The Undocumented

Arrival in the U.S. without proper legal papers is not a recent phenomenon. Because children born abroad to an American citizen parent can acquire U.S. citizenship, in the early part of the 20th Century many Chinese immigrants began claiming "paper" families. This was possible because the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed more than just lives, livelihoods, and buildings; it also wiped out public records. Historians now depict these people's children as "paper sons" (Item 40). The subterfuge was devised because discriminatory laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barred most Chinese and later Japanese from entry.

The plight of undocumented farm workers was first portrayed to a national audience in Harvest of Shame, a 1960 CBS television telecast. In 1977 director Robert M. Young made the film Alambrista (Item 39); the title refers to the term for "tightrope walker," or wire-crosser, applied to those seeking to cross the international border between the U.S. and Mexico.

In the 1960s U.S. immigration law was further reformed, leading to a new influx of immigrants, especially from Asia. Many Mexicans also entered, sometimes illegally, in search of work to support their families back home. The 1988 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided a path to amnesty for undocumented aliens who were already in the United States, but mandated penalties for employers who hired them.

An anti-immigrant backlash caused California voters in 1994 to pass Proposition 187, which would have denied public education, health care, and social services to the undocumented. For months after the election it remained entangled in the courts; the harshest provisions ultimately were thrown out. More recently many undocumented children who have overcome huge odds to attend schools or universities face a dilemma (Item 42): they cannot legally get a job after graduation. Recent UCI Ph.D graduate Roberto G. Gonzales' research (Item 43) has been used by public policy institutes in support of the proposed DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would enable these students eventually to obtain permanent U.S. residency.