The everyday surveillance of undocumented immigrants

The everyday surveillance of undocumented immigrants

By Asad L. Asad

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Maite, in her late 30s when I met her in 2013, has an infectious optimism about her. “This is a country of opportunity,” she tells me. It’s not hard to see why she feels this way. Despite the stress of managing both a sudden divorce and the pains of breast cancer treatment, she continues to steward a successful small business selling housewares door-to-door. Her older daughter is about to graduate from Texas’ flagship public university and has started looking into medical school; her younger daughter is top of her high school’s honor roll. Maite has not had it easy over the last few years, but she is proud of her daughters and determined in the pursuit of her dreams.

Determined is perhaps an understatement. Maite’s various ups and downs, ordinary in the sense that they could happen to anyone, take on added weight because she lives in the United States without authorization from the federal government. Colloquially, Maite is an undocumented immigrant. She’s not alone in that regard. Within her household, her older daughter is also undocumented; in Dallas, her county of residence, 273,000 people are; in Texas, that number is 1.6 million; and, nationwide, it’s about 10.6 million. About two thirds of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or Central America, and over 60 percent have lived in the United States for at least ten years. Despite their colloquial designation as undocumented, their everyday routines are, in fact, routinely documented by various mainstream institutions. Undocumented immigrants live within a tangled web of institutional surveillance that both threatens and maintains their societal presence as they deal with life’s ups and downs.

Multiple and sometimes competing binaries characterized by both exclusion from and inclusion in mainstream institutions are a feature of undocumented life in the United States. The federal government denies Maite permission to live and work in the country, but it allows her to run her own business with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The federal government requires Maite to pay into Medicare and Social Security, health and social insurance programs whose benefits she is barred from accessing. Texas denies Maite and her eldest daughter access to Medicaid, a health insurance program for people with limited financial resources, but Maite pays out of pocket for private health insurance while enrolling her U.S.-born daughter in Medicaid. Her eldest daughter is one of an estimated 22,000 undocumented students in the University of Texas system, in a state whose governor and attorney general are not shy about advocating for anti-immigrant laws, regulations, and policies that would disadvantage these very students. This same daughter has access to need-based financial aid for college from the state but cannot enroll in medical school in Texas. In brief, Maite and her family are not off any metaphorical radar; they are squarely on it.

Maite’s story demonstrates the everyday forms of surveillance endemic to contemporary life in the United States. By everyday forms of surveillance, I mean the process by which empowered authorities in mainstream institutions, whether medical, financial, employment, educational, and the like, monitor their clients (e.g., patients, customers, workers, and students) as they interact with one another. Empowered authorities include a range of possible actors, including many directly relevant to the institution’s operations (e.g., doctors or nurses) and others less directly so (e.g., police officers). The surveillance these authorities enact isn’t unique to people living in the United States without authorization, but it weighs on them differently than it otherwise might were they U.S. citizens. And that is because the everyday surveillance of these immigrants can mean the difference between their durable presence in the United States (via legalization) or their immediate exclusion from the country (via deportation).

In my book Engage and Evade: How Latino Immigrant Families Manage Surveillance in Everyday Life (2023, Princeton University Press), I describe undocumented immigrants as exhibiting a selective engagement with the mainstream institutions that surveil them regularly. This selective engagement, which includes a twin dynamic of seeking out and avoiding these institutions and the authorities within them, is born of necessity. To live in the United States without authorization means facing overlapping forms of legal, financial, and social hardship. This hardship seldom starts in the United States, but it is compounded as people set up their lives here as undocumented immigrants. They had relatively few financial and social resources to begin with but face numerous federal and, depending on where they live, state and local government-imposed hurdles to securing those resources. Engagement with mainstream institutions, however circumscribed or selective that may be, emerges as a prudent strategy.

Attention to the everyday forms of surveillance that undocumented immigrants manage takes seriously Michel Foucault’s idea that surveillance entails elements of both risk and reward. The laws, regulations, and policies that circumscribe undocumented life are not only normalized but also undeniably injurious, as sociologists Leisy Abrego and Cecilia Menjívar show. Authorities in mainstream institutions dole out punishments, such as if a police officer arrests someone for driving without a license that their state denies them or if a teacher reports a parent to Child Protective Services (CPS) because a child reports not having enough food at home, in ways that threaten their societal membership. But they also dole out important resources, such as when someone secures an ITIN from the IRS or when someone applies for public assistance on behalf of their children, in ways that help maintain their place in the country. Attention to undocumented immigrants’ efforts to evade interactions with institutional authorities that result in punishment and engage in those that yield reward (or, at least, non-punishment) reveals how surveillance is as much about the threat of societal exclusion as it is the promise of inclusion.

For most everyone I interviewed, policing and work are the two institutions that most preoccupied them when setting up their lives in the United States. They had come so far, and risked so much, to enter the country that they had to find a way to support themselves without also landing in the custody of a police or immigration officer. But the federal government denies undocumented immigrants permission to work, even as it depends on their essential labor in various industries foundational to the U.S. economy. Some undocumented immigrants I came to know admitted to a “crime of necessity” of purchasing papeles chuecos (false identity documents, usually a social security card and green card) upon arrival. They could submit them to their employers, who they assumed knew of their forgery but accepted them as cover because it is illegal for employers to “knowingly” hire undocumented immigrants. Still, papeles chuecos helped them land a job—often unpaid and otherwise exploitative—but a job nonetheless. And they needed that job to support themselves and the families they had left behind.

Few undocumented immigrants I profiled felt good about their papeles chuecos. They worried that, were police or immigration officers to discover these documents, it would give these authorities reason to deport them. Over time, many came to learn about another path forward: the ITIN from the IRS. The U.S. Treasury created the ITIN in 1996, in part, because of the federal government’s 1972 decision to deny undocumented immigrants a social security number. An ITIN, receipt of which requires application to the IRS with at least two documents that prove age and identity, is not proof of any person’s work authorization. But an ITIN can be used alongside papeles chuecos to file taxes with the IRS each year, which some undocumented immigrants I talked to thought would demonstrate to institutional authorities that compliance with the law was integral to their daily lives. An ITIN can also be used independent of papeles chuecos to allow undocumented immigrants to work as freelance contractors in various industries (e.g., construction, housekeeping, and landscaping); this is not only legal under federal law but also something that the IRS encourages for undocumented immigrants who hope to legalize one day. Overall, about 4.4 million people file taxes each year using an ITIN, including most of the employed undocumented immigrants I interviewed for Engage and Evade.

Although policing and work are two institutions that predominate the lives of undocumented immigrants, over time, those I interviewed began to selectively engage with others related to healthcare, public assistance, and education. Except for the right to a K-12 public school education, regardless of legal status, complex federal and state rules govern undocumented immigrants’ healthcare use and access to public assistance. Most I came to know had simply tried to avoid these institutions in their early years in the country, frequently at great personal cost to their health and well-being. Even when federal or state law had narrow carveouts that would permit undocumented immigrants’ engagement with one or more of these institutions, they believed that this carveout was the exception that proved the rule: avoidance is what they felt authorities in these mainstream institutions (e.g., doctors, nurses, and social workers) expected of them—and it was almost certainly what immigration officers expected of them.

But, as they settled in the United States and carved out a life for themselves, all went on to have at least one U.S.-born child. And they realized that those compounding hardships had taken on new meaning: they were no longer just undocumented immigrants; they were also working-class and poor Latino parents to citizen children who must contend with the racialized and classed scrutiny of their parenting from institutional authorities. Even as it exposed them to more surveillance than they liked, selective engagement with authorities in healthcare, public assistance, and educational institutions offered their children important resources (e.g., healthcare, food assistance, and the like) and staved off other, more forceful interventions in family life—such as these authorities’ referrals to the police and/or CPS. All undocumented parents I talked to mentioned engagement with at least one of these institutions on behalf of their kids, even as they were adamant that they did not use these resources for themselves because that would contravene their perceived responsibilities as undocumented immigrants who do not want to “burden” the government.

An emphasis on everyday forms of surveillance broadens sociological conversations about the role of mainstream institutions in the lives of people worried about state punishment. It urges attention to dynamics of institutional avoidance or exclusion alongside inclusion. Undocumented immigrants selectively engage with mainstream institutions to counteract the inequalities built into the myriad laws, regulations, and policies that not only deny them rights to work authorization and public assistance, among others, but also seek to punish them because they are not U.S. citizens. Institutional inclusion, therefore, can emerge from inequalities based on citizenship status and variously threaten and facilitate undocumented immigrants’ societal membership. In brief, institutional evasion and inclusion are two sides of the same coin for undocumented immigrants. Other groups worried about state punishment, such as those with criminal records, low-income parents, or welfare recipients, may experience similar dynamics.

Returning to Maite’s story, we see how her selective engagement with mainstream institutions is at once necessary and coercive. For all her success in carving out a life in this country, Maite remains an undocumented immigrant with no pathway to citizenship in sight. Her efforts to manage everyday forms of surveillance have allowed her and her family to make a life in United States. And, though she believes she is doing right by the country, she recognizes that a rigid set of immigration laws, regulations, and policies keep families like hers at arm’s length. Maite is not sure what the future holds for her but remains optimistic that, after all the hardships she has faced over more than a decade in the country, something good is coming: “De algo malo viene algo bueno.” It’s a nice sentiment. I hope she’s right.

This essay is adapted from an article originally published in July 2023 by Footnotes magazine, an online publication of the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved.

Asad L. Asad is assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, where he is a faculty affiliate of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.