Undocumented Immigrants

The term “undocumented immigrants” describes individuals who were born in a foreign country and who live in the United States with no legal right to. For example, undocumented immigrants can be individuals who came to the U.S. to work or study, then failed to leave when their temporary visas expired.

The term for undocumented immigrants used to be “illegal aliens,” and indeed many American’s still use this euphemism today. However, “undocumented immigrants” is more politically correct and less insulting. To explore this concept, consider the following undocumented immigrants definition.

Definition of Undocumented Immigrants


  1. Individuals who live in the United States with no legal right.



Illegal Immigration

The term “illegal immigration” refers to a person’s relocation to another country, but in a way that violates the laws of that country. For example, undocumented immigrants are those who choose to stay in the United States despite their temporary visas expiring, or those who cross the border illegally. Undocumented immigrants risk consequences like deportation and sanctions if the government discovers their true status.

Misconceptions about Illegal Immigration

Many people take issue with illegal immigration because they believe that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit violent crimes. The real statistics of the situation, however, paint a much different story. For instance, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. tripled during the period of 1990 to 2013. During this same period, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. dropped by almost 50 percent.

The reality is that most undocumented immigrants are too busy working to commit crimes. And because they are working, they are regularly contributing to the American tax system. Many people believe that undocumented immigrants are working without contributing to the Medicare and Social Security systems that so many people in this country depend on.

However, even in states with some of the largest immigrant populations, like Florida, immigrants pay in much more than they take out. For example, they regularly pay state and local taxes without having access to the state’s welfare system. This is because many undocumented immigrants work in the U.S. and send money to their families back home, to the countries where their families reside.

History of Illegal Immigration

The history of illegal immigration is one steeped in racism – a state of mind that pervades today’s connotations with undocumented immigrants as well. In 1875, the U.S. banned Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S., and officials extended this to all Chinese immigrants only seven years later.

In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naturalization Act, which required illegal immigrants to learn English before they attempted to become U.S. citizens. In 1917, the government passed the Immigration Act, which further defined the kinds of people prohibited from becoming U.S. citizens, including Asians. The Act also imposed certain restrictions, such as having to pass a literacy test to become a citizen.

Seven years later, in 1924, the government passed a second Immigration Act. This Act established the requirements for obtaining a visa. It also imposed quotas upon certain individuals immigrating from specific countries, like the Italians and the Jews coming to the U.S. from southern and eastern Europe. It also prohibited practically all Asians from coming to the U.S.

Illegal Immigration in Modern Times

Fears over illegal immigrants carried into the 21st century, specifically after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and in relation to the Mexican border wall proposed by President Donald Trump. Trump enacted a travel ban restricting individuals traveling to the U.S. from Muslim countries, however the U.S. Supreme Court struck the travel ban down as unconstitutional. But, Trump would not back down and, as a result of his demand for $5 billion in federal funding to build a small section of the border wall, the government entered a partial shutdown in December of 2018.

The stalemate over funding for the wall would soon become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, responsible for sending the families of around 800,000 federal employees without the means to pay their bills, or even to buy food. Approximately half of that number – those whose jobs were considered to be necessary for the health and safety of the nation – were forced to work without pay. Many people felt this move violated the Thirteenth Amendment, which expressly forbids both slavery and involuntary servitude, and gives Congress the power to enforce the provision.

Criminal Immigration vs Unauthorized Immigration

Officials can levy a civil violation or a criminal charge against someone they catch illegally immigrating to the U.S. Unauthorized immigration is a civil violation. As such, immigration courts handle these cases and decide these individuals’ fates.

On the other hand, criminal immigration occurs when an individual enters the U.S., including coming back to the U.S., without prior approval from an immigration officer. A first offender can receive a misdemeanor for criminal immigration. However, if someone illegally reenters the country after officials have deported him, this is a federal offense.

There are also certain crimes that can lead to the immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants. These crimes are felonies and include:

Decline of Illegal Immigration

In 2007, illegal immigration in the U.S. peaked at a little over 12 million immigrants. By 2016 – almost ten years later – that number had dropped to 10.7 million. This is a far cry from the 30 million number President Trump included as part of his presidential campaign.

There are several reasons for this steep decline of illegal immigration, including:

  • The recession and housing market bubble burst of 2008, leading to fewer available jobs
  • Increased enforcement at the Mexican border
  • Increased smuggling fees
  • Increased number of deportations

Despite Trump’s claims, the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Mexico has slowed in recent years. Experts believe this is due to these people’s desire for family reunification.

Undocumented Immigrants Example Involving Texas Schools

Taking a step away from the Trump debacle, another U.S. Supreme Court case wherein the Court disputed undocumented immigration was Plyler v. Doe (1982). This case is an example of undocumented immigrants, specifically students, suffering a denial of their opportunity for an education in the state of Texas.

In 1975, officials revised Texas law to state that undocumented immigrants in Texas would not receive those state funds necessary to ensure they receive an education in a Texas school. The law gave schools the authority to deny admission to any students who were not legal residents of the United States. Two years after officials revised the law, the Tyler Independent School District enacted a policy that required students to pay tuition if they were not legal residents. Children were “legally admitted” if:

  • They could offer documentation proving they were here legally; or
  • A federal immigration authority could vouch for the student and confirm the documentation was valid and forthcoming.

Lawsuit and Appeal

Shortly after Tyler enacted its policy, a group of Mexican students who could not prove they were “legally admitted” into the U.S. filed a class action lawsuit against the school district to challenge its policy. The district court sided with the students, holding that the policy was, in fact, unconstitutional. The school district appealed, however the appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision. The school district then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision

The question for the Court then became: was Texas’ law, and therefore Tyler’s policy, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution? Ultimately, the Court decided that yes, it was. The Court held that, while undocumented immigrants were not citizens of Texas, nor of the U.S. in general, they were still people. As such, they deserved the same protections afforded to U.S. citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court struck down Texas’ law because it denied children the right to an education, and because Texas could not prove the law was necessary to fulfill “a compelling state interest.”

Specifically, the Court wrote:

“Texas’ statutory classification cannot be sustained as furthering its interest in the “preservation of the state’s limited resources for the education of its lawful residents.” While the State might have an interest in mitigating potentially harsh economic effects from an influx of illegal immigrants, the Texas statute does not offer an effective method of dealing with the problem. Even assuming that the net impact of illegal aliens on the economy is negative, charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes an ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration, at least when compared with the alternative of prohibiting employment of illegal aliens.

Nor is there any merit to the suggestion that undocumented children are appropriately singled out for exclusion because of the special burdens they impose on the State’s ability to provide high-quality public education. The record does not show that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the State. Neither is there any merit to the claim that undocumented children are appropriately singled out because their unlawful presence within the United States renders them less likely than other children to remain within the State’s boundaries and to put their education to productive social or political use within the State.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Deportation – The act of formally removing people from a place or country.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Sanction – The penalty a person suffers for disobeying a rule or law.
  • Smuggle – To move goods illegally into or out of a country.
  • Visa – A passport that allows a person to enter or leave a country, or to stay for a specific period of time.