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Invisible Illegality: The Double Bind of Being Asian and Undocumented

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How do undocumented young adults of Asian origin, namely those who can “pass” as documented, navigate their everyday lives?  More broadly, how do racial discourses shape pathways of incorporation for undocumented young adults?  Undocumented immigrants of Asian origin occupy a unique social location in the United States because what “illegal” conjures in the American consciousness is not what “Asian” looks like. On one hand, they live in a context where they are primarily racialized as non-threatening “model minorities” leading to perceptions of success, achievement, and docility. Simultaneously, however, they also carry the burden of their criminalized undocumented immigration status. This status, and both the stigma and burden that come with it, is invisible. Not only is legal status undetectable to the naked eye, unlike race or gender, but Asians do not fall into the racial imagery of an “illegal immigrant” that is conflated with “Mexican.” Living in the United States as someone who is Asian and undocumented is, in essence, a double-edged sword.

Drawing on a comparative analysis of in-depth interviews with 63 undocumented Asian and Latinx young adults from California, in addition to two years of intermittent participant observation at community-based organizations, events, and workshops serving the undocumented population, I shed light on the ways in which illegality, the everyday experience of living with undocumented status, is refracted through the prism of racialization in the United States. My findings reveal that 1.5-generation undocumented Asian immigrants experience what I call invisible illegality. Race operates to simultaneously shield Asian undocumented young adults from and expose them to the precarious nature of their immigration status, and this varies across institutional and relational contexts. Relative to their Latinx counterparts, Asian undocumented immigrants experience advantages such as greater physical security since they are less vulnerable to racial profiling and ICE raids. However, being a camouflaged minority within the undocumented population results in their exclusion from a collective identity of illegality that, for many, rests on shared race-based narratives of being Latino. Such exclusion results in intensified feelings of shame and a sense of isolation both within their ethnoracial community and the broader undocumented community. It also hinders access to formal and informal supports in civil society. The unique nexus of being Asian and undocumented thus leads to a delicate position of invisible illegality that is produced by multiple co-constitutive processes of racialization.


By unraveling how the intersection of race and undocumented status uniquely shapes the burdens of illegality of undocumented young adults of Asian origin, Invisible Illegality has sobering implications beyond an understanding of diverse trajectories of illegality. It exposes the ways in which the racialization of immigrant communities is a powerful mechanism that cements broader inequalities in U.S. society.

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.