7 Things Undocumented Immigrants Worry About that US Citizens Don’t

A person with long black hair looks down, appearing worried, against a bright red background.

A person with long black hair looks down, appearing worried, against a bright red background.

In the early 1990s, a White Mexican family sponsored my mother for a visa. They did this promising my mother work and a better life.

My mother migrated to the United States – and once here, found herself working over sixty hours per week, Monday through Sunday, for less than two dollars an hour.

My mother, who is also my biggest inspiration, role model, and shero, was able to escape from her coercive employers, and find her way back to Mexico.

But when my mother was ready to come back to the US – truthfully, needing to escape the violent household we were living in – she was denied a visa because the family that had originally sponsored her and exploited her for months withheld her visa from her while in the US.

Since my mother didn’t have access to her visa, she didn’t know the time limit regulations – and her visa expired while she was being exploited in the US, essentially held in modern day slave labor.

My mother, then, risked everything so that we could survive, and she came to the United States without a visa. I later joined, coming to the US undocumented.

I write this piece in the hopes of addressing those who are not undocumented. I write this piece not to convince you that we, the (un)documented, are human, but to make you realize that we have been made non-humans.

I write this to share my realities as a formerly undocumented immigrant. But most importantly, I write this article because most of these struggles are the struggles I didn’t understand growing up. I didn’t understand them because my mother shielded me from our realities, but also because I was a toddler and didn’t know what it meant to be undocumented.

My mother and I are African Diasporic and pan-Indigenous immigrants from Mexico. What does this mean? This means that as Black immigrants, we are five times more likely to be deported than non-Black immigrants. And being Mexican means that we only have a 1.6% chance of actually winning a political asylum case.

This means that our experiences in the United States have been painful and traumatic.

For this, I feel a need to share a list of seven things that undocumented people worry about that citizens don’t:

1. Going to the Doctor Is a Luxury Undocumented People Often Don’t Have

I remember that I seldom visited the doctor’s office when I was younger.

I used to think that I never went because my mother and I lived below the poverty line and couldn’t afford it. But then I realized, in reality, that going to the doctor’s office could get my mother and I deported.

The Massachusetts State House even tried to pass a bill (twice!) that would demand hospitals to ask for proof of citizenship. And if they were undocumented, they would get treated, but wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until Immigration picked them up and placed them in deportation procedures.

What kind of life can a person live if getting sick can lead them to deportation, and potentially, a faster death?

2. When Undocumented People Drive, They Risk Detainment, Imprisonment, or Deportation

First of all, most undocumented people don’t have the privilege of applying for a driver’s license – because to get a license, one needs a social security number and a US-issued government ID.

So, for undocumented communities, driving is often not an option. But sometimes, they have no other choice, and must drive without a license.

However, in many rural communities, public transit doesn’t exist because it’s assumed that all families have a car. For example, as I began to organize around undocumented rights, I began to hear the experiences of those who didn’t live in major cities that gave them access to public transit.

I remember once talking to a friend of mine from North Carolina who told me that they had to ride their bike everyday to school for almost five miles since they were in third grade, because their parents were undocumented and would risk being deported if they drove.

At some point, my friend’s parents had to learn how to drive, because it wasn’t safe for an elementary school-aged student to travel for miles by themselves.

Being undocumented means having no freedom to move or travel.

3. Undocumented People Have to Second-Guess Using Public Transit

Growing up in Boston, public transit was pretty reliable, and I never really thought anything of it. At one point in my life, however, I lived in New York, and now in California, where transportation police are often present in the subway system.

In having conversation with my undocumented community in New York and California, friends have told me that they no longer trust the subway system because they can get profiled at any minute.

They can be approached and asked for a government-issued ID. And since most undocumented people don’t have access to them, it triggers a lot of questions – and might lead to being detained and deported.

Using public transit is a privilege that many of us often take for granted. And we need to be more conscious about the ways in which public space is used as a playground for the police to profile people of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, homeless folk, and other low-income people – just to feed into the prison-industrial-complex and the private detention-center system.

4. Undocumented People Never Know If They’ll Be Paid for Their Labor

To be honest, I was lucky to have only been in the workforce while undocumented for four years. In those four years, I realized the atrocities that my undocumented community has been through.

Oftentimes, undocumented people are hired for one-day jobs (like construction, cleaning, painting, cooking, or organizing), and then they won’t be paid for their labor. Instead, the person who offered them the job will tell them that they’ll call the police and have them deported.

Other times, employers will clock out workers hours before they finish their workday, and undocumented workers will only get partial pay for their labor. Afraid of being deported, workers won’t say anything.

5. Having Casual Conversations About ‘Home’ Can Be Really Dangerous

Having been undocumented for sixteen years, I always feared being asked about how often I visited my home country, or if I missed home. In these conversations, all I could think about was forgetting how my aunts and uncles looked, or how I haven’t seen my grandmother in almost two decades.

Talking about home meant reminding myself that I was in hiding – and that I could be kidnapped by Immigration at any moment and be sent to a detention center.

Talking about home meant admitting that I could not return. If I decided to leave, that would mean leaving my mother, my brother, my sister, my stepfather, and some of my aunts.

While undocumented, I had no home. Now that I am a resident, I have realized, I still have no home.

6. Undocumented People Fear Family Separation Every Single Day

What people don’t usually know is that deportation isn’t the only way in which undocumented families are separated.

In fact, I remember rumors going around in elementary school that a classmate was no longer at school because they were taken away from their mother by social services, just because the mother was undocumented.

When I was in high school, I remember my mom telling me about a case that happened in Texas, where a social service agency stated that having an undocumented parent put a child at risk, so they placed the child in the foster care system.

7. Undocumented People Can’t Plan Ahead

Because most undocumented people don’t have access to a social security number or a work permit, planning ahead is often tough – because any money that comes in has to be used for immediate survival: food, shelter, water, heat, and clothing.

Planning ahead often requires citizenship and financial stability.

For example, a US citizen can plan ahead by saving and eventually becoming a homebuyer, a privilege that undocumented people often don’t have. In addition, there are banks that discriminate against undocumented people, so opening a checking and/or savings account is already predetermined based on citizenship status.

All undocumented workers will also never see the money that they paid in social security benefits and/or taxes because retirement money is only afforded to those with US work authorization.

Clearly, planning ahead is a privilege that undocumented people don’t have, an oppression that they also share with poor people, homeless people, and those of us that depend on the medical-industrial complex.

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I shared this list because every day that goes by, there is an undocumented immigrant out there being denied human rights, and there are citizens out there, preaching false information about the immigrant community.

This article is not about pity, or saying that undocumented people are the most oppressed in the world. This article is an invitation for you to commit to change culture, and to begin advocating for those who may not have the capacity to advocate for themselves.

The most important thing a citizen can do right now is to commit to taking a stand against anti-immigrant rhetoric, which only perpetuates violence and instills fear, thus preventing the liberation of all people.

Alan Pelaez Lopez is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and an Afro-Indigenous migrant that grew up in Boston via La Ciudad de México, documenting their existence as an (un)docuqueer poet, jewelry designer, and a huge Frida Kahlo fan. Alan is currently in graduate school pursuing a degree in Comparative Ethnic Studies in the Bay Area, and a member of Familia: Trans, Queer Liberation Movement