What Is an Undocumented Immigrant?

Updated on January 5, 2024

At a Glance

  • DACA provides a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and allows certain individuals brought to the US as children to stay and work legally.
  • Undocumented immigrants, preferred term over illegal aliens, are not deported mainly due to cost factors, valid claims for asylum, Temporary Protected Status, or familial connections in the US.
  • DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, enjoy benefits like DACA renewal, advance parole, access to education and health services, civic duties, the possibility of obtaining a green card, and homeownership.
  • Undocumented immigrants face challenges in obtaining legal status due to complex immigration policies and bans based on the length of illegal presence.

You may often hear the words “undocumented immigrant”, and not know exactly what they mean. Well, there are plenty of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. So, knowing exactly what being “undocumented” as an immigrant means is important to get a proper idea of the situation.

Thus, what is an undocumented immigrant? Read below to become familiar with the term.

What Is DACA?

DACA, OR THE Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an immigration policy of the United States. It allows some people with unlawful presence to stay in the United States after being brought to the country as children. Basically, it grants these individuals a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation, and it also helps them become eligible for a work permit.

This program was made back in 2012 when President Obama decided that young immigrants should not get deported anymore. He announced he was going to stop deportation for these people, as long as they met the requirements from the Dream Act.

It shouldn’t be mistaken for legal status, though. The program simply provides some benefits. For instance, it gives immigrants access to a two-year work permit that can be renewed. Additionally, it protects young immigrants from deportation. It is available if someone arrived in the States before June 2007, and before they turned 16 years old.

As a result, Dreamers had a much better life. For example, DACA status people were able to travel within the U.S., as well as drive legally. Since they were able to work, DACA status also opened new doors for people interested in more career and academic opportunities.

Therefore, many Dreamers were able to secure houses, cars, or better jobs. To be more specific, 16% bought their first home, 65% bought their first car, 56% obtained jobs with much better conditions, and 69% were able to get jobs with higher salaries.

But as beneficial as it was, DACA wasn’t securing a path to permanent status or citizenship, meaning these people were still considered undocumented immigrants as usual. Not to mention that because they didn’t have a legal status change, President Donald Trump tried to end the program. In September 2017, he attempted to rescind the program.

Luckily, he wasn’t successful as courts blocked his attempts. In November 2019, though, there was another discussion about whether President Trump is allowed to dismantle the program. It ended in the favor of the Dreamers, as the administration’s attempt to end the “dream” of the immigrants has been blocked. For now, at least, hundreds of thousands of immigrants will not be deported – a decision that many people were waiting for.

Difference Between Undocumented Immigrants and Illegal Aliens

More often than not, the terms undocumented immigrants and illegal aliens are used interchangeably. There is also a debate going on regarding which term is the correct one to use. For instance, “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” is something that the media and politicians insist on using. Meanwhile, you have the immigrant rights and advocacy groups who are not in favor of the “illegal alien” name. Instead, they go for options such as “unauthorized”, “undocumented”, “non-citizens”, “unlawfully present” or “without status”.

Those opting for the description “illegal immigrant” claim it to be more accurate, while also not being a derogatory term. According to them, “illegal alien” would be a more derogatory term and they refrain from using it.

Is there a difference between undocumented immigrants and illegal aliens, though?

Undocumented Immigrants

An undocumented immigrant is a person who was born in a different country and came to the United States illegally. To be more specific, they don’t have any documents that would give them the legal right to live in the United States.

Illegal Aliens

Theoretically, an illegal alien is the same thing as an undocumented immigrant. However, the difference is that the term “illegal alien” is not the technical term you find in immigration laws. It is pretty insulting to immigrants, which is why the term “undocumented immigrant” is preferred.

Why Haven’t the Undocumented Immigrants been Deported?

Undocumented immigrants haven’t been deported because it would be just way too expensive. It’s hard to keep up with the number of undocumented immigrants in the States, which is why they are not being sent back to their countries.

According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, it would cost about $12,500 to send each person back.

Also, some people cannot be sent home because they may either have a valid claim for asylum or they have a Temporary Protected Status.

Meanwhile, there are immigrants who are students or have close family members in the country. They are not bothered by the immigration authorities because they would rather focus on immigrants who commit crimes or are a risk to people from the U.S. There are also immigrants who may be DACA recipients.  

DACA Benefits and Restrictions

If a migrant or immigrant qualifies for DACA, they are also eligible for the benefits that come with DACA status that come about from legislation like the DREAM Act and the American Dream and Promise Act.

DACA Renewal

One such benefit is the ability to renew their DACA status every two years. While the renewal backlog sometimes suffers from delays, it’s a fairly simple process. To learn more, you can read our DACA renewal checklist guide.

Advance Parole

DACA recipients may also travel to and from the U.S on a program called advance parole. Some questions if it is safe for Dreamers to leave the U.S., though.

Education and Health

Dreamers also qualify to get an education in the U.S. and for health insurance coverage. There are various student loans, scholarships, and health insurance options available to DACA recipients.

Civic Duties

In addition to the benefits discussed above, Dreamers are subject to many of the civic rights and duties native-born Americans are. DACA recipients must pay taxes just like everybody else. Dreams also qualify to drive in the U.S. And in some places, DACA recipients can vote.

Green Cards

Dreamers may also apply to transition to a green card. They may apply for a green card through the basic green card process, or by marrying a U.S. citizen.


DACA holders also may own homes in the U.S. The process for buying the home is, more or less, the same as it is for American citizens, though there are issues of institutional racism that affect many Dreamers’ ability to secure mortgages. There are, however, home loan options specifically for DACA recipients.

Undocumented Immigrants FAQ

Here are a few commonly asked questions about undocumented immigrants?

Why do some immigrants come without papers?

Some immigrants come without papers simply because obtaining a document may take too long. It may take years and even decades for some to be able to live or work legally in the U.S. As a result, many end up working “low skill” jobs to stay in the States.

It’s easy to say that immigrants can just “get legal” but in reality, they can’t do that. Undocumented immigrants are not allowed to apply for a green card while they’re in the U.S. Many Americans have this idea that undocumented immigrants can just go down the street and submit some papers, and it’s all done.

But because there are many outdated immigration policies, it’s hard for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status and live in the U.S. If they return to their home country and try to apply at a U.S. consulate, they will still not be allowed to return. There are certain bars to keep in mind.

Basically, if the immigrant was in the U.S. illegally for over 6 months, he/she will be barred for 3 years. If the immigrant was in the U.S. illegally for over a year, a 10-year bar will apply. The bans are applicable even when the immigrant marries someone from the U.S. or has children that are LPR/U.S. citizens. Waivers are available but not in every single case.

And even if the ban period ends, that doesn’t guarantee that the immigrant will be able to return to the States.

What is the temporary protected status or TPS?

The Temporary Protected Status, also known as simply TPS, is a program that protects a foreigner from being deported to their home country. It applies if the home country of the immigrant became dangerous or unsafe during the time they spent in the U.S. So, it will pretty much make sure that the immigrant is not in danger of disease, violence, or even death.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.