Sociological Concept Reflection


In these short reflections, I expect you to synthesize and reflect on readings and lecture material to respond to the prompt. You can draw on material from outside class, but it is not necessary. Assignments will be graded on a pass/fail basis, and due on Saturday at 11:59 pm.

Week 12


: Consider the ways in which being labeled as a criminal has economic, social and psychological consequences. How is the labeling as criminal related to issues of race and discrimination? Think about our discussion of names earlier in the semester. What makes labels deeply sociological? Due April 13.


01GonzalesAmerican Sociological Review
Learning to Be Illegal:
Undocumented Youth and
Shifting Legal Contexts in the
Transition to Adulthood
American Sociological Review
76(4) 602­–619
© American Sociological
Association 2011
DOI: 10.1177/0003122411411901
Roberto G. Gonzalesa
This article examines the transition to adulthood among 1.5-generation undocumented Latino
young adults. For them, the transition to adulthood involves exiting the legally protected
status of K to 12 students and entering into adult roles that require legal status as the basis for
participation. This collision among contexts makes for a turbulent transition and has profound
implications for identity formation, friendship patterns, aspirations and expectations, and
social and economic mobility. Undocumented children move from protected to unprotected,
from inclusion to exclusion, from de facto legal to illegal. In the process, they must learn to be
illegal, a transformation that involves the almost complete retooling of daily routines, survival
skills, aspirations, and social patterns. These findings have important implications for studies
of the 1.5- and second-generations and the specific and complex ways in which legal status
intervenes in their coming of age. The article draws on 150 interviews with undocumented
1.5-generation young adult Latinos in Southern California.
immigrant incorporation, life course, unauthorized status, Latinos, illegality
During the past 25 years, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has
grown substantially, from an estimated 2.5
million in 1987 to 11.1 million today (Passel
2006; Passel and Cohn 2010).1 Scholars contend that this demographic trend is the unintended consequence of policies designed to
curb undocumented migration and tighten the
U.S.–Mexico border (Nevins 2010), transforming once-circular migratory flows into
permanent settlement (Cornelius and Lewis
2006; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002).
Making multiple migratory trips back and
forth became increasingly costly and dangerous throughout the 1990s and the first decade
of the twenty-first century, so more unauthorized migrants began creating permanent homes
in the United States. And they brought their
children with them. According to recent estimates, there are more than 2.1 million undocumented young people in the United States who
have been here since childhood. Of these,
more than a million are now adults (Batalova
and McHugh 2010). Relatively little is known
about this vulnerable population of young people, and their unique circumstances challenge
University of Chicago
Corresponding Author:
Roberto G. Gonzales, University of Chicago,
School of Social Service Administration, 969 East
60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
E-mail: rggonzal@uchicago.edu
assumptions about the incorporation patterns
of the children of immigrants and their transitions to adolescence and adulthood.
Building on prior scholarship about immigrant incorporation and the life course, this
article offers an up-close examination of the
ways in which public schooling and U.S.
immigration laws collide to produce a shift in
the experiences and meanings of illegal status
for undocumented youth at the onset of their
transition to adulthood. I am interested in how
these young people become aware of, and
come to understand, their status under the
law—that is, when they begin to notice their
legal difference and its effects, and how they
experience this shift as they move through
late adolescence and young adulthood. The
multiple transformations that undocumented
youth experience have important implications
for their identity formation, friendship patterns, aspirations and expectations, and social
and economic mobility, and they also signal
movement of a significant subset of the U.S.
immigrant population into a new, disenfranchised underclass. In developing a conceptual
and theoretical map of how undocumented
youth learn to be illegal, this article identifies
important mechanisms that mediate transitions to adulthood for the children of immigrants. Therefore, it helps us understand the
consequences of non-legal status for undocumented youth as they move from protected to
unprotected status, from inclusion to exclusion, and from de facto legal to illegal, during
their final years of secondary schooling.
Undocumented Youth
And Shifting Contexts
Assimilation and Public Schooling
As today’s children of immigrants come of
age, contemporary immigration scholarship
challenges the conventional expectation that
they will follow a linear generational process
of assimilation into mainstream U.S. life (Gans
1992; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Portes and
Zhou 1993). Much current theorizing has
moved away from a singular focus on human
capital toward nuanced approaches that more
fully appreciate the context of reception (Portes
1981; Portes and Bach 1985; Portes and
Rumbaut 2006). This approach stresses that
multiple factors channel the children of immigrants into different segments of society
(Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 2006; Portes and
Zhou 1993). Studies suggest that increasing
fault lines of inequality along race and ethnicity, poor public schools, and differential access
to today’s labor market may cause recent
immigrants’ children to do less well than the
children of previous waves (Gans 1992; Portes
and Rumbaut 2001, 2006; Portes and Zhou
1993; Rumbaut 1997, 2005, 2008; Zhou 1997).
Given the changes in the U.S. economy
and labor market, educational attainment has
become critical to the social mobility of all
children, and the link between school outcomes and future success is a thread that runs
throughout much of the literature (Kasinitz
et al. 2008; Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 2006;
Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco 1995;
Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, and Todorova 2008; Waters 1999; Zhou and Bankston
1998). While some young people with modest
levels of education manage to find skilled
blue-collar jobs, most need a college degree
to qualify for jobs that offer decent wages,
benefits, job security, and the possibility of
advancement. Children from poor and minority families, however, have historically experienced difficulty attaining significant levels
of education (Alba and Nee 2003; Portes and
Rumbaut 2001; Telles and Ortiz 2008). Disadvantaged students are particularly harmed
by highly differentiated curricula and de facto
tracking (Lucas and Berends 2002; Oakes
1985), although scholars have found that supplementary educational programs (Zhou
2008), extrafamily mentors (Portes and
Fernandez-Kelly 2008; Smith 2008), and positive support networks (Stanton-Salazar 2001)
can help overcome these disadvantages.
For generations, the public school system
has been the principal institution that educates
and integrates the children of immigrants into
the fabric of U.S. society. This is especially
true today, as more immigrant children spend
more waking hours in school than ever before.
Suárez-Orozco and colleagues (2008:2–3)
identify public schools’ critical role in shaping
immigrant youths’ understanding of their place
in society: “It is in school where, day in and
day out, immigrant youth come to know teachers and peers from majority culture as well as
newcomers from other parts of the world. It is
in schools that immigrant youth develop academic knowledge and, just as important, form
perceptions of where they fit in the social reality and cultural imagination of their new
nation.” Certainly, the role of public schools is
increasingly critical, as the returns on education have sharply increased over the past few
decades. But public schools’ socialization
mechanisms are also powerful catalysts for
promoting the acculturation processes of the
children of immigrants. Schools foster what
Rumbaut (1997:944) calls a “unity of experiences and orientation” among their pupils that
aid in the development of a “community of
purpose and action” with “primary social contacts.” This assimilating experience is profoundly different from what most adult
immigrants encounter. While their parents may
be absorbed into low-wage labor markets and
often work with co-ethnics who speak their
language and share their cultural practices,
children are integrated into the school system,
where they grow up side-by-side with the
native-born (Gleeson and Gonzales forthcoming). Their “unity of experiences” with friends
and classmates promotes feelings of togetherness and inclusion (Rumbaut 1997:944), and
these feelings, in turn, shape immigrant youths’
identification and experience of coming of age.
Today’s Children of Immigrants Come
of Age
Scholarly consensus on contemporary transitions to adulthood suggests that the process of
coming of age is taking much longer today
(Furstenberg et al. 2002). In particular, young
people are spending more time in postsecondary schooling and are delaying exit from the
parental household, entry into full-time work,
and decisions about marriage and children
(Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut 2005).
American Sociological Review 76(4)
Life-course scholars traditionally define
the transition to adulthood in terms of five
milestones or markers: completing school,
moving out of the parental home, establishing
employment, getting married, and becoming
a parent. The developmentally dense period
of transition entails a large number of shifts
out of roles that support and foster childlike
dependence and into roles that confer adulthood in a relatively short time (Rindfuss
1991). Drawing from Erikson’s (1950) early
work, life-course scholarship views the transition to adulthood as composed of adolescence (ages 12 to 17 years) and young
adulthood (ages 18 to 35 years). Yet recent
decades have brought significant shifts in the
roles of social institutions as well as changes
in the opportunities for entry into the labor
market. By delaying entry into the workforce
in favor of additional education, young adults
build human capital that will make them more
competitive in the high-skilled labor market.
Some parents aid this process by assisting
children over a longer period and using financial resources to help pay for college, providing down payments for their children’s first
homes, or defraying some of the costs associated with having children (Rumbaut and
Komaie 2010). Theorists have responded to
these changes by conceptually disaggregating
young adulthood into shorter periods of time
that better define contemporary transitions
and permit a better understanding of the relationship between broader contexts and life
transitions. Arnett (2000) adds emerging
adulthood, a stage between adolescence and
young adulthood, roughly between ages 18
and 25 years, and Rumbaut (2005) differentiates between the early transition (18 to 24
years), the middle transition (25 to 29 years),
and the late transition (30 to 34 years).
Within the larger national context of
coming of age, scholars have uncovered key
differences by social class, country of
origin, nativity, and immigrant generation
(Mollenkopf et al. 2005; Rumbaut and
Komaie 2010). Many youngsters from
less-advantaged immigrant households put
off postsecondary schooling because their
parents are not able to provide financial
assistance or because they carry considerable
financial responsibilities in their households
that make it impossible for them to make tuition payments (Fuligni and Pedersen 2002;
Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco 1995).
Many of the 1.5 and second generations of
certain immigrant groups are in reciprocal
financial relationships with their parents,
often even supporting them (Rumbaut and
Komaie 2010). As a result, they do not enjoy
the same degree of freedom from the stresses
and responsibilities of adult roles. These
differences suggest that we should expect the
children of immigrants—documented and
undocumented alike—to experience coming
of age differently from the native-born.
Conceptualizing the Transition to
Illegality for Undocumented Youth
For undocumented youth, the transition into
adulthood is accompanied by a transition into
illegality that sets them apart from their peers.
Undocumented youngsters share a confusing
and contradictory status in terms of their legal
rights and the opportunities available to them
(Abrego 2008; Gonzales 2007). On the one
hand, because of the Supreme Court ruling in
Plyler v. Doe (1982), they have the legal right
to a K to 12 education.2 Furthermore, the
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
prevents schools from releasing any information from students’ records to immigration
authorities, making school a protected space in
which undocumented status has little to no
negative effect. On the other hand, undocumented young adults cannot legally work,
vote, receive financial aid, or drive in most
states, and deportation remains a constant
threat. Unauthorized residency status thus has
little direct impact on most aspects of childhood but is a defining feature of late adolescence and adulthood and can prevent these
youth from following normative pathways to
adulthood. Therefore, coupled with family
poverty, illegal status places undocumented
youth in a developmental limbo. As family
need requires them to make significant financial contributions and to assume considerable
responsibility for their own care, they become
less likely to linger in adolescence. At the same
time, legal restrictions keep them from participating in many adult activities, leaving them
unable to complete important transitions.
Researchers studying immigrant incorporation and the life course have not systematically considered the effects of the legal
context on the children of immigrants, that is,
the specific challenges facing undocumented
immigrant youth and their complex and contradictory routes to adulthood. Current scholarship is limited to conjecture based on what
is known in general about children of immigrants from low-skilled groups. Failure to
focus on legal status also limits what we
know about the linkages between important
mechanisms such as education and social
mobility. K to 12 schooling certainly plays an
important role in the development and integration of immigrant children, but significant
questions remain about how undocumented
status shapes educational trajectories and
how, in turn, it affects the link between educational attainment and social and economic
mobility. The scant existing research on
undocumented youth notes that undocumented status depresses aspirations (Abrego
2006) and sensitizes them to the reality that
they are barred from integrating legally, educationally, and economically into U.S. society
(Abrego 2008).
For conceptual help, I turn to recent
advances in the literature that move beyond the
binary categories of documented and undocumented to explore the ways in which migrants
move between different statuses and the mechanisms that allow them to be regular in one
sense and irregular in another. In describing
the experiences of Salvadoran migrants caught
in the legal limbo of Temporary Protected Status, and their feelings of being legally and
socially in-between, Menjívar (2006) introduced the concept of liminal legality. This
phrase underscores that documented and undocumented categories do not adequately capture
the gray areas experienced by many migrants.
Menjívar’s analysis builds on Coutin’s (2000)
exploration of the contradictions that lie
between migrants’ physical and social presence and their official designation as illegal.
Several other scholars have called for a shift
from generally studying unauthorized migrants
and migrations to a more deliberate investigation of the mechanisms that produce and sustain what they term migrant illegality (Coutin
2000; De Genova 2002; Ngai 2004; Willen
2007). This deliberate shift in focus allows us
to pay attention to the effects laws have on
migrants’ day-to-day lives, revealing the ways
in which undocumented persons experience
inclusion and exclusion and how these experiences can change over time, in interactions
with different persons, and across various
spaces. It also points to the two-sided nature of
citizenship, which can allow the same person,
citizen or not, to experience belonging in one
context but not in another.
Portes and Rumbaut (2006) emphasize
that it is the combination of positive and
negative contexts that determines the distinct
modes of immigrants’ incorporation. While
school contexts foster expectations and aspirations that root undocumented youngsters in
the United States (Abrego 2006), they leave
these young people grossly unprepared for
what awaits them in adulthood. This article
focuses on the interactions between such
favorable and unfavorable contexts during
what I call the transition to illegality. I conceptualize this process as the set of experiences that result from shifting contexts along
the life course, providing different meanings
to undocumented status and animating the
experience of illegality at late adolescence
and into adulthood. The transition to illegality
brings with it a period of disorientation,
whereby undocumented youth confront legal
limitations and their implications and engage
in a process of retooling and reorienting
themselves for new adult lives. But this process is not uniform among undocumented
youth. Previous qualitative work on youth
populations coming of age has uncovered key
mechanisms within the school setting that
shape divergent trajectories (MacLeod 1987;
Willis 1977). Because comparisons between
differently achieving youth may help to more
American Sociological Review 76(4)
clearly identify mechanisms that mediate
undocumented status during the transition
to adulthood, I compare the experiences of
college-going young adults (i.e., collegegoers) with those who exit the education
system after high school graduation or earlier
(i.e., early-exiters).
While many recent immigrants have dispersed to new destination states in the South
and the Midwest (Marrow 2009; Massey
2008; Singer 2004; Zúñiga and HernándezLeón 2005), California remains home to the
largest undocumented immigrant population
in the country. The numbers of undocumented
immigrants from countries outside of Latin
America have risen slightly since 2000, but
immigrants from Mexico continue to account
for the majority. In fact, no other sending
country constitutes even a double-digit share
of the total (Passel and Cohn 2009). I thus
focus on Mexican-origin immigrants in
California, drawing on 150 individual semistructured interviews with 1.5-generation
young adults ages 20 to 34 years (who
migrated before the age of 12). The interviews focused on respondents’ experiences
growing up in Southern California without
legal status. Such close study of the 1.5 generation permits an examination of the unique
ways in which undocumented status is experienced in childhood and adolescence
(Rumbaut 2004; Smith 2006).
Until very recently, it has been difficult to
study undocumented young adults like those
interviewed for this study because their numbers have been prohibitively small. Researching hard-to-reach populations adds layers of
difficulty, time, and cost to any study. While
previous large-scale efforts have been successful at locating and interviewing undocumented Mexicans on both sides of the
U.S.–Mexico border, and have provided useful direction for random sampling,3 today’s
anti-immigrant climate and localized immigration enforcement present challenges to
finding respondents in the United States.
Table 1. Educational Attainment of Study Participants by Gender (N = 150)
High School Dropout
High School Graduate
2+ Years Community College
University Enrollment
Bachelor’s Degree
Advanced Degree
These conditions lead many unauthorized
migrants to be more fearful in their everyday
lives, thus posing significant challenges to
random sampling efforts. Data collection for
this study involved nearly four and a half years
of field work in the periods 2003 to 2007 and
2008 to 2009, during which I conducted interviews and did additional ethnographic research
in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.4 I began
conducting interviews after spending lengthy
periods of time in the field gaining a rapport
with respondents and community stakeholders.
I recruited respondents from various settings,
including continuation schools, community
organizations, college campuses, and churches.
After gaining trust, I accompanied respondents
throughout their school and work days, volunteered at local schools and organizations, and
sat in on numerous community meetings. I
built on the initial group of respondents by
using snowball sampling to identify subsequent respondents.
All 150 1.5-generation respondents interviewed spent much of their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood with undocumented
status. With the exception of eight Central
Americans (Guatemalan and Salvadoran), all
were born in Mexico. I drew the sample from
the five-county Los Angeles Metropolitan
Area, and respondents come from all five
counties. Most had parents who were undocumented (92 percent) and had fewer than six
years of schooling (86 percent). Most respondents were also raised by two parents; onequarter were raised by single parents and six
were raised by other family members.
I designed the sampling process to include
relatively equal numbers of males and females
(71 males and 79 females) and equal numbers
of individuals who dropped out of or completed high school (73) and those who
attended some college (77) (see Tables 1 and
2). Of the 77 college respondents, nine had
advanced degrees at the time of the interview,
22 had earned bachelor’s degrees, 26 were
enrolled in four-year universities, and 20
were enrolled in or had attended community
college. The majority attended a California
public college or university. Of the 73
respondents who exited school at or before
high school graduation, 31 had not earned a
high school degree at the time of interview,
and 42 had high school diplomas.
The life history interviews included questions regarding respondents’ pasts and their
present lives as well as future expectations and
aspirations. Interviews ranged in length from 1
hour and 40 minutes to 3 hours and 20 minutes.
To analyze interview transcripts, I used open
coding techniques. I placed conceptual labels
on responses that described discrete events,
experiences, and feelings reported in the
interviews. Next, I analyzed each individual
interview across all questions to identify metathemes. Finally, I examined responses for common meta-themes across all interviews.
The Transition To
To better conceptualize the ways in which
legal status affects the transition to illegality,
American Sociological Review 76(4)
Table 2. Age Distribution of Study Participants by Educational Attainment (N = 150)
20 to 25 Years
26 to 30 Years
31 to 34 Years
I focus on three transition periods—discovery
(ages 16 to 18 years), learning to be illegal
(ages 18 to 24 years), and coping (ages 25 to
29 years). While the life-course literature
defines the early and middle transitions as
ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 29, respectively, I add
an earlier period to capture the awakening to
newfound legal limitations, which elicits a
range of emotional reactions and begins a
process of altered life-course pathways and
adult transitions. Next, as undocumented
youth enter early adulthood, they engage in a
parallel process of learning to be illegal.
During this period, many find difficulty connecting with previous sources of support to
navigate the new restrictions on their lives
and to mitigate their newly stigmatized identities. At this stage, undocumented youth are
forced to alter earlier plans and reshape their
aspirations for the future. Finally, the coping
period involves adjusting to lowered aspirations and coming to grips with the possibility
that their precarious legal circumstances may
never change.
Discovery: Ages 16 to 18
Most life-course scholars focus on age 18 as
a time of dramatic change for young people.
In the United States, 18 is the age of majority,
the legal threshold of adulthood when a child
ceases to be considered a minor and assumes
control over his actions and decisions. This is
traditionally the time when young people exit
high school and enter college or full-time
work. Yet young people adopt semi-adult
roles, such as working and driving, while still
in high school. Most respondents in this study
began to experience dramatic shifts in their
daily lives and future outlooks around age 16.
Because public schooling provided respondents with an experience of inclusion atypical of
undocumented adult life in the United States
(Bean, Telles, and Lowell 1987; Chavez
1991, 1998), respondents spent their childhood and early adolescence in a state of suspended illegality, a buffer stage wherein they
were legally integrated and immigration status rarely limited activities. Through school,
respondents developed aspirations rooted in
the belief that they were part of the fabric of
the nation and would have better opportunities than their parents (Gans 1992). They
learned to speak English, developed tastes,
joined clubs, dated, and socialized—all
alongside their U.S.-born and legal resident
peers. During this period, school-based relationships with peers and adults provided key
sources of support and identity formation
(Portes and Fernandez-Kelly 2008). As Marisol, a college-goer, explained, relationships
with teachers and friends provided a comfortable space for many like her to learn and
develop: “School was an escape from home. I
felt happy, calm. . . . I could be myself. I
could be recognized at school. My teachers
encouraged me to keep going. And my
friends, we believed in education and pushed
each other. We helped each other with homework and talked about college.”
Such positive relationships, however, were
not uniformly experienced by respondents.
Many early-exiters (those who left the school
system at or before completion of high school)
recounted feeling disconnected from school
and lacking significant relationships with
teachers or counselors. They felt they were
left to fall through the cracks and cut off from
important services; they also reported having
limited visits with counselors. Juan, for example, did not meet with a college counselor
until late in his junior year. “I wanted to go to
college,” he told me, “but the counselors
didn’t let me know the requirements for fouryear colleges. I tried to go to see them, but
they didn’t have time for me.” Nevertheless,
even respondents who reported having trouble in school believed they would have more
options than their parents. Eric, an earlyexiter who grew up in Riverside County, told
me he had grown up thinking he was going to
have a “better life”: “I saw my older [U.S.born] cousins get good jobs. I mean, they’re
not lawyers or anything like that, but they’re
not in restaurants or mowing lawns. I thought,
yeah, when I graduate from school, I can
make some good money, maybe even go to
Respondents uniformly noted a jolting
shift at around age 16, when they attempted to
move through rites of passage associated with
their age. Life-course scholars refer to critical
events in one’s life as “turning points” that
“knife off” past from present and restructure
routine activities and life-course pathways
(Elder 1987:452). These turning points can
enable identity transitions and set into motion
processes of cumulative advantage and disadvantage (Rumbaut 2005). For undocumented
youth, the process of coming of age is a critical turning point that has consequences for
subsequent transitions. Finding a part-time
job, applying for college, and obtaining a
driver’s license—all markers of new roles
and responsibilities—require legal status as a
basis for participation.
As respondents tried to take these steps
into adult life, they were blocked by their
lack of a Social Security number. These incidents proved to be life changing and were
often accompanied by the realization that
they were excluded from a broad range of
activities. Rodolfo, an early-exiter who is
now 27 years old, spoke of his first experience of exclusion:
I never actually felt like I wasn’t born here.
Because when I came I was like 10 and a
half. I went to school. I learned the language. I first felt like I was really out of
place when I tried to get a job. I didn’t have
a Social Security number. Well, I didn’t
even know what it meant. You know Social
Security, legal, illegal. I didn’t even know
what that was.
Until this time, Rodolfo had never needed
proof of legal residency. The process of looking for a job made the implications of his lack
of legal status real to him for the first time.
Like Rodolfo, many early-exiters (a little over
68 percent, see Table 3) made such discoveries
while applying for jobs or for driver’s licenses.
On the other hand, as Table 3 shows, most
college-goers (almost 60 percent) reported
finding out they were undocumented in the
course of the college application process.
Jose, for example, was on the academic
decathlon and debate teams. He did well in
school and was well-liked by teachers. During his junior year, he attempted to enroll in
classes at the community college to earn college credits. But without a Social Security
number, he could not move forward.
While most respondents did not know of
their unauthorized status until their teenage
years, some reported knowing in childhood.
This was more true of early-exiters (almost
30 percent, compared with a little over 9 percent among college-goers), many of whom
lived in households where older siblings had
gone through the process of discovery before
them. But even these respondents did not
realize the full implications their illegal status
would have for their futures until much later.
Being undocumented only became salient
when matched with experiences of exclusion.
Early-exiter Lorena started cleaning houses
with her mother and sisters at age 12. Even
before she began working, reminders from
her mother made her aware that she did not
have “papers.” But she explained to me that
“it really hit home” when she tried to branch
out to other work in high school and was
asked for her Social Security number.
American Sociological Review 76(4)
Table 3. Study Participants’ Discovery of Illegal Status, by Educational Attainment (N = 150)
Knew as Children
Discovered through Work
Discovered through Driving
School Activity
College/Financial Aid
Discovery of illegal status prompted reactions of confusion, anger, frustration, and
despair among respondents, followed by a
period of paralyzing shock. Most respondents
conveyed that they were not prepared for the
dramatic limits of their rights. They struggled
to make sense of what had happened to them,
many feeling as though they had been lied to.
“I always thought I would have a place when I
grew up,” David, an early-exiter, told me.
“Teachers make you believe that. It’s all a lie.
A big lie.” They often blamed teachers and
parents for their feelings of anger and frustration. Cory, a college-goer, locked herself in her
bedroom for an entire week. When she finally
emerged, she moved out of her parents’ house,
blaming them for “keeping [her] in the dark
during childhood.” Cory said: “They thought
that by the time I graduated I would have my
green card. But they didn’t stop to think that
this is my life. . . . Everything I believed in was
a big lie. Santa Claus was not coming down the
chimney, and I wasn’t going to just become
legal. I really resented them.”
Respondents reported that soon after these
discoveries, they experienced a second shock
as they came to realize that the changes they
were experiencing would adversely affect
their remaining adult lives. As they came to
grips with the new meanings of unauthorized
status, they began to view and define themselves differently. Miguel, a college-goer who
has been caught in the part-time cycle of community college and work for six years, told
me: “During most of high school, I thought I
had my next 10 years laid out. College and
law school were definitely in my plans. But
when my mom told me I wasn’t legal, everything was turned upside down. I didn’t know
what to do. I couldn’t see my future anymore.” Miguel’s entire identity was transformed, and the shift placed him, like many
other respondents, in a state of limbo. Cory
put it this way: “I feel as though I’ve experienced this weird psychological and legalstunted growth. I’m stuck at 16, like a clock
that has stopped ticking. My life has not
changed at all since then. Although I’m 22, I
feel like a kid. I can’t do anything adults do.”
Respondents’ illegality was paired with a
movement into stigmatized status that reinforced their legal exclusion. While laws limited their access to grown-up activities and
responsibilities, fears of being found out
curbed their interactions with teachers and
peers. Ironically, while many respondents
believed they had been lied to in childhood,
they adopted lying themselves as a daily survival strategy that separated them from the
very peer networks that had provided support
and shaped a positive self-image. Many
reported they were afraid of what their friends
would think or how they would react if they
learned of their illegal status. These fears
were validated by observations of friends’
behavior. Chuy, a college-goer who played
sports throughout school, explained that after
he saw a teammate on his high school soccer
team berate players on an opposing team as
“wetbacks” and “illegals,” he was reticent to
disclose his status even to good friends. “I
grew up with this guy,” he said. “We had
classes together and played on the same team
for like four years. But wow, I don’t know
what he would say if he knew I was one of
those wetbacks.”
Frustration with the present, uncertainty
about the future, and the severing of support
systems caused many respondents to withdraw, with detrimental effects on their
progress during the last half of high school
(see also Abrego 2006; Suárez-Orozco et al.
2008). In my interview with Sandra, an earlyexiter, she recalled her struggles during junior
year: “I felt the world caving in on me. What
was I going to do? I couldn’t ask my parents.
They didn’t know about college or anything.
I was kind of quiet in school, so I didn’t really
know my teachers. Besides, I was scared.
What would they do if they knew? I was
scared and alone.” Throughout high school,
Luis, an early-exiter, hoped to attend college.
During the latter part of his sophomore year,
his grades fell considerably. As a result, he
did not meet the requirements to gain entrance
into the University of California system. His
girlfriend convinced him to apply to the
lower-tier California State University, but
when he found out he was not eligible for
financial aid, he gave up: “It took a while to
get accepted. But I ended up not going
(because of ) financial aid. . . . It just kinda
brought down my spirit, I guess.” Like
Sandra and Luis, many respondents had done
moderately well in school before the cumulative disadvantages resulting from the transition to illegality caused them to lose
motivation to continue. Lacking trusting relationships with teachers or counselors who
could help them, they ended up exiting school
much earlier than they had planned (Gonzales
Nationally, 40 percent of undocumented
adults ages 18 to 24 do not complete high
school, and only 49 percent of undocumented
high school graduates go to college. Youths
who arrive in the United States before the age
of 14 fare slightly better: 72 percent finish
high school, and of those, 61 percent go on to
college. But these figures are still much lower
than the numbers for U.S.-born residents
(Passel and Cohn 2009). The combination of
scarce family resources and exclusion from
financial aid at the state5 and federal levels
makes the path to higher education very steep
for undocumented high school students. Estimates reveal that as few as 5 to 10 percent of
all undocumented high school graduates ever
reach postsecondary institutions (Passel
2003), and the vast majority attend community colleges (Flores 2010). In several states,
laws allowing undocumented students to pay
in-state tuition have increased the number of
high school graduates matriculating to college over the past decade (Flores 2010).
Nonetheless, steep financial barriers prohibit
many undocumented youth from enrolling in
While depressed motivation contributed to
many respondents’ early exit from the school
system, limited financial resources within their
families and a general lack of information
about how to move forward also played a part
in causing early departures. Karina, an earlyexiter, maintained a B average in her generaltrack high school classes. When she applied to
college, she had no guidance. Unaware of a
California provision that should have made it
possible for her to attend school at in-state tuition rates, Karina opted not to go to college: “I
didn’t know anything about AB 540.6 Maybe if
I knew the information I could have gotten a
scholarship or something. That’s why I didn’t
go. I don’t know if my counselors knew, but
they never told me anything.”
The experiences of successful collegegoers, by contrast, unlock a key variable to
success missing from the narratives of earlyexiters: trusting relationships with teachers or
other adults. Portes and Fernandez-Kelly
(2008:26) find evidence linking school success to the presence of what they call “really
significant others” who “possess the necessary knowledge and experience” and “take a
keen interest in [their students], motivate
[them] to graduate from high school and to
attend college.” When Marisol began to
exhibit decreasing levels of motivation, for
instance, her English teacher was there to
intervene. Although Marisol felt embarrassed,
she was able to talk frankly with her teacher
because they had developed a trusting relationship. As a reward for her trust, Marisol’s
teacher helped her obtain information about
college and also took up a collection among
other teachers to pay for her first year of tuition at the community college.
Most college-goers reported they had
formed trusting relationships with teachers,
counselors, and other mentors in high school.
These respondents were concentrated in the
advanced curriculum tracks in high school;
the smaller and more supportive learning
environments gave them access to key school
personnel. Compared to early-exiters, they
disclosed their problems more easily and
were able to draw on relationships of trust to
seek out and receive help. At critical times
when the students’ motivations were low,
these relationships meant the difference
between their leaving school or going to college. When difficulties arose during the college admissions process for college-goer
Jose, for instance, he went straight to his
counselor, with positive results. The counselor called the college and found out about
the availability of aid through AB 540, which
neither he nor Jose had been aware of.
Learning to Be Illegal: Ages 18 to 24
For the children of unauthorized parents, success means improving on the quality of jobs
and opportunities. Many youths end up only a
small step ahead, however. Lacking legal status and a college degree, early-exiters confront some of the same limited and limiting
employment options as their parents.
Economic circumstances and family need
force them to make choices about working
and driving illegally. Nearly all respondents
contributed money to their families, averaging nearly $300 per month. After high school,
early-exiter Oscar, who at 27 still gives his
parents $500 a month, moved through a string
of short stints in the workforce, not staying in
any one job more than six months at a time.
American Sociological Review 76(4)
He quit jobs because he was dissatisfied with
the meager wages and generally uneasy about
the ways in which employers treated him.
Each new job proved no better than the previous one. Over time, Oscar realized he had few
job choices outside of physical labor: “I
wasn’t prepared to do that kind of work. . . .
It’s tough. I come home from work tired
every day. I don’t have a life. . . . It’s not like
I can get an office job. I’ve tried to get something better, but I’m limited by my situation.”
The effects of stress and difficult work took
their toll on other respondents. Simon, who
used to play piano, showed me calluses and
cuts on his hands. “Can you believe this? I’m
so far away from those days,” he said. Janet,
who has been employed by various maid services, told me she cried every day after work for
the first two months: “I can’t believe this is my
life. When I was in school I never thought I’d
be doing this. I mean, I was never an honors
student, but I thought I would have a lot better
job. It’s really hard, you know. I make beds, I
clean toilets. The sad thing is when I get paid.
I work this hard, for nothing.” Janet and others
expressed difficulty coming to terms with the
narrow range of bad options their illegal status
forced on them.
While financial need forced respondents
into the workforce, lack of experience put
them at a disadvantage in the low-wage job
sector, where they became part of the same
job pool as their parents and other family
members who have much less education but
more work experience. During Josue’s final
year of high school, his grandparents, who
had raised him since childhood, decided to
move. Instead of enrolling in a new school,
Josue decided to try his luck in the labor market. But he soon realized what a great disadvantage his lack of experience was:
[At first] I thought, “I’m not gonna bust my
ass for someone who can be yelling at me
for like $5.75, five bucks an hour.” Hell no.
If I get a job, I wanna get paid 20 bucks an
hour. I speak English. But actually I didn’t
have any experience. So, it’s really hard to
get a job. Especially now, because those
kinds of jobs . . . they’re looking for a more
experienced person who knows how to work
in the field and ain’t gonna complain.
Respondents also recounted difficulty
negotiating precarious situations because
their undocumented status forced them to
confront experiences for which K to 12
schooling did not prepare them. Pedro found
himself in legal trouble when, after completing a day job, he tried to cash his check at the
local currency exchange. A teller called
Pedro’s employer to verify its legitimacy, and
he denied writing the check and called the
police. When the police arrived, they found
multiple sets of identification in Pedro’s possession and took him to jail for identity fraud.
This incident awoke Pedro to the reality that
his inexperience with undocumented life
could have grave consequences, including
arrest and even deportation.
Given the limited employment options
available to undocumented youth, moving on
to college becomes critical. Making a successful transition to postsecondary schooling
requires a number of favorable circumstances,
however, including sufficient money to pay
for school, family permission to delay or
minimize work, reliable transportation, and
external guidance and assistance. Respondents who enjoyed such conditions were able
to devote their time to school and, equally
important, avoid activities and situations that
would place them in legal trouble. As a result,
they suspended many of the negative consequences of unauthorized status.
When I met Rosalba, she had associate’s,
bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Her parents
had prohibited her from working, thus allowing her to concentrate fully on school.
Throughout her time in school, she benefited
from assistance from a number of caring individuals. “I’ve made it because I’ve had a support system,” she said:
At every step of my education, I have had a
mentor holding my hand. It’s a thousand
times harder without someone helping you.
Being undocumented, it’s not about what
you know, it’s who you know. You might
have all of the will in the world, but if you
don’t know the right people, then as much as
you want to, you’re gonna have trouble
doing it.
When I interviewed Nimo, he was in his
final year of college and considering graduate
school. His college years had been enjoyable,
lacking many of the stressors of legal limitations. A financial sponsor paid his tuition and
fees and provided money for books. Nimo
worked only minimally, because his mother
did not ask for his financial assistance. He
was usually able to secure rides to and from
school; on other days, he took the bus.
Although the two-hour commute each way
was time consuming, the time allowed him to
“read and think.” Nimo’s case is exceptional,
but it is also instructive. Without the various
barriers of financing college, supporting family, and having to work and drive, he was able
to concentrate on school. As a result, he maintained a positive attitude and has high aspirations for his future.
Many other respondents, however, found
postsecondary education to be a discontinuous
experience, with frequent stalls and detours.
Several took leaves of absence, and others
enrolled in only one school term per year.
Faced with the need to work, few scholarships,
debt, and long commutes, these respondents
managed to attend college, but completing
their schooling was an arduous task that
required them to be creative, keep their costs
low, and in many cases join early-exiters in the
low-wage labor market. Several respondents’
dreams of higher education did not materialize
because financial burdens became too overwhelming. Margarita, for example, aspired to
be a pharmacist, but after two years of community college, her mother started asking her
to pay her share of the rent. She left school to
clean houses, which she had been doing for
almost four years when I met her.
Coping: Ages 25 to 29
The impact of not having legal residency status becomes particularly pronounced for
respondents in their mid-20s, when prolonged
experiences of illegality force them to begin
viewing their legal circumstances as more
permanent. By this time, most young adults in
the United States have finished school, left
the parental home, and are working full-time.
They have also started to see the returns on
their education in better jobs and have gained
increased independence from their parents.
Although sharp differences in educational
returns persist among legal young adults, I
found a high degree of convergence among
college-goers and early-exiters as they finished the transition to illegality. By their mid20s, both sets of respondents held similar
occupations. While both groups were also
starting to leave the parental home, earlyexiters were already settled into work routines. Years on the job had provided them
with experience and improved their human
capital. Many had let go of hopes for career
mobility long ago, opting instead for security
and stability. While college-going respondents spent much of their late teens and early
20s in institutions of higher learning, by their
mid-20s most were out of school and learning
that they had few legal employment options,
despite having attained advanced degrees.
In his study of working-class youth in
Clarendon Heights, MacLeod (1987) chronicled the experiences of two groups of differently achieving working-class students as
they came to realize their limitations in the
job market. As their aspirations flattened over
time, they put a “lid on hope” (p. 62). For my
respondents, day-to-day struggles, stress, and
the ever-present ceiling on opportunities similarly forced them to acknowledge the distance between their prior aspirations and
present realities. The realization was especially poignant for those who managed to
complete degrees but ultimately recognized
that the years of schooling did not offer much
advantage in low-wage labor markets—the
only labor markets to which they had access.
These are young people who grew up
believing that because their English mastery
and education surpassed those of their parents, they would achieve more. Instead, they
came face-to-face with the limits on their
American Sociological Review 76(4)
opportunities—often a very unsettling experience. Early-exiter Margarita underscored this
I graduated from high school and have taken
some college credits. Neither of my parents
made it past fourth grade, and they don’t
speak any English. But I’m right where they
are. I mean, I work with my mom. I have the
same job. I can’t find anything else. It’s
kinda ridiculous, you know. Why did I even
go to school? It should mean something. I
mean, that should count, right? You would
think. I thought. Well, here I am, cleaning
Others conveyed a tacit acceptance of their
circumstances. When I interviewed Pedro, he
had been out of school for nine years. He had
held a string of jobs and was living with
childhood friends in a mobile home. He was
slowly making progress toward his high
school diploma but was not hopeful that education would improve his opportunities or
quality of life. I asked him what he wanted for
himself. He replied:
Right now, I want to take care of my legal
status, clean up my record for the stupidity I
committed and get a decent job. I’m thinking about five years from now. I don’t want
to extend it any longer. I wish it could be
less, you know, but I don’t want to rush it
either, because when you rush things they
don’t go as they should. Maybe 10 years
from now. I like where I live, and I wouldn’t
mind living in a mobile home.
Other respondents had similarly low expectations for the future, the cumulative result of
years of severely restricted choices. When I
first met Gabriel, he was 23 years old. He was
making minimal progress at the community
college. He had moved out of his mother’s
home because he felt like a financial burden,
and he left his job after his employer received
a letter from the Social Security Administration explaining that the number he was using
did not match his name. He was frustrated
and scared. When I ran into him four years
later, near the end of my study, he seemed to
be at ease with his life. He was working in a
factory with immigrant co-workers and participating in a community dance group. He
told me he was “not as uptight” about his
situation as he had once been:
I just stopped letting it [unauthorized status]
define me. Work is only part of my life. I’ve
got a girlfriend now. We have our own place.
I’m part of a dance circle, and it’s really
cool. Obviously, my situation holds me back
from doing a lot of things, but I’ve got to
live my life. I just get sick of being controlled by the lack of nine digits.
Undoubtedly, Gabriel would rather be living
under more stable circumstances. But he has
reconciled himself to his limitations, focusing
instead on relationships and activities that are
tangible and accessible.
Such acceptance was most elusive for
respondents who achieved the highest levels
of school success. At the time of their interviews, 22 respondents had graduated from
four-year universities, and an additional nine
held advanced degrees. None were able to
legally pursue their dream careers. Instead,
many, like Esperanza, found themselves toiling in low-wage jobs. Esperanza had to let go
of her long-held aspiration to become a journalist, in favor of the more immediate need to
make ends meet each month. In high school,
she was in band and AP classes. Her hopes for
success were encouraged by high-achieving
peers and teachers. Nothing leading up to
graduation prepared her for the reality of her
life afterward. Now three years out of college,
she can find only restaurant jobs and factory
work. While she feels out of place in the
sphere of undocumented work, she has little
The people working at those places, like the
cooks and the cashiers, they are really
young, and I feel really old. Like what am I
doing there if they are all like 16, 17 years
old? The others are like senoras who are 35.
They dropped out of school, but because
they have little kids they are still working at
the restaurant. Thinking about that makes
me feel so stupid. And like the factories, too,
because they ask me, “Que estas haciendo
aqui? [What are you doing here?] You can
speak English. You graduated from high
school. You can work anywhere.”
Discussion And
The experiences of unauthorized 1.5-generation
young adults shed some important light on
the powerful role played by immigration
policy in shaping incorporation patterns and
trajectories into adulthood. Contemporary
immigration theory has made great strides in
its ability to predict inter-generational progress. In doing so, however, it has paid less
attention to the here-and-now experiences
and outcomes of today’s immigrants and their
children. As Portes and Fernandez-Kelly
(2008) point out, focusing exclusively on
inter-generational mobility contributes to a
failure to uncover key mechanisms that produce delayed, detoured, and derailed trajectories. Indeed, by focusing on individuals they
call the “final survivors”—two to three generations out—we neglect the struggles of
individuals today who end up disappearing
from view. Many respondents in this study
possess levels of human capital that surpass
those of their parents, who tend to speak little
English and have fewer than six years of
schooling. We may be tempted to see this
outcome as a sign of inter-generational progress. But these young men and women
describe moving from an early adolescence in
which they had important inclusionary access,
to an adulthood in which they are denied
daily participation in most institutions of
mainstream life. They describe this process as
waking up to a nightmare.
While life-course scholars note that most
U.S. youngsters today face some difficulty
managing adolescent and adult transitions,
undocumented youth face added challenges.
Their exclusion from important rites of
passage in late adolescence, and their movement from protected to unprotected status,
leave them in a state of developmental limbo,
preventing subsequent and important adult
transitions. Their entry into a stigmatized
identity has negative and usually unanticipated consequences for their educational and
occupational trajectories, as well as for their
friendships and social patterns. Unlike documented peers who linger in adolescence due
to safety nets at home, many of these youngsters must start contributing to their families
and taking care of themselves. These experiences affect adolescent and adult transitions
that diverge significantly from those of their
documented peers, placing undocumented
youth in jeopardy of becoming a disenfranchised underclass.
Positive mediators at the early (discovery)
and middle (learning to be illegal) transitions
help cushion the blow, and a comparison of
early-exiters and college-goers reveals a lot
about the power, and the limitations, of these
intermediaries. The keys to success for my
respondents—extrafamilial mentors, access to
information about postsecondary options,
financial support for college, and lower levels
of family responsibility—are not very different
from those required for the success of members of other student populations. For undocumented youth, however, they take on added
significance. In adult mentors, they find trusting allies to confide in and from whom to
receive guidance and resources. The presence
of caring adults who intervene during the discovery period can aid in reducing anxiety and
minimizing barriers, allowing undocumented
youth to delay entry into legally restricted
adult environments and to make successful
transitions to postsecondary institutions. Eventually, however, all undocumented youth unable
to regularize their immigration status complete
the transition to illegality.
My findings move beyond simply affirming that immigrant incorporation is a segmented process. Analyses of this group of
undocumented young adults also suggest
that successful integration may now depend,
more so than ever before in U.S. history, on
American Sociological Review 76(4)
immigration policy and the role of the state.
Historically, assimilation theory has been
concerned with the factors that determine
incorporation into the mainstream. Scholars
argue that human capital is a key determinant
for upward mobility (Zhou 1997). However, as
I demonstrate here, blocked mobility caused
by a lack of legal status renders traditional
measures of inter-generational mobility by
educational progress irrelevant: the assumed
link between educational attainment and material and psychological outcomes after school is
broken. College-bound youths’ trajectories
ultimately converge with those who have minimal levels of schooling. These youngsters,
who committed to the belief that hard work
and educational achievement would garner
rewards, experience a tremendous fall. They
find themselves ill-prepared for the mismatch
between their levels of education and the limited options that await them in the low-wage,
clandestine labor market.
The young men and women interviewed
for this study are part of a growing population
of undocumented youth who have moved into
adulthood. Today, the United States is home
to more than 1.1 million undocumented
children who, in the years to come, will be
making the same sort of difficult transitions,
under arguably more hostile contexts
(Massey and Sanchez 2010). These demographic and legal realities ensure that a sizeable population of U.S.-raised adults will
continue to be cut off from the futures they
have been raised to expect. Efforts aimed at
legalizing this particular group of young people have been in the works for more than 10
years without success. Political experts
believe there will not be legislative movement at the federal level for at least two more
years. In the meantime, proposals aimed at
ending birthright citizenship for U.S.-born
children of undocumented immigrants and
barring their entry to postsecondary education
threaten to deny rights to even greater numbers. These young people will very likely
remain in the United States. Whether they
become a disenfranchised underclass or contributing members to our society, their fate
rests largely in the hands of the state. We must
ask ourselves if it is good for the health and
wealth of this country to keep such a large
number of U.S.-raised young adults in the
shadows. We must ask what is lost when they
learn to be illegal.
Joanna Dreby, Cecilia Menjívar, Rubén G. Rumbaut,
Celeste Watkins-Hayes, the ASR editors and reviewers,
and audiences at Brown University, Cornell University,
UC-Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University
of Kansas, and the University of Washington provided
helpful comments on previous versions of this article.
This project was supported by the National Poverty Center
using funds received from the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for
Planning and Evaluation, grant number 1 U01 AE00000201. The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are
solely those of the author and should not be construed as
representing the opinions or policy of any agency of the
Federal government. To protect confidentiality, all names
of individuals have been replaced with pseudonyms.
1. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of
1986 provided the last large-scale legalization program. The 1987 estimate represents the undocumented
population after many of the 2.7 million estimated
illegal immigrants had moved into legal categories
under IRCA.
2. Under Plyler, the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented children are entitled to the equal protection
under the law afforded by the 14th Amendment of the
Constitution and therefore cannot be denied access to
public elementary and secondary education on the
basis of their legal status (see Olivas 2005).
3. See, in particular, the Mexican Migration Project
(MMP), a bi-national research effort co-directed by
Jorge Durand (University of Guadalajara) and Douglas S. Massey (Princeton University). Since 1982, the
MMP has collected economic and social data from
more than 140,000 Mexicans including many
migrants; most of the households in the MMP random
samples were interviewed in Mexico.
4. Given the respondents’ immigration status, I went to
great lengths to ensure confidentiality. Having gone
through a thorough Human Subjects process, I took
several measures to avoid any identifiers that would
directly link data to specific respondents. I gave
pseudonyms to all respondents at the time of the initial meeting, and I never collected home addresses.
Because of these precautions, personal information
does not appear anywhere in this research. Respondents provided verbal consent rather than leaving a
paper trail with a written consent form. I destroyed all
audio tapes immediately after transcription. I conducted all interviews in English, and I gave
respondents gift cards for their participation.
5. Only New Mexico (SB 582) and Texas (HB 1403)
allow undocumented students to apply for state aid.
6. Assembly Bill 540 (2001) gives undocumented youth
in California who have gone to a state high school for
three years and graduated the ability to pay tuition at
in-state rates. Many undocumented immigrant students have benefited from this provision.
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Princeton University Press.
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Martin and P. Schuck. New York: Foundation Press.
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The Urban Institute.
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of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.:
Estimates based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey.” Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center
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Unauthorized Migrants in the United States.” Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center (http://pewhispanic
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Mid-Decade.” Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center
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Telles, Edward E. and Vilma Ortiz. 2008. Generations
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Willis, Paul. 1977. Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York:
Columbia University Press.
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Oxford University Press.
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Roberto G. Gonzales is an Assistant Professor at the
University of Chicago. He received his PhD in sociology
at the University of California-Irvine. His research
focuses on the ways in which legal and educational
contexts shape the everyday experiences and transitions
to adulthood of poor, minority, and immigrant youth.
The Mark of a Criminal Record1
Devah Pager
Northwestern University
With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over
half a million prisoners released each year, the large and growing
number of men being processed through the criminal justice system
raises important questions about the consequences of this massive
institutional intervention. This article focuses on the consequences
of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white
job seekers. The present study adopts an experimental audit
approach—in which matched pairs of individuals applied for real
entry-level jobs—to formally test the degree to which a criminal record affects subsequent employment opportunities. The findings of
this study reveal an important, and much underrecognized, mechanism of stratification. A criminal record presents a major barrier
to employment, with important implications for racial disparities.
While stratification researchers typically focus on schools, labor markets,
and the family as primary institutions affecting inequality, a new institution has emerged as central to the sorting and stratifying of young and
disadvantaged men: the criminal justice system. With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released
each year, the large and growing numbers of men being processed through
the criminal justice system raises important questions about the consequences of this massive institutional intervention.
This article focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the em1
Support for this research includes grants from the National Science Foundation (SES0101236), the National Institute of Justice (2002-IJ-CX-0002), the Joyce Foundation,
and the Soros Foundation. Views expressed in this document are my own and do not
necessarily represent those of the granting agencies. I am grateful for comments and
suggestions from Marc Bendick, Jr., Robert M. Hauser, Erik Olin Wright, Lincoln
Quillian, David B. Grusky, Eric Grodsky, Chet Pager, Irving Piliavin, Jeremy Freese,
and Bruce Western. This research would not have been possible without the support
and hospitality of the staff at the Benedict Center and at the Department of Sociology
at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Direct correspondence to Devah Pager,
Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 1810 Chicago Avenue, Evanston,
Illinois 60208. E-mail: pager@northwestern.edu
䉷2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
AJS Volume 108 Number 5 (March 2003): 937–75
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American Journal of Sociology
ployment outcomes of black and white men. While previous survey research has demonstrated a strong association between incarceration and
employment, there remains little understanding of the mechanisms by
which these outcomes are produced. In the present study, I adopt an
experimental audit approach to formally test the degree to which a criminal record affects subsequent employment opportunities. By using
matched pairs of individuals to apply for real entry-level jobs, it becomes
possible to directly measure the extent to which a criminal record—in the
absence of other disqualifying characteristics—serves as a barrier to employment among equally qualified applicants. Further, by varying the
race of the tester pairs, we can assess the ways in which the effects of
race and criminal record interact to produce new forms of labor market
Over the past three decades, the number of prison inmates in the United
States has increased by more than 600%, leaving it the country with the
highest incarceration rate in the world (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2002a;
Barclay, Tavares, and Siddique 2001). During this time, incarceration has
changed from a punishment reserved primarily for the most heinous offenders to one extended to a much greater range of crimes and a much
larger segment of the population. Recent trends in crime policy have led
to the imposition of harsher sentences for a wider range of offenses, thus
casting an ever-widening net of penal intervention.2
While the recent “tough on crime” policies may be effective in getting
criminals off the streets, little provision has been made for when they get
back out. Of the nearly 2 million individuals currently incarcerated,
roughly 95% will be released, with more than half a million being released
each year (Slevin 2000). According to one estimate, there are currently
over 12 million ex-felons in the United States, representing roughly 8%
of the working-age population (Uggen, Thompson, and Manza 2000). Of
those recently released, nearly two-thirds will be charged with new crimes
and over 40% will return to prison within three years (Bureau of Justice
Statistics 2000). Certainly some of these outcomes are the result of desolate
opportunities or deeply ingrained dispositions, grown out of broken fam2
For example, the recent adoption of mandatory sentencing laws, most often used for
drug offenses, removes discretion from the sentencing judge to consider the range of
factors pertaining to the individual and the offense that would normally be taken into
account. As a result, the chances of receiving a state prison term after being arrested
for a drug offense rose by 547% between 1980 and 1992 (Bureau of Justice Statistics
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ilies, poor neighborhoods, and little social control (Sampson and Laub
1993; Wilson 1997). But net of these contributing factors, there is evidence
that experience with the criminal justice system in itself has adverse consequences for subsequent opportunities. In particular, incarceration is associated with limited future employment opportunities and earnings potential (Freeman 1987; Western 2002), which themselves are among the
strongest predictors of recidivism (Shover 1996; Sampson and Laub 1993;
Uggen 2000).
The expansion of the prison population has been particularly consequential for blacks. The incarceration rate for young black men in the
year 2000 was nearly 10%, compared to just over 1% for white men in
the same age group (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2001). Young black men
today have a 28% likelihood of incarceration during their lifetime (Bureau
of Justice Statistics 1997), a figure that rises above 50% among young
black high school dropouts (Pettit and Western 2001). These vast numbers
of inmates translate into a large and increasing population of black exoffenders returning to communities and searching for work. The barriers
these men face in reaching economic self-sufficiency are compounded by
the stigma of minority status and criminal record. The consequences of
such trends for widening racial disparities are potentially profound (see
Western and Pettit 1999; Freeman and Holzer 1986).
While little research to date has focused on the consequences of criminal
sanctions, a small and growing body of evidence suggests that contact
with the criminal justice system can lead to a substantial reduction in
economic opportunities. Using longitudinal survey data, researchers have
studied the employment probabilities and income of individuals after
release from prison and have found a strong and consistent negative effect
of incarceration (Western and Beckett 1999; Freeman 1987; Nagin and
Waldfogel 1993).
This existing research has been instrumental in demonstrating the possible aggregate effects of incarceration on labor market outcomes. Unfortunately, however, there are several fundamental limitations of survey
data that leave the conclusions of this research vulnerable to harsh criticism. First, it is difficult, using survey data, to rule out the possibility
that unmeasured differences between those who are and are not convicted
of crimes may drive the observed results. Figure 1 presents one possible
model of the relationship between incarceration and employment outcomes, with a direct causal link between the two. In this model, an individual acquires a criminal record, which then severely limits his later
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American Journal of Sociology
Fig. 1.—Model of direct causation
employment opportunities. But what evidence can we offer in support of
this causal relationship? We know that the population of inmates is not
a random sample of the overall population. What if, then, the poor outcomes of ex-offenders are merely the result of preexisting traits that make
these men bad employees in the first place? Figure 2 presents a model of
spurious association in which there is no direct link between incarceration
and employment outcomes. Instead, there are direct links between various
preexisting individual characteristics (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse, behavioral problems, poor interpersonal skills), which increase the likelihood
of both incarceration and poor employment outcomes.3 In this model, the
association between incarceration and employment is entirely spurious—the result of individual predispositions toward deviance.
Consistent with figure 2, Kling (1999), Grogger (1995), and Needels
(1996) have each argued that the effect of incarceration on employment
is negligible, at an estimated 0%–4%. Using administrative data from
unemployment insurance (UI) files matched with records from various
state departments of corrections, these authors contend that the observed
association is instead largely determined by unmeasured individual characteristics.4 The findings of these authors stand in stark contrast to the
majority of literature asserting a strong link between incarceration and
employment (Western and Beckett 1999; Bushway 1998; Sampson and
Laub 1993; Freeman 1987; Grogger 1992). While it remains an open
question as to whether and to what extent incarceration causes employ3
The variables listed here are just a few of the many potential sources of spuriousness
that are virtually untestable using survey data.
Studies using administrative data have the advantage of analyzing large samples of
ex-offenders over extended periods of time, before and after incarceration. However,
this line of research also suffers from several important limitations: First, employment
and wage data from UI administrative records are available only for those jobs covered
by and in compliance with unemployment insurance laws, thus excluding many temporary, contingent, or “grey-market” jobs, which may be more likely held by ex-offenders. Second, administrative data are typically limited to one state or jurisdiction;
individuals who move to other states during the period of observation are thus mistakenly coded as unemployed or as zero-earners. And finally, missing social security
numbers or difficulties in matching records often results in fairly substantial reduction
in sample representativeness. See Kornfeld and Bloom (1999) for an in-depth discussion
of these issues.
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Criminal Record
Fig. 2.—Model of spurious effects
ment difficulties, survey research is poorly equipped to offer a definitive
answer. The Achilles heel of the survey methodology is its inability to
escape from the glaring problems of selection that plague research in this
field (see Winship and Morgan 1999; Rubin 1990; Heckman et al. 1998).5
A second, related limitation of survey research is its inability to formally
identify mechanisms. From aggregate effects, we can infer plausible causal
processes, but these are only indirectly supported by the data. Because
numerous mechanisms could lead to the same set of outcomes, we are
left unable to assess the substantive contribution of any given causal
process. Survey researchers have offered numerous hypotheses regarding
the mechanisms that may produce the observed relationship between incarceration and employment. These include the labeling effects of criminal
stigma (Schwartz and Skolnick 1962), the disruption of social and familial
ties (Sampson and Laub 1993), the influence on social networks (Hagan
1993), the loss of human capital (Becker 1975), institutional trauma (Parenti 1999), legal barriers to employment (Dale 1976), and, of course, the
possibility that incarceration effects may be entirely spurious (Kling 1999;
Grogger 1995; Needels 1996). Without direct measures of these variables,
it is difficult, using survey data, to discern which, if any, of these causal
explanations may be at work.
The uncertainty surrounding these mechanisms motivates the current
project. Before addressing some of the larger consequences of incarcer5
Researchers have employed creative techniques for addressing these issues, such as
looking at pre- and postincarceration outcomes for the same individuals (e.g., Grogger
1992; Freeman 1991), comparing ex-offenders to future offenders (e.g., Waldfogel 1994;
Grogger 1995), estimating fixed- and random-effects models (Western 2002), and using
instrumental variables approaches to correct for unmeasured heterogeneity (e.g., Freeman 1994). There remains little consensus, however, over the degree to which these
techniques effectively account for the problems of selection endemic to this type of
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American Journal of Sociology
ation, it is essential to first establish conclusively the mechanism—or at
least one of the mechanisms—driving these results. In the present study,
I focus on the effect of a criminal record on employment opportunities.
This emphasis directs our attention to the stigma associated with criminal
justice intervention and to the ways in which employers respond to this
stigma in considering applicants. While certainly there are additional ways
in which incarceration may affect subsequent employment, this focus
allows us to separate the institutional effect from the individual (or from
the interaction of the two) and to directly assess one of the most widely
discussed—but rarely measured—mechanisms of carceral channeling
(Wacquant 2000). While incarceration may in fact additionally transform
individuals (and/or their social ties) in ways that make them less suited
to work, my interest here is in what might be termed the “credentialing”
aspect of the criminal justice system. Those sent to prison are institutionally branded as a particular class of individuals—as are college graduates or welfare recipients—with implications for their perceived place
in the stratification order. The “negative credential” associated with a
criminal record represents a unique mechanism of stratification, in that
it is the state that certifies particular individuals in ways that qualify them
for discrimination or social exclusion.6 It is this official status of the negative credential that differentiates it from other sources of social stigma,
offering greater legitimacy to its use as the basis for differentiation. (See
Pager [2002] for a more extensive discussion of negative credentials and
their implications for stratification).
In order to investigate this question, I have chosen an experimental
approach to the problem, a methodology best suited to isolating causal
mechanisms. There have, in the past, been a limited number of studies
that have adopted an experimental approach to the study of criminal
stigma. These studies have relied on a “correspondence test” approach,
whereby applications are submitted by mail with no in-person contact.
The most notable in this line of research is a classic study by Schwartz
and Skolnick (1962) in which the researchers prepared four sets of resumes
to be sent to prospective employers, varying the criminal record of applicants. In each condition, employers were less likely to consider appli-
Numerous opportunities become formally off-limits to individuals following a felony
conviction, including (depending on the state of residence) access to public housing,
voting rights, and employment in certain occupational sectors (e.g., health care occupations, public sector positions, child and elder care work). In addition, the widespread availability of criminal background information allows for the information to
be further used as the basis for allocating opportunities not formally off-limits to exoffenders, as studied here.
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cants who had any prior contact with the criminal justice system.7 Several
later studies have verified these findings, varying the types of crimes
committed by the hypothetical applicant (Finn and Fontaine 1985; Cohen
and Nisbett 1997) or the national context (Boshier and Johnson 1974;
Buikhuisen and Dijksterhuis 1971). Each of these studies reports the similar finding that, all else equal, contact with the criminal justice system
leads to worse employment opportunities.
Unfortunately, the research design of Schwartz and Skolnick and others
using this approach has several limitations. First, Schwartz and Skolnick’s
study, while clearly demonstrating the substantial effect of criminal
stigma, is limited to one job type only (an unskilled hotel job). It remains
uncertain how these effects generalize to the overall population of entrylevel jobs. Ex-offenders face a diverse set of job openings, some of which
may be more or less restricted to applicants with criminal records.
Second, correspondence tests are poorly equipped to address the issue
of race. While it is possible to designate national origin using ethnic names
(see, e.g., Riach and Rich 1991), it is much more difficult to clearly distinguish black and white applicants on paper.8 Given the high rates of
incarceration among blacks and the pervasive media images of black
criminals, there is good reason to suspect that employers may respond
differently to applicants with criminal records depending on their race
(see discussion below). Prior research using correspondence tests to study
the effect of criminal records, however, has not attempted to include race
as a variable.
Finally, the type of application procedure used in correspondence
tests—sending resumes by mail—is typically reserved for studies of administrative, clerical, and higher-level occupations. The types of job openings ex-offenders are most likely to apply for, by contrast, typically request
in-person applications, and a mailed resume would therefore appear out
of place.
The present study extends the work of Schwartz and Skolnick to include
a more comprehensive assessment of the hiring process of ex-offenders
across a full range of entry-level employment. By using an experimental
audit design, this study effectively isolates the effect of a criminal record,
while observing employer behavior in real-life employment settings. Fur7
The four conditions included (1) an applicant who had been convicted and sentenced
for assault, (2) an applicant who had been tried for assault but acquitted, (3) an
applicant who had been tried for assault, acquitted, and had a letter from the judge
certifying the applicant’s acquittal and emphasizing the presumption of innocence,
and (4) an applicant who had no criminal record. In all three criminal conditions—even
with a letter from the judge—applicants were less likely to be considered by employers
relative to the noncriminal control.
For an excellent exception, see Bertrand and Mullainathan (2002).
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American Journal of Sociology
ther, by using in-person application procedures, it becomes possible to
simulate the process most often followed for entry-level positions, as well
as to provide a more direct test of the effects of race on hiring outcomes.
There are three primary questions I seek to address with the present study.
First, in discussing the main effect of a criminal record, we need to ask
whether and to what extent employers use information about criminal
histories to make hiring decisions. Implicit in the criticism of survey research in this area is the assumption that the signal of a criminal record
is not a determining factor. Rather, employers use information about the
interactional styles of applicants, or other observed characteristics—which
may be correlated with criminal records—and this explains the differential
outcomes we observe. In this view, a criminal record does not represent
a meaningful signal to employers on its own. This study formally tests
the degree to which employers use information about criminal histories
in the absence of corroborating evidence. It is essential that we conclusively document this effect before making larger claims about the aggregate consequences of incarceration.
Second, this study investigates the extent to which race continues to
serve as a major barrier to employment. While race has undoubtedly
played a central role in shaping the employment opportunities of AfricanAmericans over the past century, recent arguments have questioned the
continuing significance of race, arguing instead that other factors—such
as spatial location, soft skills, social capital, or cognitive ability—can
explain most or all of the contemporary racial differentials we observe
(Wilson 1987; Moss and Tilly 1996; Loury 1977; Neal and Johnson 1996).
This study provides a comparison of the experiences of equally qualified
black and white applicants, allowing us to assess the extent to which
direct racial discrimination persists in employment interactions.
The third objective of this study is to assess whether the effect of a
criminal record differs for black and white applicants. Most research
investigating the differential impact of incarceration on blacks has focused
on the differential rates of incarceration and how those rates translate
into widening racial disparities. In addition to disparities in the rate of
incarceration, however, it is also important to consider possible racial
differences in the effects of incarceration. Almost none of the existing
literature to date has explored this issue, and the theoretical arguments
remain divided as to what we might expect.
On one hand, there is reason to believe that the signal of a criminal
record should be less consequential for blacks. Research on racial stere944
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otypes tells us that Americans hold strong and persistent negative stereotypes about blacks, with one of the most readily invoked contemporary
stereotypes relating to perceptions of violent and criminal dispositions
(Smith 1991; Sniderman and Piazza 1993; Devine and Elliott 1995). If it
is the case that employers view all blacks as potential criminals, they are
likely to differentiate less among those with official criminal records and
those without. Actual confirmation of criminal involvement then will provide only redundant information, while evidence against it will be discounted. In this case, the outcomes for all blacks should be worse, with
less differentiation between those with criminal records and those without.
On the other hand, the effect of a criminal record may be worse for
blacks if employers, already wary of black applicants, are more hesitant
when it comes to taking risks on blacks with proven criminal tendencies.
The literature on racial stereotypes also tells us that stereotypes are most
likely to be activated and reinforced when a target matches on more than
one dimension of the stereotype (Quillian and Pager 2002; Darley and
Gross 1983; Fiske and Neuberg 1990). While employers may have learned
to keep their racial attributions in check through years of heightened
sensitivity around employment discrimination, when combined with
knowledge of a criminal history, negative attributions are likely to
A third possibility, of course, is that a criminal record affects black and
white applicants equally. The results of this audit study will help to adjudicate between these competing predictions.
The method of audit studies was pioneered in the 1970s with a series of
housing audits conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Wienk et al. 1979; Hakken 1979). Nearly 20 years later, this
initial model was modified and applied to the employment context by
researchers at the Urban Institute (Cross et al. 1990; Turner, Fix, and
Struyk 1991). The basic design of an employment audit involves sending
matched pairs of individuals (called testers) to apply for real job openings
in order to see whether employers respond differently to appl…
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