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Liminal Legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan Immigrants' Lives in the United States1

Arizona State University

This article examines the effects of an uncertain legal status on the lives of immigrants, situating their experiences within frameworks of citizenship/belonging and segmented assimilation, and using Victor Turner's concept of liminality and Susan Coutin's "legal nonexistence." It questions black-and-white conceptualizations of documented and undocumented immigration by exposing the gray area of "liminal legality" and examines how this in-between status affects the individual's social networks and family, the place of the church in immigrants' lives, and the broader domain of artistic expression. Empirically, it draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix from 1989 to 2001. The article lends support to arguments about the continued centrality of the nation-state in the lives of immigrants.