StMU Research Scholars

In the Shadows: Undocumented Life and Human Rights Abuses in the U.S.

Immigration legislation has a long legacy of targeting groups for mistreatment and exploitation, yet the first immigration policy was only enacted 90 years after the US Constitution was ratified. Before 1882, no piece of federal legislation controlled who could enter the United States and who could not. Technically, immigration in the United States would not begin until late 1776 when the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Many waves of Europeans had come to settle in North America despite the presence of many indigenous native communities. So it becomes critical to utilize the correct terminology that is associated with people’s arrival and presence at the time. Africans were brought to the U.S. against their will and were sold as slaves. Europeans entered as settlers who disrupted the existing system of Native American Communities and implemented laws of their own with complete disregard for the lives they endangered. The first major piece of legislation that imposed strict regulations on immigration in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As its name indicates, it that was intended to target and exclude a specific category of immigrants. Thereafter a series of laws followed such as the Immigration Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the Immigration Act of 1924. All of which imposed stern restrictions on minorities (Asians in particular), people of impoverished backgrounds, the mentally ill, foreign sex workers, etc. preventing them from entering the U.S. or making entry much more difficult. There was no real justification as to why these discriminatory laws were passed and enforced other than, it was under the federal government’s right to do so. At the time, free white Americans blamed these marginalized groups for low wages and economic problems even though the groups in question made up less than 0.1% of the population.1 The history of human rights abuses regarding immigration has unfolded for well over a century now and evolved over time into a different topic of conversation with a new focus. At the time of its creation, the term ‘illegal’ immigration was associated with those of Asian descent, today the term is heavily used to refer to undocumented Hispanics, especially those of Mexican and Central American origin. However, regardless of whom the term targets, it carries consequences for those who are arrested and charged. Therefore, forcing those who have overstayed their visas or entered undocumented, to live precariously in the shadows.

For those privileged to have U.S. citizenship, it is often unfathomable to even consider dropping the only life one has ever known to risk a life-threatening journey to reach the United States in search of opportunity or reunification with family members. No matter one’s citizenship, this is never an easy or simple decision to make. For many, they reach a breaking point when the consequences and risks associated with the perilous journey no longer matter because it is the only remaining option for survival and only hope for a brighter future for their children or yearning to reunite with a loved one, to build a safer life.2 For many Americans with ancestors of Mexican origin, U.S. history of where the border with the Mexico stands today amplifies the message that for many Mexicans they never chose to cross the border. On the contrary, the controversial Mexican-American war resulted in the acquisition of over 50% of Mexico’s land, therefore satisfying America’s wishes of Manifest Destiny while at the same time opening the doors for the major presence of Hispanics who lived for generation on the land that became part of the United States. Today the very states that were acquired as a result of the Mexican-American war such as, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming are where a majority of the Mexican-American population in the United States is concentrated. Additionally, it is critical to note that before Texas was its own country, known as the Republic of Texas, it was also a part of the United Mexican States from1821-1836. Today, Texas is the state that geographically makes up the largest section of the U.S. Mexican border and is currently on track to becoming a majority Hispanic state.3

For many of Asian descent, their heritage in the United States traces back as far as the mid-nineteenth century when the California Golf Rush attracted significant numbers of Chinese mine workers. According to Madeline Y. Hsu, a professor from the Department of History from the University of Texas at Austin, since the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese were still very determined to take full advantage of the economic opportunities arising in the United States. Their determination drove them to the Canadian border to enter the country clandestinely. California’s proximity to Mexico, helped many Chinese and others of different Asian descent to disguise as Mexicans and enter the country at the Southern border. This was possible because the border was largely unmarked and not patrolled by any border enforcement agencies on the U.S.-Mexican border at the time. The mobility and fluidity in crossing the border was not addressed until the 1920s and the 1930s.4

2-year-old Yanela Sanchez from Honduras is pictured crying as her mother is being detained by a border patrol agent in the U.S.-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas. | Courtesy of John Moore, Getty Images

The journey to enter the United States unauthorized drastically changed in the 21st century after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) along with the introduction of advanced equipment at ports of entry at American airports. The Southern border, where unauthorized border crossings and apprehensions of Hispanics mostly take place, became deadlier because enhanced security measures forced immigrants to take much longer and more dangerous routes to cross over. Between the years of 1999-2013 illegal border crossing deaths saw exponential growth.5 Films such as “7 Soles”, available on do a phenomenal job of illustrating the various challenges that migrants face on their journey to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. Obstacles such as abandonment in the desert, suicide/murder, rape, poisonous animals, or apprehension by the U.S. Border Patrol are serious dangers that migrants are willing to chance even with their children in order to escape political instability, gang violence, poor healthcare, and the economic instability, and lack of opportunities.6

Central American migrants being detained under the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso, Texas, on March 27, 2019, as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies run out of space to process the asylum seekers. | Courtesy of Mark Lambie—El Paso Times/USA Today/Sipa

Today both groups, Hispanics and Asians make up the largest blocks of the undocumented population in the U.S. With nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States,7 Their contribution to the county’s infrastructure development, agricultural harvests, and economic expansion is unquestionably beneficial to the prosperity of the states in which they reside. However, living in America as an undocumented immigrants presents new challenges from the various obstacles overcome in order to make the journey to the US. Simply surviving undocumented, making ends meet each day, and avoiding any sort of encounter with law enforcement are critical to individual survival under unauthorized status. Many accept work that require intense physical labor where they are heavily exploited, lack benefits and sick time, and where basic labor rights are violated. In very rare cases, some can successfully run businesses alongside partners who are U.S. citizens to use their social security numbers for tax purposes. As a business owner, the practice is an extremely risky move. As an undocumented immigrant, it is the only move. For women, few can afford to stay at home, most become field workers in California, street vendors in large cities, house cleaners in rich suburbs, or they work in meat slaughterhouses in North Carolina. Every story differ from one another, yet they all the fear of deportation, the pain of family separation, and the struggles that each must endure while exploited at work. For those who spend the remainder of their life in the United States, upon reaching the age of retirement they remain ineligible to draw from the Social Security funds to which they contributed thousands of dollars throughout their years of taxes withheld from their pay. However, not every undocumented immigrant has the fortune of reaching old age and spending their final moments in America. Over the past decade, many have faced deportation, they have likely had to endure some of the harshest human rights abuses that the United States government could inflict on anyone. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the branch from the Department of Homeland Security, specializes in the detaining and removal of unauthorized persons from the United States territory and returning them back to their country of origin. ICE’s practices and treatment of these individuals have been challenged by human rights organizations across the country such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Border Network for Human Rights, and The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) to uphold the commitment and example that the United States is obligated to exemplify as a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.8 Most notably, in the summer of 2019 hundreds of asylum seekers were pictured detained under the bridge of the Del Paso Del Norte port of entry in El Paso, Texas. Not only under the condition of the hottest summer on record, but with inadequate sanitation, or places to sleep.9 Many organizations across the country and around El Paso urged the Federal Government to speed up the asylum process to provide relief to the holding facilities that were overwhelmed.

#HUGSNOTWALLS event taking place on the Rio Grande between El Paso and Cuidad Juarez. The event is designed to allow hundreds of deported individuals from Mexico to briefly meet with their family members in the United States. | Courtesy of El Paso Times

The detention and deportation process can be traumatizing for any immigrant no matter their ages or their provenance. Human rights abuses experienced within detention include verbal and physical sexual abuse, lack of access to proper hygiene, and sexual assault. The trauma caused by those likely incidents carries significant weight on top of the health consequences following deportation. Every immigrant has a different circumstance. Some already have American born children residing in the United States and attending American schools. For those who have well-established roots, the consequences of family separation carry serious health concerns for the deportees and their families alike. For children in particular, separating them from their unauthorized immigrant parents can have devastating and long-lasting effects such as, their safety, economic security, phycological and physical wellness.10 Most commonly, the stories of Mexican migrants are widely known to receive support from organization like “Hugs not Walls” which is designed to briefly allow the reunification of separated family members. To learn more on this topic read the article published on this site ( In 2018, the event was organized by El Paso local activists to allow separated families to meet at the border along the Rio Grande River for a brief three minutes to embrace each other.11 It is important to recognize that not every immigrant is granted these kinds of privileges. For those of Asian descent, reunification with their family after being deported is nearly impossible due to geographical barriers. Even for those who do not face deportation, living in the United States as an undocumented migrant condemns them to a life in the shadows, a sort of self imposed prison to avoid separation. While these immigrants contribute much value to the local economies they support, the communities in which they live have not yet found broadly supported immigration reforms to reward their sacrifices.

It has always been critical to lead and offer solutions based on facts, science, and data. That is no different when it comes to the topic of comprehensive immigration reform and addressing not only the issue at home but at its root causes as well. It becomes extremely dangerous to lead based on the alternative where no concrete evidence is presented to back the claims that are presented in the mainstream conversation. Over the course of decades, several anti-immigrant groups and leading voices among states and local communities have intentionally manipulated figures to invoke the idea that the presence of undocumented immigrants is a burden to the United States economy, a threat to the safety of neighborhoods and communities, and that they hurt the employment prospects of native-born Americans. 12 This type of rhetoric has not only delayed comprehensive solutions from being passed at the highest levels of government, but it has also led to horrific acts of violence like the one that we saw in El Paso, Texas on August 3rd, 2019 which claimed 23 innocent lives. The shooting became the largest and deadliest anti-Latino attack in U.S. history.

To reduce the number of yearly unauthorized migrants making the journey towards the southern border, there should be investments to securely and safely expand the workforce carrying out reviews and conducting interviews for visa applicants. Investing in policies that address root causes of instability often motivating individuals to make the journey in the first place. Construction of a concrete border wall should temporarily be stopped to innovate border security with technology, additional ports of entry, and manpower for additional patrols. We cannot promote the phrase “families belong together”without living up to it. Local communities with a high population of undocumented immigrants have resorted to becoming sanctuary cities. Implementing catch and release of undocumented immigrant who poses no threat to the safety of the community or to the national security of the U.S. These current solutions do not changes the elements of the immigration system that are broken or never existed. Since there is absolutely no legal process to immigrate to the United States of America from Latin American countries or from many other parts of the world when one is poor and uneducated, the system de facto forces people to take the undocumented path. According to the National Research Council (NRC), immigrants – documented and undocumented alike – contribute up to $10 billion to the U.S. economy each year. Additionally, In 2007 the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that tax revenues for state and local governments are notably higher than the services provided to immigrants, providing a net profit.13 The urgency in addressing these issues can also help close the gaps in social and economic injustice in many immigrant communities and build a bridge towards a more equitable and exemplary democratic future.

  1. Becky Little, “The Birth of ‘Illegal’ Immigration.” History, Sept 7, 2017.
  2. Daniela Grava, “Why Do so Many Mexican Immigrants Come to the United States?” Immigrant Connect, Mar 16, 2017.
  3. Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border, (University of Texas Press, 2001).
  4. Madeline Hsu, Early Chinese Immigrants Posed as Mexicans to Enter the U.S., The University of Texas at Austin, 2010.
  5. Daniel Marulanda and James Agresti. “Is President Trump’s Border Wall an Outdated, Ineffective Strategy?” The Stream, May 8, 2018.
  6. 7 Soles. Mexico: Cuadrante Films, 2008.
  7. Bryan Baker. “Population Estimates Illegal Alien Population Residing in the United States: January 2015”, Department of Homeland Security – Office of Immigration Statistics, December 2018.
  8. Grace Meng. “ICE Raids on US Immigrant Families Risk Serious Abuses.” Human Rights Watch, Oct 6, 2020.
  9. Tara Law, “Migrants Held in Detention Center Under El Paso, Texas Bridge,” Time (Time, March 30, 2019).
  10. Cynthia de las Fuentes , Martha Ramos Duffer & Melba J. T. Vasquez, “Gendered Borders: Forensic Evaluations of
    Immigrant Women,” Women & Therapy , 36:3-4, 302-318.
  11. Briana Sanchez, “Revived Hugs Not Walls Event Draws Hundreds to the Rio Grande between El Paso, Mexico,” El Paso Times (El Paso Times, October 26, 2019).
  12. Correa-Cabrera, Guadalupe, and Miriam Rojas-Arenaza. “The Mathematics of Mexico–US Migration and US Immigration Policy.” Policy Studies 33, no. 4 (July 2012).
  13. Correa-Cabrera, Guadalupe, and Miriam Rojas-Arenaza. “The Mathematics of Mexico–US Migration and US Immigration Policy.” Policy Studies 33, no. 4 (July 2012).

14 Responses

  1. This article did a good job at covering such a difficult topic, it was very well written and informative. The images were very powerful and moving. The fact that the phrase “families belong together” is nothing more than a saying is heartbreaking, the US needs immigration reform. The author’s writing style really stressed the main point of the article and it made a complex topic easier to understand.

  2. The immigration legislation of the United States has major flaws. Unfortunately, an influx of immigrants have flooded border facilities that it can be difficult to guarantee the safety of all undocumented immigrants. Those who fall victim to abuses within these facilities or through the legal process of seeking asylum often have no voice. It is up to us as citizens to advocate for their rights and make a difference in their lives.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article and learning more about the immigration issue in the United States. The article was really well written and the author did a good job of detailing a really controversial issue in the U.S. Despite the position of the U.S. on a global scale it is shocking to hear of the many struggles faced by people who make efforts to travel here from nations that they do not feel safe at. The treatment of immigrants is an issue that needs to be resolved and soon.

  4. While the United States is not considered a nation in transition, the national issues it faces are the beginning of what is possibly great social change. Immigrants face many struggles trying to improve their livelihoods, and it’s a shame that they face discrimination, racism, and maltreatment in their efforts to do so. As you mentioned in the beginning of the article, the immigrant experience is the back bone of the U.S. and great amounts of it always indicate future change.

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