Today's Immigrants, Their Stories: A New Look at the Newest Americans

By Thomas Kessner; Betty Boyd Caroli | Go to book overview

2 Don't Have My Papers Yet
Undocumented Aliens

Each year of the 1970s about 75,000 immigrants, their documents perfectly in order, arrived to live in New York City. They possessed most of the rights of citizens--the right to buy property, to open bank accounts, to enroll in schools, and to travel freely. Although they would not be allowed to vote or to serve on juries until they became citizens, in their other privileges and obligations they resembled native-born Americans.

Each year, a number of immigrants equal to or even greater than this 75,000 settled in New York under very different circumstances. They lacked immigrant status and were generally called "illegal aliens." Many American writers reject the term illegal alien to describe this special group of immigrants. Except, the writers argue, for the single act of either entering the United States without inspection or violating their visas by overstaying the time allotted, these people are among the most law-abiding residents of the country. Instead, writers refer to these people as "undocumented aliens." The term undocumented has not caught on, at least not with the people being referred to. They usually describe themselves as illegal or "don't have my papers yet," implying that their temporary illegal status will soon be righted. Journalists, government officials, and others also persist in applying "illegal alien" to a broad group of people living in the United States who have not obtained completely legal immigrant status.

No one knows for sure how many persons without legal immigrant status currently reside in the United States. In the late 1970s estimates ran no lower than 3 million and as high as 30 million, with 7 million being the most frequently cited figure. Estimates came from a variety of sources: from Immigration Service agents, who based their estimates on the number of apprehensions they had made during the past decade; from New York City

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