A man and his son wave the flag of El Salvador at an immigration rally in New York City.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that children of undocumented immigrants have the right to a free public school education alongside native-born children. But when these undocumented kids leave high school, they transition from protected child to illegal immigrant. That is, the laws support the undocumented child, but not the undocumented adult they’ll eventually become. Roberto G. Gonzales (American Sociological Review, August 2011) explores how these youth experience their status transformation through interviews with 150 “1.5-generation” Latinos in California.

Adolescents, Gonzales writes, first recognize their illegal status in their late teens, when their lack of a Social Security number prohibits such rites of passage as getting a part-time job or a driver’s license. Assimilation alongside their native-born peers led these kids to believe they would have more opportunities than their parents, but undocumented youth get a harsh reality check at graduation: no papers means no future. The young adults must “learn to be illegal,” which includes re-evaluating their future goals. And parents—who often believed that their children would have citizenship by the time they reached adulthood—don’t prepare them for this transition.

Despite speaking fluent English and earning high school (and sometimes college) degrees, undocumented young adults end up no better off in the labor market than their uneducated parents. Gonzales argues that the system has created a “new disenfranchised underclass”—2.1 million young adults who are stuck in what might be called “illegal limbo.”