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More undocumented immigrants aren't from Latin America. Here's how the experience is different.

Oct 5, 2016

On a brightly-lit stage inside a massive convention hall in downtown Houston, Texas, Ainslya Charlton made her introduction.

"You can call me Ace," she said, as her friends cheered. 

Out in the audience, away from the lights, were of nearly 1,000 people assembled for what was billed as the nation’s largest-ever gathering of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

"So here you have resources that are supposed to make things accessible to undocumented immigrants," she said. "But they also ... excluded people in the process of including people."

And Charlton began to tell a story that’s familiar to many young undocumented immigrants: The moment she had to come clean to her high school guidance counselor about her immigration status. She knew she had the grades. She just didn’t have a Social Security number.

But she says as she sat with her counselor trying to find scholarships for undocumented students, many were geared toward Hispanic students. She is black, and not Hispanic.

"So here you have resources that are supposed to make things accessible to undocumented immigrants," she said. "But they also had ethnicity requirements that excluded people in the process of including people."

Charlton did eventually find a scholarship through the Posse Foundation. And this spring she graduated from college.  

And now she’s a member of an organization called the UndocuBlack Network, a nationwide group focused on the specific issues facing people who are both black and undocumented.

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The organizations that keep track of these numbers say a little more than half of those immigrants were born in Mexico. Another 20% or so come from other Central American nations.

And that leaves millions of others who arrived from other regions of the world. Millions who don’t fit the traditional narrative of what it means to be undocumented in America.

Much of the political debate around immigration in the U.S. still focuses on immigrants from Mexico. But the truth is immigration from Mexico has been declining in recent years. That’s partially been offset by increased immigration from other Central American nations and also from other areas of the world.

As the Migration Policy Institute noted in a report last year

... between 2007 and 2013 the population declined by about 1 million. In contrast, unauthorized populations from Central America, Asia, and Africa grew rapidly after 2000—with the numbers from Central America and Asia tripling and from Africa doubling. Countries significantly represented in these increases include China, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, and South Korea.

Nayim Islam moved to New York from Bangladesh when he was nine years old. He says his parents told him what it meant to be undocumented.

"And that really just meant don’t stand out too much, don’t get in trouble, no matter what you do, do not get in trouble with the police," he says. "So it creates kind of this like, culture of fear."

That fear is part of the experience for all undocumented immigrants. But it’s a different kind of fear for a young person living without papers in New York after 9/11 – whose last name is actually Islam.

And it’s a different kind of fear in general when you’re undocumented and most of the people you see and hear talking about their status are not people who look like you.
 

"When you are in a minority of a minority, it feels very unsafe to come out."

"I think that much of the conversation or the narrative around undocumented communities is largely Latino focused," says Theresa Tran, outgoing executive director of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote - Michigan. She says there are undocumented immigrants in Michigan whose families came from Asia and other continents. But it’s harder for those folks to share their stories.

"And if you look at any of the vitriol that’s in the news," Tran says, "you can see that there’s a lot of negative energy or negative narratives around being undocumented. So when you are in a minority of a minority, it feels very unsafe to come out."

But it’s these immigrants, actually, who represent a growing share of the undocumented population in the U.S. Though Mexican immigrants still represent the majority of undocumented immigrants, their numbers have been shrinking for several years now.

And so the story of what it means to be undocumented in America is changing too. Through people like Ainslya Charlton, Nayim Islam and many others who’ve yet to share their story.