US & Canada

'Are all undocumented immigrants criminals?'

Fence on the US-Mexico border Image copyright AFP

A feature we published about an undocumented student living in the US sparked a big response. Illegal immigration is an issue that is emblematic of the deep divisions in the US - it prompts divergent views.

There are some 11 million undocumented migrants living in the country, most with no clear path to regularise their situation.

One of them is a Mexican student who told us she could not leave her city in Texas because she feared crossing a checkpoint and being deported.

Read: My life trapped in an American city

Many readers sent us questions and comments about the piece.

Here is a selection of their thoughts, followed by our response with more information on what is a complex as well as controversial issue.

"She states that she is NOT a criminal, however she most certainly IS a criminal." T Reeves

It is not that simple. Legal experts say unlawful presence in the US by itself is not a crime in most cases. It is, however, a civil violation that puts the person at risk of being deported, a lengthy process.

However, unlawful entry is a misdemeanour. So someone who is in the US without a valid permit could be breaking the law by having entered the country illegally.

"[She] makes no mention of trying to get into the US, from abroad, the legal way." Chris Olive

She later explained that her family had entered with a tourist visa and stayed.

Perhaps contrary to common belief, this is how most of the undocumented migrants have arrived in the US in recent years, and not by illegally crossing the border.

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Media captionThe Border Ranch: Living on a 'smuggling route'

The number of people who overstayed their visas (tourist or other temporary permits) has exceeded those entering the US illegally every year since 2007, the Center for Migration Studies, a think-tank, said last year, based on data from 2014.

It added that the number of undocumented migrants in the country has fallen "dramatically" each year since 2008 - some of them say they would not have met education or employment qualifications, for example, required for a visa.

For context, there are 34 million immigrants living legally in the US.

"The very word associated with her coming to be in the US, 'illegally', requires that she, in fact, does NOT have the rights of a citizen." Anthony Saltamachia

There is a long-standing debate over how undocumented immigrants should be treated.

Polls show there is broad support to offering citizenship to those who were brought by their parents illegally when they were young. There are an estimated 3.6 million of these so-called Dreamers.

But many oppose any plan that could pave the way for older people to get their papers too.

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Media captionThe missing - consequences of Trump's immigration crackdown

Protections have been put in place for some people though.

About one million undocumented migrants have temporary permission to live and work in the country as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programmes, according to the Pew Research Center.

Daca's fate, however, remains unclear following the Trump administration's decision last year to repeal it.

"Why has she not become a citizen?"Kathleen Beecher

Becoming an American citizen is a complicated process. In general, an individual needs to meet a number of requirements, including having permanent residence, or a green card, for at least five years.

But the current legislation makes it virtually impossible for someone who entered the country irregularly to obtain lawful permanent residence.

In a few exceptions undocumented migrants can apply to regularise their situation. The cases include marriage to a US citizen or a green card holder, those who were victims or witnesses to a crime or seeking asylum.

But immigration experts say people wait years, even decades, until a decision is made, and that the requirements in place mean that many end up considered not eligible.

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Media captionWhere do America's undocumented immigrants live?

The student in our story said she did not qualify for Daca after her family moved back to Mexico following the 2008 recession - continuous residence was one of the criteria for eligibility in the programme.

She added that her parents had started an application to obtain her documents after they got their permanent residence and she was under 21, but that the process was still ongoing with no estimated date for a decision.

"Is it horrific paperwork that holds them back, is it outdated laws needing to be addressed to make it easier, sloppiness... or what?" Virginia

Experts say it is a little bit of all of this - old legislation that has not been updated to reflect the current situation and the fact that most of the undocumented migrants already in the country do not qualify to any of the options available for them to get their papers.

"If anyone is to blame for her situation it is her parents." Gerald Domagala

We asked her that: "It wasn't my choice [to come to the US]. It was my parents' choice because they wanted us to have a better life. I'm not a rapist or bringing in drugs or a trouble maker. But people have no clue of it because we're not given the chance to prove who we are."

Join the conversation

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Send us your comments or questions to and we will respond to what you tell us, as part of our Ask America series, which is a project getting different perspectives from around the country.

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