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Becoming Legal

Immigration Law and Mixed-Status Families

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz

Publication Date - 03 June 2016

ISBN: 9780190276010

192 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

In Stock

The only ethnography to examine family-based legalization from the perspective of families who undertake it


There are approximately eleven million undocumented people living in the United States, and most of them have family members who are U.S. citizens. There is a common perception that marriage to a U.S. citizen puts undocumented immigrants on a quick-and-easy path to U.S. citizenship. But for people who have entered the U.S. unlawfully and live here without papers, the line to legal status is neither short nor easy, even for those with spouses who are U.S. citizens.

Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed-Status Families follows mixed-status couples down the long and bumpy road of immigration processing. It explores how they navigate every step along the way, from the decision to undertake legalization, to the immigration interview in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to the effort to put together a case of "extreme hardship" so that the undocumented family member can return. Author Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz also discusses families' efforts to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of immigration processing--both for those who are successful and those who are not.

About the Author(s)

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her work has been published in American Ethnologist, American Anthropologist, Human Organization, and other journals. She is the author of Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network (OUP, 2010).


"Becoming Legal is a gripping book about a deeply disturbing and inhumane process faced by millions of largely working-class Latinos/as. Everyone should read this work to understand our flawed immigration system and how it affects millions of real lives. By combining individual cases and voices with explanations of the complex legal dimension, Gomberg-Muñoz is able to provide a clear picture of this heart-wrenching process."--Enrique C. Ochoa, California State University, Los Angeles

"Becoming Legal will be a classic text for introductory courses on globalization and migration, on the U.S. immigration system, and on 'the immigrant experience.' No other book that I know of examines the history of our current immigration control system and how it systematically penalizes Mexican immigrants. It is well written, well argued, and accessible."--Sarah Horton, University of Colorado, Denver

Table of Contents

    Legalization Flowchart

    Chapter 1: Four Million Families
    René and Molly
    The Argument
    The Project
    The Process
    The Book

    Chapter 2: Grounds for Exclusion: The U.S. Immigration System
    Enrique and Anya
    History of the Politics and Politics in the History
    Free White Men of Good Moral Character: 18th and 19th Century
    The Quota System and the Bracero Program: 1924 to 1964
    The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
    The Enforcement Era: the 1980s to Today
    Does Race Still Matter?

    Grounds for Inclusion
    Family-Based Visas
    Employment-Based Visas
    Humanitarian Visas
    Diversity Immigrant Visas


    Chapter 3: The Family Petition
    Cynthia and Hector
    Gender, Family, and Status
    Deciding to Legalize
    Do We Have the Right Kind of Family?
    Are We Eligible?
    Can We Afford It?
    Is it Worth It?

    When Immigration Processing is not a Choice

    Chapter 4: The Punishment
    Marco and Tanya
    The Legal Nonexistence of Unlawful Entrants
    Going to Juárez
    The Medical Exam
    The Consular Interview

    "Criminal" Complications

    Chapter 5: Extreme Hardship
    Pamela and Victor
    Extreme Hardship
    Medical Hardship
    Financial Hardship
    Emotional Hardship
    Hardship Upon Relocation

    Good Moral Character
    Waiting for a Decision
    The Wheels Come Off in Juárez
    The Juárez Wives
    Model Citizens, Model Families
    Changes to the System

    Chapter 6: Life After Legal Status
    All Families
    The Greatest Feeling Ever
    Readjusting in the Aftermath of Legalization
    Movin' On Up?
    They Can Take It Away
    Jane and Isaiah
    Wendy and Paolo
    Jorge and Beth

    Life After Legalization

    Chapter 7: Documented and Deportable
    René and Molly
    Making Sense of a Broken System
    Precarity as Policy
    Making Law Visible

    A Note on Terminology
    List of Abbreviations
    References Cited

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