A Historical Examination of Illegal-Status Children and Young Adults in American Law

Awarded Scholars:
John Park, University of California, Santa Barbara
Project Date:
Apr 2016
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Over the last three decades, many young people without legal status became aware of their immigration status in early adulthood, an experience that can feel like “awakening to a nightmare,” according to several leading scholars. Their illegal status disables these young people in important ways—in many jurisdictions, they cannot get official documents, including drivers’ licenses, nor are they eligible for lawful employment, for scholarships for higher education, or for the skilled professions. Illegal status can also affect family relationships, especially between young adults and their parents, and these in turn can have intergenerational consequences.

Previous studies of undocumented youth claim that illegality is a new kind of social and political problem created through federal immigration laws. However, legal and social policy expert John Park argues that “unlawful people” and “illegal status” have been persistent problems throughout American history. By using archival methods and analyzing legal cases and disputes, Park will examine how the conditions of illegality and abjectivity—a legal status that defines “another subclass of individuals living in limbo”—have many historical analogs, across many different groups.

Park will analyze cases and legal disputes involving African American, Native American, and Asian American children and young adults in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They and their families were subjected to a range of “migration rules,” from those governing the return of fugitive slaves, to rules governing land ownership and eligibility for citizenship. Park will also conduct in-depth analyses of several major recent cases dealing with undocumented students and young people in the state and federal courts, to draw parallels between contemporary debates and these patterns in American legal history.


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