Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Robert C. Smith

Subject Categories

Latin American Languages and Societies | Latin American Studies | Public Policy | Sociology


citizenship; governance; illegality; sans-papiers; transition to adulthood; undocumented youth


This dissertation compares the transition to adulthood of undocumented youth in New York and Paris, along with analysis of the construction of illegality in each city. In both the United States and France, national restrictions against undocumented immigrants increasingly take the form of deportations and limiting access to social rights. New York City and Paris, however, mitigate the national restrictions in important but different ways. They construct "illegality" differently, leading to different young adult outcomes and lived experiences of "illegality." This project uses seven years of multi-site ethnographic data to trace the effects of these mitigated "illegalities" on two dozen (male) youth.

We can begin to understand the variation in these undocumented young men's social lives within and between cities by centering on (1) governance structure, the labyrinth of obtaining rights associated with citizenship, (2) citizenship, the possibility of gaining a legal status, steered in particular by civil society actors, and (3) identity, here centered on youths' negotiation of social mobility with the fear of enforcement.

Biographical narratives show the shifts in social memberships as youth transition to new countries, new restrictions at adulthood, and new, limiting work. In New York, most social prospects are flattened as future possibilities are whittled down to ones focusing on family and wages. Undocumented status propels New York informants into an accelerated transition to adulthood, as they take on adult responsibilities of work, paying bills, and developing families. In Paris, youth experience more divergent processes of transitioning to adulthood. Those who are more socially integrated use a civil society actor to garner a (temporary) legal status, which does not lead to work opportunities. Those who are less socially integrated face isolation as they wait to gain status and access to better jobs. Paris undocumented youth are thus characterized by a decelerated transition to adulthood as most lack sufficient resources for adult responsibilities.

The comparison of Paris and New York shows how different institutional, social, and political contexts--including different systems of state and local governance, political culture and labor market characteristics--produce specific contours of social life for undocumented youth, with varying outcomes. Using boundary theory to represent these different socio-legal and socio-economic contexts over time, we see the more flexible regularization practices in Paris helping youth cross the legal boundary but remaining stratified vis-à-vis the social boundary. With a low deportation risk, New York's legal boundary is blurred. Federal restrictions, however, mean youth also end up stratified vis-à-vis the social boundary. A key difference, however, lies in the family and romantic relationship benefits of available low-end work in New York.