Consequences of Misperceiving the Diversity of Unauthorized Immigrant Youth in the U.S.

May 1, 2021

Written By: Margaret J. Hendricks, MA, MPP

Edited By: Cagla Giray, PhD

There is in increased media and political attention and misperception surrounding the diversity of the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S – with negative consequences on all youth.[i]


Diversity of the Unauthorized Population in the United States

Latinx unauthorized immigrants continue to constitute the majority of the unauthorized population (approximately 77%). Yet, of the approximately 60 million Latinx U.S. citizens, authorized, and unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.  only 15% are unauthorized.[ii] [iii] [iv] Further, four of the top 10 countries of origin for unauthorized immigrants are in Asia; approximately one in seven Chinese, one in four Indian, one in six Korean, and one in 12 Filipino immigrants are unauthorized.[v] [iii] Yet, there continues to be little public and political attention paid to these non-Latinx unauthorized immigrants and instead, most of the focus remains on the Latinx population.[vi]


Consequences for Unauthorized Youth and Families

Ethnicity and national origin are the most important factors in perceiving whether an individual is unauthorized or has legal status in the U.S.  Latinx individuals in particular are associated with being unauthorized. Individuals from Asia or Europe are less likely to be perceived as unauthorized.[vii]

This unauthorized visibility of the Latinx population has dire consequences for both unauthorized immigrant youth as well as legal immigrants and U.S. citizen youth. Though both groups experience racism and discrimination, Latinx youth (both authorized and unauthorized) experience more discrimination and prejudice due to their assumed documentation status than Asian and Pacific Islander and Black unauthorized youth.[vi] [viii]

  • Latinx individuals are more likely to be profiled and questioned by immigration enforcement. For mixed-status (members with varying legal statuses) Latinx families especially, the fear of deportation is always present – whether they or someone they know is at risk or has been deported [ix]. Fear and insecurity often prevent them from accessing social benefits and resources, obtaining drivers licenses, and limiting their job and education opportunities, even if they are in the country legally.[x]
  • Asian and Black unauthorized youth and families face similar fears and limited opportunities, but also experience more isolation and form fewer connections with other unauthorized youth.[vi] [viii] The sense of shared discrimination prevalent in the Latinx community can create a bond in the community that can buffer the isolation and vulnerability experienced by Latinx unauthorized families and youth.


Why Does this Misperception Persist?

  • This misperception in the diversity of the unauthorized population continues to persist in part because of Latinx-dominated immigrant rights movements, for example most youth who are active in the Dreamers movement are Latinx and most youth who have chosen to “come out” as unauthorized are Latinx. [viii]
  • Likewise, the media continue to promote this bias by focusing on the US-Mexican border, highlighting Latinx unauthorized immigrants crossing the border and minimizing other unauthorized immigrant groups in the U.S.[xi] In reality, most unauthorized immigrants enter the country legally (62%) and overstay their temporary visa.[xii]


Policy Recommendations

  • Remove racial profiling as a reason for immigration enforcement to question and detain people suspected as unauthorized or of having committed an immigration violation.
    • Currently, immigration enforcement cannot question or search someone without “reasonable suspicion” and cannot rely solely on racial profiling (e.g., search anyone who looks Mexican or is speaking Spanish), but in practice these restrictions are often ignored or heavily relied on to begin a search.
    • Instead, racial profiling should not be a legitimate reason at all to search or arrest someone. To better enforce this unjust profiling that mainly targets the Latinx population, use of racial profiling in case against an immigrant should be grounds to dismiss the case.[xiii] [xiv]
  • Increase public awareness via media campaigns. Along with attention on the U.S./Mexico border and the ongoing humanitarian crisis/situation, focus should be on alternative pathways people enter or live in the country without authorization. Likewise, there should be more focus on non-Latinx unauthorized youth and immigrants.
  • Ensure indiscriminatory practices to ensure legal immigrant and U.S. citizen youth are not unjustly discriminated against due to their ethnicity/race. Trainings should be required for teachers, school administrators, and school psychologists so they do not mistreat students of Latinx origin or assume they are in the US without authorization, asking questions like “are your parents here illegally?”




[i] Serrano‐Careaga, J., & Huo, Y. J. (2019). “Illegal” by association: Do negative stereotypes divide or unite Latinxs in the United States? Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 19(1), 204–223.

[ii] Pew Research Center. (2019a). Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States, 1960-2017. Pew Research Center.

[iii] Pew Research Center. (2019c). Unauthorized immigrant population trends for states, birth countries and regions. Pew Research Center.

[iv] Pew Research Center. (2019d). U.S. Hispanic population reached nearly 61 million in 2019. Pew Research Center.

[v] Pew Research Center. (2019b). Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States, 2017. Pew Research Center.

[vi] Dao, L. (2017). Out and Asian: How undocu/DACAmented Asian Americans and Pacific Islander youth navigate dual liminality in the immigrant rights movement. Societies, 7(3), 17.

[vii] Flores, R. D., & Schachter, A. (2018). Who are the “illegals”? The social construction of illegality in the United States. American Sociological Review, 83(5), 839–868.

[viii] Patler, C. (2018). To reveal or conceal: How diverse undocumented youth navigate legal status disclosure. Sociological Perspectives, 61(6), 857–873.

[ix] Martinez, L. M., & Ortega, D. M. (2019). Dreams deterred: The collateral consequences of localized immigration policies on undocumented Latinos in Colorado. Law & Policy, 41(1), 120–141.

[x] Valdivia, C. (2019). Expanding geographies of deportability: How immigration enforcement at the local level affects undocumented and mixed-status families. Law & Policy, 41(1), 103–119.

[xi] Cervantes, A. G., Alvord, D., & Menjívar, C. (2018). ‘Bad hombres’: The effects of criminalizing Latino immigrants through law and media in the rural Midwest. Migration Letters, 15(2), 182–196.

[xii] Kamarck, E., & Stenglein, C. (2019, November 12). How many undocumented immigrants are in the United States and who are they? Brookings Institute.

[xiii] Surana, K. (2018, June 8). No sanctuary: How racial profiling goes unchecked in immigration enforcement. ProPublica.

[xiv] Wolfgang Keppley, L. J. (2020, December 14). Mistaken detainment, racial profiling, and discrimination: How ICE fails to protect communities. Niskanen Center.




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