THE PENULTIMATE CHAPTER of sociologist Roberto Gonzales’s book Lives in Limbo—the chapter he calls the most painful and gripping to read, the one that would be its climax, if the book were a work of fiction—opens with a story about two factory workers on an auto-parts assembly line. The men are friends, both in their late twenties, and both undocumented immigrants. Like everyone else in Gonzales’s book, they’ve spent most of their lives in the United States. One of them, Jonathan, never finished high school, while the other, Ricardo, has a college degree in political science and a master’s in management. “He shouldn’t even be here,” Jonathan says, sitting at a lunch table in the factory’s crowded break room. But Ricardo disagrees. “You see, this right here is right where I’m supposed to be,” he tells Gonzales. “It’s probably where I’ll be in five years.” He has figured out what Gonzales’s research notes have inexorably begun to show: that no matter what his education, or talent, or work ethic—or intrinsic “Americanness”—the thing that defines his life is his illegality.
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