The injustice of being socially undocumented

Public discussion about immigration often centers on concerns about legal status. Should at least some legally undocumented migrants be granted a right to remain, and if so, which ones? Should pregnant women be able to secure visas to enter the United States with the intention of giving birth and obtaining citizenship for their children? What should the future hold for Dreamers — legally undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States at a young age, and consider this country to be their home?

Such concerns about legal status are extremely important. Having, or not having, legal permission to enter, live and remain here can make an extraordinary difference in terms of one’s well-being, life prospects and personal safety. While we should not lose sight of this, however, our political discussions about immigration should also attend to a potentially deeper injustice: that of being socially undocumented.

Socially undocumented people are those who are presumed to be undocumented on the mere basis of their appearance, and subjected to demeaning, immigration-related constraints on that basis. They are treated, that is, as so-called “illegals” not on the basis of any fair confirmation of legally undocumented status but rather on the basis of particular racialized, class-based, and even gender features.

Most, but not all, socially undocumented people are Mexican and Central American-origin. However, many other Latinos, as well as many Native Americans (particularly in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands) are also branded “illegals” regardless of their legal status. Some socially undocumented people are also legally undocumented. Pregnant socially undocumented people are frequently subjected to the highest levels of social “illegalization.”

The Chicana philosopher and poet Gloria Anzaldúa gave what we might interpret as an early account of socially undocumented identity in her seminal book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” In the book, she told the story of a Mexican-American U.S. citizen named Pedro, who, despite his U.S. citizenship, was deported to Mexico, where he had never lived. “He couldn’t speak English, couldn’t tell them he was a fifth-generation American,” she explained. “Sin papeles — he did not carry his birth certificate to work in the fields. La migra took him away while we watched.”

In fact, U.S. history is replete with deportations of citizens and legal residents, including about 60% of the estimated 1.8 million Mexican-origin people who were “repatriated,” or deported, to Mexico from the United States during the Great Depression. Such deportations of U.S. citizens — particularly those who are brown and working-class — continue to the present day.

Centuries of immigration injustice have served to carve out a social group of socially undocumented people. For instance, the early Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only “free white persons” of “good character” were eligible to be naturalized as U.S. citizens. One couldn’t ask for a clearer statement of who did, and who did not, belong.

Later, in 1848, following the Mexican-American War and Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the U.S. grabbed about half of Mexico’s territory and rendered many Mexicans “foreigners” on their own land. As Anzaldúa wrote, “the Gringo, locked into the fiction of white superiority, seized complete political power, stripping Indians and Mexicans of their land while their feet were still rooted in it.”

And the Bracero Program of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s brought Mexican laborers en masse to the U.S. under highly exploitative conditions. Braceros were often treated as illegal workers in spite of their legal permission to live and work here.

Today, many legally undocumented people who are also socially undocumented endure immigration-related constraints associated not with their legally undocumented status, per se, but with how they look. All socially undocumented people can, for instance, be “randomly” pulled over by police on the street and asked to show their papers. They may be called “illegals” — a slurring, dehumanizing term. And they may be hired for the most dangerous and underpaid types of labor on the basis of their perceived deportability.

Regardless of whether one considers oneself an “open borders” advocate, socially undocumented identity and oppression raise concerns about injustice. Justice requires that people be treated as moral equals — it forbids discrimination on the basis of morally arbitrary factors like one’s race, gender and class. So even if it is the case that at least some immigration restrictions are just and nondiscriminatory, those that perpetuate socially undocumented identity and oppression are not. No one — and not even those who are, in fact, legally undocumented — can justly be oppressed on the basis on being physically perceived as “illegal.”

Socially undocumented oppression is a complicated phenomenon that transcends legal status. But in recognizing this, we need not abandon concern for pregnant border-crossers, Dreamers and other legally undocumented migrants. Instead, we can view these concerns in terms of a philosophical framework of immigration justice — one that acknowledges pernicious social “illegality” and seeks to understand the underlying racialized, class-based, and gender dynamics that perpetuate it.

Amy Reed-Sandoval is an assistant philosophy professor at UNLV.