Documentation and Illegality


In this paper, I argue that immigration forms produce difference, specifically illegality, through the language they incorporate. I hone in on the Special Immigrant Juvenile process as a case study, demonstrating how minors are depicted as criminals and outsiders through their immigration forms. This occurs through the structure of the forms, the presence of specific questions and prompts, as well as the linguistic syntax of such questions. I will also discuss ease of access to the forms and the outsourcing of interaction with minors by various federal departments. These different scales, including structure and format of forms and larger systemic movements, cooperate with each other to reify the dehumanization and criminalization of Unaccompanied Minors who are applying for SIJ Status.


In recent years, public rhetoric around immigrants has portrayed them as criminals and eternal outsiders to the United States. The current administration has often evoked this fear around Central American immigrants, claiming that many of them are part of the gang MS-13. This paper will focus in on the general aura of criminality that is produced through the forms that are required in order to request Special Immigrant Juvenile status. In the paperwork that Unaccompanied Minors have to fill out, they are formulated as criminals and outsiders through the structure of the forms, the presence of specific questions and prompts, as well as the linguistic syntax of such questions. In the way that the forms move throughout systems, the outsider status of Unaccompanied Minors is reified in different ways.

The over-documentation or papereality (Dery 1998) of immigrants has been discussed in various scholarly works. In Abarca et al’s work on documentation, they show how immigrant families self-surveil and document in order to work towards an ‘imagined external gaze’ (Abarca 6). They talk specifically about non-citizens collecting documents of their lives in order to have them in case of future presentation to immigration. This enables them to pick and choose which documents will best portray their ‘moral worth’ in a way that the state understands (Abarca 1). ‘Such record-keeping practices enable noncitizens to speak back to the state in its own language, thus exploiting opportunities to challenge illegalization’ (Abarca 1). These are practices of collection and curation, but what happens when forms are created by the government and are required to be filled out by noncitizens? In these cases, the government has the ability to surveil and document in an unwavering and rigid fashion. These modes of surveilling can subversively affect the view of immigrants and reference their difference constantly.

The paperwork that is used in the SIJ process works on different scales to create an image of criminality overlayed on those who complete them. Referencing Collins, I recognize that the ways these forms index certain ideologies are organized into stratified complexes or assemblies (Collins 6). These scales encompass the individual person at the moment of query (the physical layout of the form), a person’s narrative and community ties (specific narrative questions), and the wider community and government (how forms move across the country and through various departments).

First I will examine the processes of UAC and SIJ status, and present an overview of the paperwork that needs to be filed for each step of the process. In discussing the ways that these immigration forms produce a discourse of illegality and criminality, I will compare them to a passport application that a US resident has to complete.

An Unaccompanied Minor (UAC) is a child who “(A) has no lawful immigration stat­us in the United States; (B) has not attained 18 years of age; and (C) with respect to whom—(i) there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States; or (ii) no parent or legal guardian in the United States is available to provide care and physical custody” (A Guide to Children Arriving at the Border). Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status is a subset of UAC status, which means that not only is the minor unaccompanied when they arrive in the US, but they are unable to return to their home country or family for fear of abuse or further trauma. If a minor achieves SIJ status, they are eligible to apply for permanent residency and getting a Green Card (“Special Immigrant Juveniles”) There are many hoops that someone has to go through in order to receive the status of SIJ. The eligibility requirements are as follows:

  • Must be under 18 at the time of filing for SIJ (A recent change by USCIS has adjusted the age from under 21 to lower (Robbins))
  • Cannot be married
  • Must have a valid juvenile court order finds that you are dependent on the court and cannot be reunified with one or both of your parents because of abuse or neglect
  • And it is not in your best interest to return to country of nationality or last residence
  • Must be eligible for USCIS consent: ‘This means that you must have sought the juvenile court order to obtain relief from abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar basis under state law and not primarily to obtain an immigration benefit.’

There are other stipulations if the minor is still in custody of Health and Human Services (“Special Immigrant Juveniles”), but the above are the general requirements. I could discuss the ideologies behind the final bullet-point ‘not primarily to obtain an immigration benefit’, but it seems fairly straightforward what the mentality is around immigrants attempting to gain benefits from the state.

In 2016, the government granted 15,101 of the SIJ petitions that were filed, which was about double the 8,739 granted the year before. There has been a great increase in the number of Unaccompanied Minors who are entering the United States since 2011, which has affected the federal oversight of such cases, and courts have ended up requesting much more information relating to cases, so they are more in-depth and take longer to process (Moran).

If we were to follow the process along from detention to obtainment of a legal residency, this would give us a better sense of the paperwork that needs to be filed in order to gain SIJ status and a Green Card. Each state has a different process to motion for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which means that each state has varying forms throughout the process. Let us say that a minor was detained in Texas, and their sponsor is located in Rhode Island. The minor is going through the Dorcas International Institute’s Unaccompanied Minors Department, and is filing documents with the immigration court in Boston (because Rhode Island does not have an immigration court of its own). The following are the documents I will discuss in the rest of this paper, not necessarily in order of submission, which is why I wanted to clarify with the following table:

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 3.57.39 PM

The above documents are simply the forms that are required regarding the minors legal process, excluding various forms needed to register for school, medical benefits, or other services. A few of them contain 10-15 pages of information, and some of the information repeats. I have included some figures that show actual documents I have obtained, but all identifying information has been redacted. I will move from the smallest scale of the papers to their full contents, and then to the larger scale of how the papers work in the bureaucratic system.

‘A#’ vs ‘Alien #’

One of the first things to examine under this topic is the insidious way difference is marked and reified in legal terms and categories. A careful reader might notice that the term Unaccompanied Minor, seemingly abbreviated to UM, does not line up with the legal abbreviation UAC, which I have been using so far in this paper. That is because ‘UAC’ actually stands for ‘Unaccompanied Alien Child’, thus containing and concealing a word epitomizing difference. This word ‘alien’ also lends its meaning to the A#, or ‘Alien Registration Number’, which is the marking identifier that every immigrant receives upon detention. While the discourse using ‘alien’ has transitioned into ‘undocumented’, the ‘alien’ terminology still maintains its place, albeit shortened and disguised. This idea of ‘alien’ is tied into the idea of criminality in discourse today, as the words are often paired together (Caldwell).

On these forms, the A# retains a prominent place throughout, but seems to increase in importance as the process goes on. On the Request for Family Reunification (Figure 2), it appears on the third page, where the Sponsor Care Agreement is, directly after the minor’s name (Oficina de Reubicación de Refugiados). This is filled out by the sponsor, and early on in the process, so it makes sense that the A# is both not very prevalent. This paperwork focuses on the sponsor, and not the minor. On all of the intake paperwork (Figure 3), the A# finds its place in an identical location; the first section under the first and last name, and in every case directly underneath the date of birth (Heartland Alliance, Assessment for Risk, Case Review, Individual Service Plan, Initial Intakes Assessment, UAC Assessment, UAC Sponsor Information).

Figure 2

Figure 3

On the referral memo, the A# starts to take a more prominent space, located between the referral ID and the first name of the client (Figure 4: Heartland Alliance, Case Referral Memo). Within a few days of moving, a minor needs to fill out a Change of Address and a Change of Venue form, and send copies of each to both the Immigration Court and Office of Chief Counsel in their new location. These forms (Figure 5) both request the A# directly following the name of the client. When a minor applies for SIJ, status, the same patterns occurs; the A# follows the name of the minor, after several other identifying numbers, present because the form is also used for other special immigrant statuses. This is shown in Figure 6 (Department of Homeland Security, USCIS Form I-360).

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

The final example of A# location is found when a minor applies to ‘Register Permanent Residence,’ also known as getting a ‘Green Card’. In this final form, the A# replaces the name as the first piece of information on the page. There is also a space for the A# in the header of every subsequent page; all seventeen of them. It seems odd that this mark of difference would be more prominent as someone gets closer to becoming a more permanent member of the US community, or perhaps that is the very idea that the presentation of the form is trying to counter; the A# remains on top because the applicant will never quite be fully part of America? It should be noted that both of the final forms were created by the Department of Homeland Security, so the difference in presentation would only be due to being a different stage of the process, and not to bureaucratic practices.

Figure 7

Given at the border, the A# follows a minor throughout their journey towards achieving residency, seeming to gain more prevalence as the case moves forward. The A# not only dehumanizes a person by replacing their name with a number, it literally marks them as ‘alien’. Within the ideology surrounding citizens versus noncitizens, it also marks them as illegal whether they have status or not. When a minor gains their green card, the A# will remain, taking its place on the back of their card, permanently marking them as unbelonging.

Aliases and Other Names

The form of appellation that the A# controls also emerges in other parts of the paperwork. In these forms, there often seems to be a section for ‘Other Names’, in order to record all aspects of a person’s identity. This is not dissimilar to the US Passport Application , which also asks for other names used. However, in the U.S. Passport Application, the phrasing is as follows; ‘List all other names you have used. (Examples: Birth Name, Maiden, Previous Marriage, Legal Name Change. Attach additional pages if needed)’ (U.S. Department of State, Form DS-11: US Passport Application ). The examples given do not assume anything about a person’s interaction with the law. In the immigration forms for UACs, however, the assumption is heavily biased towards the criminality of those filling out the forms, most notably by using the terms ‘Aliases’ and ‘AKA’.

In certain forms, the questions contain the word ‘alias’ but do not solely rely on it, like in form I-485, where the given examples include ‘your family name at birth, other legal names, nicknames, aliases, and assumed names’ (emphasis mine). However, in other forms, ‘alias’ or ‘AKA’ takes a prominent place next to the minor’s name and A number. While the intent of the use of this phrasing may not be malicious, it creates a criminalizing effect. Words are archives, and the words ‘alias’ and ‘AKA’ are heavily embedded within the idea of illegality and masquerading.

Logos as Territory-Marking

Linguistically, the above features are tied into aspects of the form’s structure, but there is another piece of the forms that both visually and linguistically affects the presentation of the paperwork. This is the presence of the logos of various governmental organizations. The initial form which petitions for the Reunification of Family has the Department of Health and Human Services logo at the top of it, as well as the name of the department (Oficina de Reubicación de Refugiados). The later forms that petition for SIJ Status and Permanent Residency hold the U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo at the top as well (Department of Homeland Security). The case review forms that are filled out by shelter workers do not contain a logo, or even the name of the organization (Heartland Care Alliance). Although this may be standard practice for legal forms, it seems slightly odd to me that the forms that a client must fill out themselves boast these logos, while those that are filled out for agencies themselves (like Heartland, Dorcas, or even by the client’s attorney), do not.

The above instances of interpellation and subject-producing (Althusser), are examples of hidden raciolinguistic ideologies that the creators of the forms hold (Irvine and Gal 1). Although they may seem to have no blatant consequences, one can see how someone filling out these forms might internalize certain ideas; that their A# is an integral part of their identity, that they are assumed to be a criminal, that they are constantly under the gaze of a surveillance state.

Questioning: Criminal Intent Against the US

The questions in specific forms are more overt ways that applicants are dehumanized and criminalized. First I will discuss a specific example of categorization that creates difference within the ‘noncitizen’ category, and then I will move to a specific focus on form I-485 and how Part 8 dehumanizes and criminalizes those completing it.

Irvine and Gal’s description of fractal recursivity in category-making applies specifically to the Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) or Special Immigrant form (Irvine and Gal). In the second section of the form, it asks for the applicant to classify themself into one of sixteen different categories, including the Amerasian, Special Immigrant Juvenile, Special Immigrant Physician, VAWA Self-Petitioning Parent of a U.S. citizen son or daughter, broadcasters, and more (Department of Homeland Security, USCIS Form I-360). Instead of having a distinct form for each category, each classification has a section on the same form. Instead of there being simply one Other (‘noncitizen’), this form requires applicants to determine how they differ from their fellow Others.

In Form I-485, Part 8 deals with General Eligibility and Inadmissibility Grounds, and asks questions about various types of criminal activity. This questions take up almost five full pages of the form, and repeat in tone and topic (Department of Homeland Security, USCIS Form I-485).

In Part 8, Question 19, the applicant is asked ‘Have you EVER been issued a final order of exclusion, deportation, or removal?’. Much later in Question 70, they are asked ‘Have you EVER been excluded, deported or removed from the United States or have you ever departed the United States on your own after having been ordered excluded, deported, or removed from the United States?’ Note the emphasis of the ‘EVER’, which is present (both capitalized and bold) in almost every question of the five pages. Also note that the questions are essentially the same, albeit with slight differences that may be noticeable to a law practitioner. It is almost as if the applicant is being interrogated and expected to be caught in a lie if the questions are asked far enough apart.

Another interesting section here is one that asks questions relating to the applicant’s intention to complete any illegal activities in the U.S. These questions are interesting firstly because they focus on intent, which is only helpful if the applicant later commits an illegal act and can be referred back to the form. They also consistently invoke the name of the United States, as in Question 46.d.; ‘Do you intend to: Engage in any activity whose purpose included opposing, controlling, or overthrowing the U.S. Government by force, violence, or other unlawful means while in the United States?’ (Department of Homeland Security, USCIS Form I-485). This territorial marking of the forms positions the minor as an outsider to the United States, and is heavily focused on national origin and identity.

Outsourcing Across Systems

In my bibliography, as well as in my initial description of the movement of a UAC to different locations, one can see that the paperwork and form creation and oversight are shared between several different organizations. For a minor who has been detained in Texas and resettled in Rhode Island, their cases are overseen by Heartland Alliance in Chicago and the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington DC, while the on-the-ground work of SIJ and Permanent Residency acquisition happen in the Immigration Court in Boston. This totals five different locations where paperwork is created and sent to, across the country.

This movement of paperwork has several consequences. One is simply the logistical consequence of case files potentially being lost in transit. It makes the process much more complicated for those who are completing the paperwork; the Change of Venue and Change of Address forms both have to go to two distinct departments in the same city (Boston in our hypothetical case). This becomes much more complex when different states are involved.

This physical distance in cases also maintain the view of minors as cases and A#’s, and not actual flesh and blood. The paperwork starts to become a proxy for the child, and is reified in that way as it is copied and sent between the different departments. If a narrative holds a criminal idea, or a question is answered in an ‘incorrect’ manner, it will be etched in the forms and will be very difficult to change in the future. This outsourcing continues to dehumanize and criminalize the minors as they move through the immigration process.


The way that Special Immigrant Juvenile paperwork is formulated creates a view of the applicants as attempting to subvert the United States as criminals and as eternal outsiders. Through the constant presence of the A# and ‘Aliases’, the logos and assertions of United States federal departments, criminal questioning, and outsourcing of cases, these minors are dehumanized and criminalized even as they attempt to become an insider in U.S. society.


Works Cited

Abarca, Gray Albert, and Susan Bibler Coutin. “Sovereign Intimacies: The Lives of Documents within US State-Noncitizen Relationships.” American Ethnologist, vol. 45, no. 1, 2018, pp. 7–19.

Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation). Verso, 2014.

Caldwell, Beth. “The Demonization of Criminal Aliens.” CrImmigrationcom, 25 Oct. 2016,

Cooper, Cristina Ritchie. “A Guide for State Court Judges and Lawyers on Special Immigrant JuvenileStatus.” American Bar Association,

Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS Form I-485: Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Retrieved from

Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS Form I-360: Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant. Retrieved from

Dery, David. “‘Papereality’ and Learning in Bureaucratic Organizations.” Administration & Society, vol. 29, no. 6, 1998, pp. 677–689., doi:10.1177/009539979802900608.

A Guide to Children Arriving at the Border: Laws, Policies and Responses. American Immigration Council, 2015.

Heartland Care Alliance. Assessment for Risk. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Heartland Care Alliance. Case Referral Memo. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Heartland Care Alliance. Case Review. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Heartland Care Alliance. Individual Service Plan. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Heartland Care Alliance. Initial Intakes Assessment. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Heartland Care Alliance. UAC Assessment. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Heartland Care Alliance. UAC Sponsor Information. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Moran, Greg. “Number of Juveniles Gaining Special Immigration Status from Federal Authorities Doubled in 2016.”, 28 May 2017,

Office of Refugee Resettlement, Division of Child Services. ORR UC/S-5: Sponsor Assessment. Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Oficina de Reubicación de Refugiados, División de Servicios Para Niños, Solicitud de Reunificación Familiar, Retrieved from DIIRI case files.

Robbins, Liz. “A Rule Is Changed for Young Immigrants, and Green Card Hopes Fade.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2018.

“Special Immigrant Juveniles.” USCIS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 5 July 2011,

U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, E-33: Alien’s Change of Address Form/ Immigration Court, Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Motion for a Change of Venue, Retrieved from Example_Change_of_Venue.

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. Form DS-11: US Passport Application. Retrieved from

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