Lives in Limbo:
Undocumented and Coming of Age in America

A Book Review

by Lauren Worley, Health Promotion

Abstract: In response to the large number of undocumented children growing up in America, Roberto G. Gonzales conducted a 12 year study in LA between 2003 and 2014 on these undocumented immigrants. He studied the 1.5 generation which consists of people born in Mexico who began their life in America as children. He then kept up with them for many years as they transitioned from childhood to adulthood. Gonzales emphasizes two distinct groups of undocumented youth: college-goers and early exiters and how they experience inclusion and exclusion simultaneously. Undocumented youth are immediately met with inclusion when they are integrated into schools at a young age, familiarized with American culture, and in some cases provided a support system of counselors and other students. Exclusion soon follows because without a social security number these individuals are left unable to work a regular job, obtain a driver’s license, or receive financial aid for college. Gonzales focuses on how regardless of being labeled an early-exiter or college-goer these undocumented youths often go on to find work similar to their parents. Jobs characterized as low-wage and undesirable. In the end, for the large majority of individuals in the study, illegality slowly becomes master status as they transition into adulthood. Adult lives faced with fading optimism, poverty, fear of being found out, and stigma were common among the interviewed immigrants. Gonzales makes no effort to argue a specific political position regarding immigration. Rather, he works to accurately describe the lives of undocumented young adults living in America, and humanize each participant in the study. 

immigration, undocumented, illegality, poverty, exclusion, youth


Lives in Limbo compiles the information from Roberto G. Gonzales’ twelve-year study on the lives of undocumented young adults in Los Angeles. Between 2003 and 2014, he traveled across a multitude of communities in the metro Los Angeles area. By volunteering in schools and afterschool programs, attending community meetings, and listening to many of the young adults’ stories, he was able to connect with hundreds of undocumented young people who eventually became a part of this study. His purpose with his book is to show how these young people’s transitions into adulthood left them excluded and forced to navigate a life in fear of being caught. Gonzales claims that these undocumented children and adults gradually grow into a life held back more and more by their immigration status. They are simultaneously insiders and outsiders at the same time and are especially vulnerable to the dysfunctional immigration system that leaves them without many options.

These adults in the study are termed the “1.5 generation,” young people born in Mexico that began their American lives as children. They were integrated into American schools, learned English, and grew up alongside American peers. Oftentimes they had no idea they were undocumented as children because their lack of documentation had no hindering effects at a young age. It wasn’t until adolescence and young adulthood that their lack of citizenship began to haunt them.


The undocumented individuals in the study were split into two distinct groups: college-goers and early-exiters. College-goers were those that made the transition to college after graduating high school, and early-exiters were either those that dropped out or graduated high school and decided college was not practical. College-goers often had a buffer to the effects of their immigration status, an optimism for their future, and continued to dream of days when they could fully integrate into society. Early-exiters were not as fortunate and began to experience the harsh consequences of undocumentation at a much earlier age. Poverty, poor working conditions, and an everyday struggle to meet the basic needs of survival became reality for many.


The majority of individuals in this study were those who exited school early. There are multiple reasons for this early exit from school, with the top three being family needs, getting pushed out, and being out of options. Family need was extremely common as poverty was prevalent among immigrant families. Adolescents were often needed to contribute to their family income in order to make ends meet. These individuals began working as teenagers in difficult, low-wage jobs, often taking the focus off school for good. The next cause of exiting school was the situation of being pushed out. These individuals frequently had trouble with the law, were involved with gangs or selling drugs, or became teen parents. The third reason, being out of options, resulted once these students realized their limited opportunities after high school. Without a social security number they were left without the option of getting a regular job, a driver’s license, or financial aid for college. Those that did try to balance community college and part-time work struggled to make ends meet, and the majority only made it through a few semesters.


Those that did make it to college were met with their own struggles in university. While they had a slight buffer to the effects of undocumention being felt by their early-exiter peers, they struggled to make ends meet financially. Discrimination also became a part of college-goers lives as limited access to financial aid, work studies, and other academic support sources made the transition less than ideal.

One perk that did come out of college for many of the individuals in the study was the inclusion they were able to find through different clubs, organizations, and staff members. Unlike the early-exiters, many undocumented college-goers had access to a strong support system of counselors and other students to help them navigate university. They often joined student groups advocating for undocumented immigrants’ rights as they realized the power their voices could hold.

Places of Exclusion and Inclusion in School

Gonzales goes on to study the undocumented youth’s experiences of places of belonging in their communities and also of spaces of exclusion. These children differ from their parents immensely in that their narratives are an American one and not a Mexican one. They are much more connected to the people and places that surround them. These early experiences of belonging help provide these individuals opportunities to become more connected with their communities. The legal inclusion into school offers undocumented youth the opportunity to get an education, prepare for their future, socialize and make connections, and become familiar with American culture.

While it is a huge site of belonging, school can quickly turn into an area of exclusion for the less fortunate undocumented youth. Oftentimes students were put into two categories: deserving and undeserving. Those characterized as deserving were put into smaller classes, given more attention by counselors and teachers, and were better supported when it came to graduating and going to college. The undeserving were labeled as “lazy” or “troublemakers,” and their time in high school was often marked. They were ultimately left without the guidance to successfully move into adult life.

Documentation as Master Status

The main source of exclusion for undocumented youth came about during late high school years when their lack of papers began to seriously limit their actions. Friends began getting driver’s licenses, applying for part-time jobs, and planning which colleges to apply to—all things this group could not do easily or in any way legally. This new feeling of being unwanted by society left undocumented youth lost as to what to do next. This was especially apparent in the lives of the youth labeled as undeserving in school because they had little, if any, of a support system. Without people to confide in or anyone to advocate for their future, these individuals often saw no other choice but to find work similar to that of their parents. This transition from belonging to exclusion resulted in the loss of friendships and a decrease in involvement in activities or clubs. Responses to exclusion varied across undocumented youth, but for the majority, their optimism was fading. Finding and securing any stable job was the new priority. These adults faced significant troubles including poverty, exclusion, fear of being found out, and stigma which hindered everyday life.

While early-exiters and college-goers have vastly different experiences during the transition to adulthood, they all at some point are met by the fact that while they are culturally integrated, they are indefinitely legally excluded. Undocumented status, as Gonzales puts it. It dominates these undocumented young adults’ feelings of belonging.


Lives in Limbo by Roberto Gonzales is very well written, and the extensivity of the study is admirable. It does not make an effort to argue a specific political position, but rather works to accurately and effectively describe the lives of the individuals in the study-lives that would have otherwise remained hidden for risk of being found out as undocumented. Twelve years of commitment and heavy community involvement went into making an accurate description of the daily lives of undocumented adolescents and adults today. Gonzales did not just use simple surveys; he built relationships with repeated interviews and gained the people’s trust first. Because of his commitment to genuine friendship with the individuals in the study, we are left with what we can assume is a very accurate description of their lives that they shared with him.

The author’s argument was one where he simply highlighted the disproportionate struggles and hardships faced by undocumented young adults over their parent’s decision to cross the border into America. The author definitely took a position that more reform needed to be done, and, looking at the extensivity of his study and the multitude of first-hand accounts of struggling undocumented individuals, his study did support his argument.

What I admired about Gonzales’ study was how he was able to humanize the individual undocumented immigrant. Looking back, I was only shown a statistic a handful of times, the rest of the study was consistent interviews with each person. Not only did Gonzales conduct hundreds of interviews, he also followed up with his interviewees over the years. He got to know his people on a deep level to where they felt comfortable giving personalized details of the effects of illegality on their emotions, physicality, and livelihood. Rather than putting the immigrants into two categories of good immigrant (those that attend college) and bad immigrants (those that get in trouble with the law), Gonzales keeps them in one category of struggling, undocumented youth that the reader can sympathize with. We are given the true experiences and stories of the reality of growing up in America undocumented.

Even the brightest of his subjects, the ones that worked extremely hard to get through school and provide for their family, ended up in a similar position to their parents in low-wage, undesirable working conditions. I like how Gonzales’ study is able to not just describe the lives of those who are undocumented, but also highlight the long-term impact of illegality and how reform is urgently needed.

What I did not appreciate about Lives in Limbo and what I felt took away from the comprehensive study was how repetitive the chapters were. While the research and interviews were conducted beautifully, the way they were intertwined in the chapters could have been done more concisely. About halfway through the book it felt as if the information was being repeated over again, either repeating the same findings in different wordings or over elaborating points covered in previous chapters.   

I would recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in the politics and debates surrounding the issue of immigration. I would also recommend this book to anyone who is not familiar with the hardship surrounding the lives of undocumented young adults. These individuals’ stories are often kept in the dark as they are in a precarious situation living in fear of deportation. Bringing awareness to their secret lives, especially to those who are not knowledgeable, will only help them in their advocacy for rights. 


Gonzales’ book Lives in Limbo highlights the large group of undocumented youth coming of age in America. He describes in detail their frustration as they are integrated into American life but ultimately denied the rewards of their schooling and labor. I admire the effort Gonzales put into his study to humanize these undocumented individuals and how he used their own personal stories to speak out against the injustice characterizing their situation. I feel it is an important read regardless of where you stand on the immigration debate. It is the perfect book to educate oneself on a large issue that pertains to more than two million children across the United States.


Gonzales, R. G. (2016). Lives in limbo: Undocumented and coming of age in America. University
of California Press.

Citation Style: APA