Who Is Considered an Undocumented Immigrant? Staff Profile Picture
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In 2022, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that over 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the United States. Since they lack access to basic protections and are vulnerable to exploitation, many individuals in this situation wonder about their rights and what they can accomplish in the country.

This article will explore the realities undocumented immigrants face, including what they can and cannot do in the country. If we acknowledge the presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., we can strive towards building a fair and equal society that values and appreciates everyone's contributions, regardless of their legal status.

Who Is an Undocumented Immigrant?

People who do not have legal permission to reside or work in the United States are often referred to as undocumented or unauthorized immigrants. Many undocumented immigrants entered the United States without proper documentation due to circumstances beyond their control, such as fleeing violence, seeking economic opportunity, or reuniting with family members. 

Undocumented immigrants in the United States face significant difficulties with limited access to healthcare, education, and legal protections. They are also at risk of deportation, which can result in family separation and other forms of harm. 

Immigration remains a highly debated topic in the United States, with various opinions on tackling the issue of undocumented immigration. Some argue for stricter border security and enforcement of immigration laws, while others advocate for more lenient policies that provide a pathway to citizenship and better treatment of undocumented immigrants. 

Despite these differing views, it is essential to remember that these policies affect real people, their families, and communities. Ultimately, any solution to the issue of undocumented immigration must uphold the fundamental human rights of all individuals, regardless of their legal status.

Can undocumented immigrants fly domestically?

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), undocumented immigrants can fly domestically within the United States. However, they must present a valid form of identification to pass through security checkpoints and board their flights. Since most undocumented immigrants do not have the necessary identification documents, like a state-issued ID, passport, or permanent resident card, they may struggle with air travel. 

Depending on the airline, undocumented immigrants may be able to use alternative forms of identification or undergo additional security screening procedures to fly domestically. To ensure a smooth travel experience, we recommend contacting your airline and TSA in advance to learn about the acceptable forms of identification and any additional requirements.

Can undocumented immigrants get a social security number?

Undocumented immigrants are generally only eligible to obtain a Social Security number (SSN) if they have a specific type of work authorization or other qualifying circumstances. 

To obtain an SSN, individuals must provide proof of their identity, age, and citizenship or immigration status, as well as evidence of their eligibility to work in the United States. Undocumented immigrants not authorized to work in the United States are not eligible to obtain an SSN.

In addition, some undocumented immigrants who do not have work authorization but have a legitimate need for an SSN, such as opening a bank account or applying for government benefits, may be able to apply for a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) from the IRS. This nine-digit number can be used in place of an SSN for tax purposes.

Do undocumented immigrants pay taxes?

Yes, undocumented immigrants in the United States must pay taxes on their income, just like any other individual who works in the country. 

Undocumented immigrants typically use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to file their tax returns and pay taxes. An ITIN is a tax processing number issued by the IRS to individuals who are not eligible for a Social Security number but have a tax filing requirement.

Can undocumented immigrants get Medicaid?

Undocumented immigrants are generally not eligible to enroll in Medicaid. However, some limited circumstances allow undocumented immigrants to receive emergency medical treatment or other healthcare services. 

Under federal law, hospitals must provide emergency medical treatment to anyone who presents with a medical emergency, regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay. In addition, some states have implemented programs to provide healthcare services to undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for Medicaid. For example, California has implemented a program known as “Medi-Cal for All,” which provides full-scope, comprehensive healthcare coverage to the state's low-income residents, regardless of their immigration status.

Can undocumented immigrants get food stamps?

In most situations, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive food stamps. Nevertheless, some limited circumstances exist where undocumented immigrants can receive food assistance through other programs. Specifically, some states have implemented programs to provide food assistance to low-income residents, regardless of immigration status. These programs may be funded by state or local governments or by private organizations.

In addition, undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen children may receive food assistance for their children through the SNAP program, even if they are not eligible. This is known as mixed-status eligibility. It allows U.S. citizen children who live in households with undocumented parents to receive the benefits they need to meet their nutritional needs.

Can undocumented immigrants get health insurance?

While undocumented immigrants are not eligible to purchase health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace or other government-funded health insurance programs, such as Medicare or Medicaid, some states and private organizations have implemented their programs to provide healthcare coverage to undocumented immigrants. To illustrate, the state of Washington has implemented a program called "Apple Health," which offers healthcare coverage to low-income residents regardless of immigration status.

Similarly, some employers offer health insurance to their employees, regardless of immigration status. As a result, undocumented immigrants who are employed and have access to health insurance through their employer may be able to enroll in the plan and receive coverage.

Can undocumented immigrants get a driver’s license?

Driver's license requirements vary by state, and some states have implemented policies that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license. As of 2023, 19 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have implemented laws allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. 

These states generally require undocumented immigrants to meet the requirements of other applicants for a driver's license, such as passing a driver's test and providing proof of identity and residence in the state. However, instead of requiring a Social Security number, which undocumented immigrants are generally not eligible to obtain, these states may accept alternative forms of identification, such as a passport or foreign consular ID.

Can undocumented immigrants join the military?

Since the military requires applicants to provide proof of lawful immigration status, such as a green card or valid visa, undocumented immigrants usually are not eligible to enlist. However, there are some limited circumstances under which undocumented immigrants can join the military. For instance, undocumented immigrants who are beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program may enlist in the military if they meet other eligibility requirements and receive a waiver of the lawful immigration status requirement.

Can undocumented immigrants rent an apartment?

Although they may face challenges due to their immigration status, undocumented immigrants can rent an apartment. Landlords and property owners may require applicants to provide proof of identity and income, which can be difficult for undocumented immigrants who do not have a Social Security number or other forms of identification.

In some cases, landlords may accept alternative forms of identification, such as a passport or foreign consular ID. In addition, some landlords may be willing to take other types of identification, like a letter from an employer or a bank statement, to verify income and employment.

How do undocumented immigrants get jobs?

While it is illegal for an employer to hire an employee knowing that the individual is not lawfully authorized to work in the United States,  many undocumented immigrants can find jobs by relying on personal networks and word-of-mouth referrals. They may also search for jobs through online job boards, classified ads, or by visiting businesses in person and inquiring about job openings. 

Undocumented immigrants may also find work through informal arrangements, such as day labor or domestic employment, where employers may be more willing to hire individuals without a Social Security number. In some cases, they may work in industries that employ individuals without work authorization, such as agriculture, hospitality, and construction. 

Can undocumented immigrants get a green card or U.S. citizenship?

Undocumented immigrants in the United States are not eligible to apply for a green card or U.S. citizenship, as these benefits are reserved for individuals with legal status. However, some undocumented immigrants can obtain legal status through a family-based immigration petition if they have a family member who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who can sponsor them. 

How many undocumented immigrants are in the United States?

Since undocumented immigrants are not counted in the official population census, it’s difficult to determine the exact number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. However, estimates from the Center for Immigration Studies suggest that there were approximately 11.35 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2022. 

Legal Resources for Undocumented Immigrants

Navigating the immigration system can be a time of uncertainty and anxiety as individuals and families try to understand their legal options. The challenges for undocumented immigrants can be even more significant, as they may face additional legal hurdles and lack access to basic protections. However, many legal resources are available to those who need legal advice while immigrating. Whether you are looking for assistance with deportation defense, asylum, or workplace discrimination, these organizations are ready and willing to support you.

The American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonprofit organization that provides legal advice and representation to individuals facing immigration-related issues, including deportation, detention, and asylum. Their team of lawyers is knowledgeable in immigration law, can provide guidance on the legal options available to undocumented immigrants, and can represent them in court or administrative proceedings. 

Additionally, the ACLU provides "Know Your Rights" resources that help undocumented immigrants know their rights when interacting with law enforcement, immigration agents, or other government officials. The organization engages in advocacy and policy work to promote fair and just immigration policies and educates individuals and communities on immigration-related issues.

National Immigration Law Center

Another nonprofit organization, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), is dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants in the United States. The NILC offers legal services, policy analysis, and advocacy to promote fair immigration policies and protect immigrants' rights. 

The organization provides legal services like the ACLU and assists individuals facing immigration-related issues such as deportation and detention. Uniquely, the NILC also devotes resources to workplace discrimination, which can be helpful for undocumented immigrants working in low-wage jobs who are at risk of exploitation and abuse by their employers. 

United We Dream

United We Dream is a national network of immigrant youth-led organizations that advocate for immigrants' rights in the United States. One critical resource United We Dream offers is the Immigration Rights Hotline, which provides free legal advice and support to immigrants, including undocumented immigrants. The hotline is staffed by trained volunteers who are knowledgeable in immigration law and can provide guidance on various immigration-related issues. 

The Immigration Rights Hotline can be particularly helpful for undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation or facing other immigration-related challenges. The hotline provides information on the legal options available to individuals and can connect them with local organizations or legal service providers that can provide further assistance. 

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