When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States



This article assesses how two key institutions differentially shape immigrants’ relationship to their rights in American society. We draw on over 200 in-depth interviews to argue that there is a stark difference between how schools encourage undocumented youth to view themselves as equal members of US society and how undocumented workers are marginalized in the workplace. We find that even as schools track and stratify students, they also foster a culture of meritocracy between documented and undocumented youth. Schools ultimately render immigration status irrelevant as undocumented youth learn to navigate the primary institution of this stage of their lives. Conversely, immigration status is central to the experience of undocumented workers, who develop a particular set of survival skills that help them live and work successfully in the United States without being detected while also erecting a barrier between themselves and any additional rights they may be afforded.