I’m Undocumented — But I Still Benefit From White Privilege

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images.
I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and when I was just eight months old, my parents immigrated to the United States. After our move, they had my younger sister and two brothers, and while we shared the same parents and upbringing— we had such different lived experiences. I was the only one who was undocumented out of the four of us — a fact that would make some people believe I was the most disadvantaged — but as a white Mexican, I haven’t experienced the discrimination that my siblings have faced in this country.  My brother has been called a “fucking Mexican” by our neighbor during a confrontation. As a child, my sister would try to “scrub away” her brown skin, and my youngest brother faced comments about his hair from coworkers. I’ve never come to know what it’s like to have someone take a look at me and spew hate because of the color of my skin or my features.
This disparity in lived experiences is a reality that I’ve also had to internalize when it comes to being undocumented. Growing up, I often felt like I was living in limbo — my immigration status made me feel not American enough, but my privileges of living in the U.S. also made me feel not Mexican enough. So, connecting with other undocumented people made me feel closer to finding where I belonged. Whenever I’d meet other undocumented people around my age, I’d feel a sense of community, naively believing that we all had the same struggles. But as I reflected more on my identity as I got older, the more I came to understand that the undocumented immigrant experience is far from a monolith.
All immigrants have different stories: where we come from, our physical journey to this country, who or what we leave behind or escape, our financial circumstances, and whether we have any connections to help us establish ourselves. Once we have settled here, our experiences continue to vary.
In getting to know the experiences of other undocumented immigrants, I came to terms with my own privileges. One of them is being a DACA recipient. Of the almost 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, only 643,560 benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, started under the Obama administration. While this policy doesn’t eliminate all obstacles, to say it isn’t a privilege would be disingenuous. With DACA, I’m legally authorized to work in the U.S., have a driver’s license, and have protection from deportation for two years. The current renewal fee for DACA is $495, something I’m also privileged to afford. 
Then, there’s the color of my skin. From an early age, I’ve noticed how people treat me based on my whiteness, which has freed me of trauma and racism. Despite being an ESL student, I didn’t face implicit bias from my teachers, and my learning capabilities weren’t questioned. When I watched telenovelas with my mom, I watched white women play the lead roles, women that looked like me. Sure, people have made assumptions based on my language proficiency and accent — but while I may have felt discomfort in having my identity questioned, I can’t equate this to the oppression experienced by Black and Indigenous immigrants.
Black, brown, and Indigenous undocumented immigrants face disproportionate rates of deportation. During the pandemic, the number of Black immigrants in detention has soared. More than 44% of all families locked in ICE detention last summer were Haitian, who are predominantly Black, according to Raices. The U.S. detained Haitian people more than those of any other nationality in 2020. When it comes to getting released from detention, they face the same discrepancy. Black immigrants remain in ICE detention longer than other groups because of the disparity in their bonds, paying significantly higher. 
The U.S. immigration system is an extension of the prison-industrial complex, which also disproportionately targets Black and brown immigrants. As far as the prison-to-deportation pipeline goes, Black undocumented immigrants make up only 7.2% of the noncitizen population in the U.S. but account for 20.3% of noncitizens facing deportation on criminal grounds. When imagining a future without prisons, we must picture abolishing immigration detention centers, too. 
My privileges against racism and colorism aren’t limited to the U.S. A few years ago, I was able to travel to Mexico on Advance Parole — a document that permits you to travel for humanitarian, educational, or employment purposes but does not guarantee you will be allowed to reenter the U.S. During my time there, I wasn’t discriminated against or treated less favorably. Many white Mexicans will stand behind the belief that racism doesn’t exist in the country. However, Black Mexicans have been and continue to be erased in the media, and when they are represented, it is done through damaging stereotypes. This community also faces negligance from their country. Most Afro-Mexicans live in poverty without access to proper sanitation, education, and health services, according to Minority Rights Group International. Mexico’s long history of anti-Blackness has even led to the deportation of Black and Indigenous Mexicans on the assumption that they’re not citizens.
That's why it's important to recognize the privileges that exist even within the undocumented experience. It's not centering the Mestizx identity when referring to whiteness, as Elizabeth L. Sweet explains in her article. Because not calling Black erasure for what it is contributes to anti-Blackness — the same anti-Blackness that allows immigration officers in Mexico to deport someone based on the color of their skin, even when they have proper documentation to prove their citizenship
For many white Mexicans, acknowledging that Mexican or Latinx isn’t synonymous with being POC is a hard pill to swallow — even if our differing experiences serve as evidence. But if we want to be better allies in the fight against the systemic racism that is woven into the immigration system, we must be willing to get uncomfortable and acknowledge the privileges that come with our identity. This includes addressing the colorism that occurs within our families. It also means we must put an end to believing we are all Mestizx. While this belief may be used as a form of unity, it does the exact opposite. 
I’ve experienced pain, fear, and uncertainty because of my immigration status. I’m nostalgic for Mexico, a place I wish I could have more time with but doesn’t always feel like home. But all of the hardships of being undocumented do not excuse me of my white privilege. I could never understand the struggles of someone who is Black, brown, or Indigenous, whether or not they are undocumented. My whiteness benefits the way I move through the world, regardless of my immigration status. There’s no room for blurred lines in this conversation, especially if we want to dismantle centuries of injustice. 

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