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“They see us like Trash”: How Mexican Illegality Stigma Affects the Psychological Well-being of Undocumented and US-born Young Adults of Mexican Descent



There is a conflation of Mexican origin with the category “undocumented immigrant” that targets and stigmatizes undocumented Mexicans – I call this Mexican illegality stigma. I assess whether Mexican illegality stigma negatively affects the psychological well-being of Mexican-origin individuals in the US, distinguishing between undocumented Mexicans and citizen Mexican Americans. I draw from the stress process model and 52 in-depth interviews – 30 with undocumented young adults from Mexico and 22 with US-born young adults of Mexican descent – to evaluate how undocumented Mexicans and citizen Mexican Americans experience Mexican illegality stigma and to determine whether it affects the psychological well-being of undocumented Mexicans in a distinct manner. I found that all respondents experienced social rejection and discrimination when they were assumed or perceived as undocumented Mexicans. While few of the US-born respondents were affected by these incidents, most undocumented young adults found these incidents stressful because they were humiliating, excluded them from valuable resources and opportunities, and forced them to incur financial burden (e.g., unfair fines), which disrupted their transition to adulthood processes such as parenthood and labor market advancement. This study found evidence that Mexican illegality stigma is a stressor and source of distress for undocumented young adults from Mexico. As opposition to undocumented immigration from Mexico intensifies, the hostile context may further strain the psychological well-being of undocumented Mexicans.
They see us like Trash”: How Mexican illegality Stigma Affects the
Psychological Well-being of Undocumented and US-Born Young Adults
of Mexican Descent
Deisy Del Real
Doctoral Candidate
University of California, Los Angeles
Citation: Deisy Del Real, (2019), “They see us like Trash”: How Mexican Illegality Stigma
Affects the Psychological Well-being of Undocumented and US-born Young Adults of Mexican
Descent, in Reanne Frank (ed.) Immigration and Health (Advances in Medical Sociology,
Volume 19) Emerald Publishing Limited, pp.205 - 228
There is a conflation of Mexican origin with the category “undocumented immigrant” that
targets and stigmatizes undocumented Mexicans—I call this Mexican illegality stigma. I assess
whether Mexican illegality stigma negatively affects the psychological well-being of Mexican-
Origin individuals in the U.S., distinguishing between undocumented Mexicans and citizen
Mexican Americans. I draw from the stress process model and 52 in-depth interviews—30 with
undocumented young adults from Mexico and 22 with U.S.-born young adults of Mexican
descent—to evaluate how undocumented Mexicans and citizen Mexican Americans experience
Mexican illegality stigma and to determine if it affects the psychological well-being of
undocumented Mexicans in a distinct manner. I found that all respondents experienced social
rejection and discrimination when they were assumed or perceived as undocumented Mexicans.
While few of the U.S.-born respondents were affected by these incidents, most undocumented
young adults found these incidents stressful because they were humiliating, excluded them from
valuable resources and opportunities, and forced them to incur financial burden (e.g., unfair
fines), which disrupted their transition to adulthood processes such as parenthood and labor
market advancement. This study found evidence that Mexican illegality stigma is a stressor and
source of distress for undocumented young adults from Mexico. As opposition to undocumented
immigration from Mexico intensifies, the hostile context may further strain the psychological
well-being of undocumented Mexicans.
Keywords: Mexican illegality stigma, undocumented immigrants, racializing
illegality, stressors, psychological well-being, Racialization, Distress
Among undocumented immigrants in the U.S., those from Mexico are the largest group
and one of the most stigmatized (Krogstad et al. 2017; Chavez 2008). Pundits, politicians, the
mass media, and even some academics (e.g. Samuel Huntington) have too frequently framed
undocumented immigrants from Mexico as “invaders” who threaten American culture with their
“pathologically” high fertility rates and who do not possess the right qualities to become
members of the national polity (Chavez 2008). For decades, undocumented immigrants from
Mexico have been stigmatized because (1) Mexican Americans are a racialized ethno-racial
minority group (Telles and Ortiz 2008; Ngai 2004); and (2) because they are relegated to a
racialized and politicized condition of “illegality” (Garcia 2017; Asad and Clair 2017; Menjívar
and Kanstroom 2014; De Genova 2004). These processes converge and create what I call
“Mexican illegality stigma,” or the conflation of Mexican descent with the category
“undocumented immigrant” that devalues undocumented Mexicans. Mexican illegality stigma
devalues the social standing of undocumented immigrants from Mexico within the United States’
ethno-racial hierarchy and legal status hierarchy. Given that stigma is a source of health
inequality (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2013), Mexican illegality stigma potentially has harmful
consequences for the psychological well-being of undocumented young adults from Mexico.
However, the connection between Mexican illegality stigma and psychological well-
being is under-studied. Most research focuses on the ethno-racial stigma of being Mexican
descent and not specifically on undocumented status (or illegality stigma). Research indicates
that ethno-racial based stigma exposes Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to
discrimination, which is often damaging to their psychological well-being1 (Gee et al. 2006;
Umaña a-Taylor and Updegraff 2007; Finch et al. 2000). Research on undocumented immigrants
from various national origins finds that illegality stigma causes immigrants to feel rejected from
U.S. society, ashamed, and isolated, which negatively affects their emotional well-being
(Vaquera et al. 2017; Gonzales et al. 2013; Joseph 2011). These latter studies focus on
undocumented immigrants from various national origins and by design have not analyzed how
stigma affects undocumented Mexicans specifically. As a result, previous research on illegality
stigma have not sufficiently assessed how Mexican illegality stigma changes daily interactions,
generates stressors, and impacts the psychological well-being of undocumented immigrants from
Mexico. This article addresses these theoretical and empirical gaps by evaluating the association
between Mexican illegality stigma and psychological well-being. It asks the following research
questions: does Mexican illegality stigma generate stressors that are a source of psychological
distress? Specifically, in comparison to U.S.-born young adults of Mexican descent, how does
Mexican illegality stigma uniquely shape the lived experiences and affect the psychological well-
being of undocumented Mexicans?
To answer these questions, this study draws on the stress process model, which measures
how individual structural position and social relations generate specific stressors—or
“circumstances and experiences to which it is difficult [for a person] to adjust”—that strain their
adaptive resources and generate psychological distress (Pearlin & Bierman 2013: 236). Thus,
1 These studies do not disaggregate by legal immigration status and likely include documented and
undocumented immigrants. Thus, we cannot determine whether these findings apply mainly to
documented Mexican immigrants, undocumented Mexicans, or both.
psychological distress is a “maladaptive response pattern in the presence of stress, such as
anxiety, depression, anger, fear, or aggression” (Wheaton et al. 2013: 300). Specifically, I am
investigating Mexican illegality stigma stressors and whether young adults are differentially
affected by these stressors depending on documentation status.
Drawing on 52 in-depth interviews, this study found that almost all undocumented
Mexican and U.S.-born young adults experienced social rejection and discrimination when
assumed to be, or discovered to be, undocumented Mexicans. However, these experiences tended
to be a source of stress and distress for undocumented Mexicans only. While the evidence
suggests significant negative consequences of Mexican illegality stigma for undocumented
youth, the same pattern was not found among Mexican-Americans citizens. In sum, I argue that
Mexican illegality stigma generates stressors that are uniquely harmful to the psychological well-
being of undocumented young adults from Mexico.
Mexican Illegality Stigma
Undocumented Mexicans constitute approximately half of the U.S. undocumented
population—or 5.6 million people in 2016 (Krogstad et al. 2017). According to Chavez in his
2008 book, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, the mass
media and its pundits frequently characterize undocumented immigrants as overly fertile
“invaders” from Mexico who threaten to “inundate” and tarnish American culture and society.
This rhetoric reflects and reinforces Mexican illegality stigma, or the conflation of Mexican
descent with the category “undocumented immigrant” that devalues undocumented Mexicans.
Stigma is defined as belonging to a less desirable categorical group that is reduced,
discounted, and dehumanized (Goffman 1963). Distinct from mere individual perceptions,
stigma is a convergence of the following interrelated components: "labeling, stereotyping,
separation, status loss, and discrimination … [that] occur together in a power situation" (Link
and Phelan 2001:377). Specifically, negative labels highlight differences between groups and
associate these differences with negative attributes and stereotypes that then rationalize a
separation between “us” versus “them.” Members of stigmatized categories become
dehumanized, lose social status, and become susceptible to structural and interpersonal
discrimination (Link and Phelan 2001; Goffman 1963). Power is an important component in this
process because groups who hold social, economic, and political power can disseminate negative
labels and stereotypes, codify them into laws, and determine who gets access to resources—
whereas groups without power cannot (Link and Phelan 2001).
There are different types of stigmas—some are due to tribal affiliations and others are
due to “blemishes of individual character” (Goffman 1963). Tribal affiliation stigma refers to
belonging to a minority ethno-racial group, which is an ascribed attribute and not an aspect of an
individual’s personality (Ibid). On the other hand, blemishes of individual character refer to
flaws of an individual’s character (i.e., a propensity to commit crimes) and individuals
stigmatized in this manner are charged with choosing their stigmatizing circumstances (Ibid).
Undocumented immigrants from Mexico can experience stigma in two ways. First,
because of their association with Mexican Americans, a racialized ethno-racial minority group.
Racialization is a process of assigning race categories to people, ranking the value of their social
characteristics, and placing them in a racial hierarchy (Omi and Winant 2015). Individuals of
Mexican descent in the U.S. are racialized because they are assigned a non-white racial category
and placed in a lower level of the racial hierarchy (Garcia 2017; Telles and Ortiz 2008).
Specifically, despite the generational depth of the Mexican-Origin population in the U.S., many
members of the Mexican-Origin population continue to be considered racialized minorities who
have not become part of the imagined national community of the U.S. (Garcia 2017; Telles and
Ortiz 2008; Ngai 2004). Despite their citizenship status, they continue to be stigmatized and seen
as unassimilable non-white foreigners (Garcia 2017; Telles and Ortiz 2008; Ngai 2004). This
racializing process is stigmatizing and consequential and helped justify their mass deportation
during Operation Wetback in 1954 (Molina 2006). Currently, stigmatization of Mexican descent
people as “deviant” (among other negative stereotypes) has help to rationalize their incarceration
(Rios 2011) and exclusion (Telles and Ortiz 2008). In this manner, even though Mexican
Americans have been in the U.S. for over a century, they still experience discrimination and
exclusion from opportunities and resources (Telles and Ortiz 2008; Rios 2011).
A second way that undocumented immigrants from Mexico experience stigma is because
of their condition of “illegality” (Garcia 2017), which is a source of what Goffman would have
called “blemishes of individual character” stigma (1963). Illegality refers to the process where
immigration and naturalization laws construct and sustain a category of undocumented
immigrants (Massey 2013; De Genova 2004). These individuals have limited paths to
legalization and are vulnerable to deportation2 (Menjivar & Kanstroom 2014; Menjivar 2006; De
Genova 2004). These policies award fewer legal rights, benefits, and protections to
undocumented immigrants than U.S. citizens (Asad and Clair 2017; Torres and Young 2015).
This civic inequality helps create a social hierarchy, with U.S. citizens at the top and
undocumented immigrants at the bottom (Menjívar & Kanstroom 2014; Menjívar 2006; De
Genova 2004). The stigmatization of illegality is reinforced through its conflation with
criminalization, insinuating that all undocumented immigrants have a biological predisposition to
have flawed characters (Sims and Waters 2014).3
Finally, undocumented Mexicans are stigmatized by the merger of ethno-racial and
“illegality”—or the conflation between being of Mexican descent and the category
“undocumented immigrant” (Enriquez forthcoming; Garcia 2017). For instance, Mexican
Americans (with U.S. citizenship) and undocumented Mexicans are both assumed to be
undocumented (Enriquez forthcoming; Garcia 2017). While previous authors have referred to
this conflation as racialized illegality (Enriquez forthcoming; Garcia 2017), I use Mexican
illegality stigma because “Mexicanis the most stigmatized undocumented nationality (Garcia
2017; Chavez 2008) and the devaluation of undocumented Mexicans is embedded within the
racialization of Mexican Americans. Additionally, I use “Mexican illegality stigma” to capture
this social devaluation of undocumented Mexican within the ethno-racial and legal status
hierarchies of the United States. For instance, several scholars have demonstrated how
undocumented immigrants from Mexico are frequently portrayed as possessing negative
character traits, which form the basis of Mexican illegality stigma (e.g. Lee and Fiske 2006;
Viruell-Fuentes 2007).
The Stressors, Stress, and Distress of Mexican Illegality Stigma among Young Adults
Building on the premise that racialized illegality and stigma are sources of
discrimination, exclusion, and potentially poor health (Asad and Clair 2017; Hatzenbuehler et al.
2013), it is likely, but relatively unknown, whether Mexican illegality stigma is a source of
psychological distress. To evaluate how the context of Mexican illegality stigma affects the
2 This is the definition of illegality I will refer to in this paper to capture the fluid process of creating
legality and illegality.
3 Goffman defined blemishes of individual stigma as a function of an individual’s trait and here I used as
a marker for a group.
psychological well-being of undocumented Mexicans, this article draws on the literatures of
social stress, life course, and everyday discrimination. Specifically, the stress process model
posits that a person’s psychological well-being depends on their structural position, their social
relations, and ability to smoothly transition into adulthood (Pearlin 2010). Everyday
discrimination4—or daily life experiences of maltreatment related to a social characteristic
deemed socially inferior (Williams and Mohammed 2009)—has been shown to be deleterious to
the well-being of Latino and Mexican immigrants (e.g., Umaña-Taylor and Updegraff 2007;
Finch et al. 2000). However, previous research does not consider the role of legal immigration
status. This study explores whether the context of Mexican illegality stigma affects the
psychological well-being of undocumented Mexicans in a unique manner when compared to
U.S. citizens of Mexican decent.
—Take in Figure 1—
As seen in figure 1, the stress process model argues that a person’s position within
systems of stratification, their position within social institutions, and their social relationships,
generate specific stressors. These stressors strain a person’s coping resources (i.e., self-regard,
self-mastery, financial resources, or social support), heighten his or her physiological stress
levels, can generate secondary stressors (or proliferate stress), and lead to psychological distress
(Aneshensel 2015; Wheaton et al. 2013; Pearlin and Bierman 2013).
Everyday discrimination is a stressor that can become a source of distress (Williams and
Mohammed 2009; Gee et al. 2006; Umaña-Taylor and Updegraff 2007; Finch et al. 2000). Social
stress research on Latino and Mexican immigrants finds evidence that everyday discrimination
stress associated with ethno-racial stigma increases the risk of depression (Umaña-Taylor and
Updegraff 2007; Finch et al. 2000) and strains metal health (Gee et al. 2006). On the other hand,
self-esteem and pride in one’s ethno-racial identity may alleviate stress and protect mental
health—this has been the case for some Latino immigrants (Umaña-Taylor and Updegraff 2007).
However, repeated stressors associated with a stigmatized identity tend to eventually negatively
impact psychological well-being (Thoits 2013). Nonetheless, social stress scholars have under-
studied how Mexican illegality stigma affects the psychological well-being of undocumented
Mexicans. One of the few studies that analyzes the role of legal status finds that ethno-racial and
illegality stigmas strain mental health of undocumented Brazilians (Joseph 2011). This study
suggests that ethno-racial and illegality stigmas are sources of stressors, stress, and distress. But
whether this process operates differently for Mexican undocumented immigrants is not yet
To address this gap in the literature, the present study focuses on undocumented and
U.S.-born young adults of Mexican descent transitioning to adulthood. In this manner, this study
explores whether experiences of everyday discrimination due to Mexican illegality stigma
generate stressors uniquely for undocumented Mexicans or whether they extend to Mexican
Americans who are not undocumented as well (See figure 1). The transition to adulthood refers
to a compressed time period when people between the ages of 18 and 35 must adapt to a wide
range of roles and statuses (e.g., parenthood, entering labor force, living independently) in a
short time span and that will become key for the rest of their lives (Gonzales 2011; Pearlin
2010). Given that disrupted transitions are stressors (Pearlin 2010) it is also possible that
4 I will use everyday discrimination interchangeably with perceived discrimination, interpersonal
discrimination (Williams and Mohammed 2009) and self-reported discrimination (Gee et al. 2006)
because they all measure perceived unfair treatment.
experiences of everyday discrimination can thwart transitions into adulthood and negatively
affect psychological well-being (Williams and Mohammed 2009).
Undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 35 transition into adulthood with
fewer legal rights, protections, benefits, and opportunities (i.e., restricted access higher education
and the labor market) than U.S. citizens (Torres and Young 2015; Gonzales 2015; Gonzales
2011; Abrego 2011). As seen in figure 1, this study further explores whether experiences of
Mexican illegality stigma have deleterious consequences for psychological well-being5, and
whether this varies for undocumented young adults versus those with citizenship.
Thus, this study investigates how Mexican illegality stigma differently affects the
psychological well-being of Mexican descent young adults with and without legal status. The
following section provides an overview of the existing literature that focuses on how illegality
stigma affects psychological well-being of undocumented immigrants.
Empirical Evidence on the Psychological Well Being of Undocumented Immigrants
Research on the emotional and psychological well-being of undocumented young adults
tends to focus on the impact of structural components of illegality (e.g., threat of and actual
deportation and limited opportunities) and suggests that illegality stigma is a source of distress.
In terms of the structural components of illegality, prior research has demonstrated that
immigrants experience stress and negative emotions over a fear of being deported (Hacker et al.
2011), as a function of their limited access to opportunities (i.e., stable employment), and due to
limited legal rights, protections, and benefits (Vaquera et al. 2017; Patler and Pirtle 2017;
Gonzales et al. 2013; Cavazos-Rehg et al. 2007). This research overwhelmingly indicates that
illegality—or being undocumented—is a source of distress.
As for illegality stigma, Vaquera’s et al. (2017) in-depth interviews with 53
undocumented young adults from various national backgrounds regarding their emotional well-
being found that illegality stigma tends to make these young adults feel rejected by the U.S.
society, worthless, and less able to trust and rely on others. These feelings of rejection,
worthlessness, and distrust in turn foster negative emotions such as uncertainty, loneliness, social
isolation, and insecurity about the reliability of their environment and relations (Vaquera et al.
2017). As a result, this study corroborate previous findings that undocumented immigrants tend
to isolate themselves and hide their undocumented status from their peers to avoid the shame and
vulnerability of being discovered as undocumented by a person who could then belittle them or
report them to immigration authorities (Vaquera et al. 2017; Stacciarini et al. 2015; Gonzales et
al. 2013; Abrego 2011). Fear of being discovered as undocumented by the wrong person has
been shown to result in undocumented young adults isolating themselves from support systems,
which would otherwise helped them to mitigate the stress of the illegality and illegality stigma.
The overall result is a negative impact on emotional well-being (Vaquera et al. 2017).
While insightful, research on illegality stigma focuses on undocumented immigrants from
various national origins and, thus, does not measure the impact of Mexican illegality stigma
specifically. This is an oversight given the disproportionate size of the undocumented population
from Mexico and the fact that immigrants from Mexico—not those from Brazil, Ireland, or
Argentina—are most often the public target of immigrant opposition. As such, illegality stigma
research that conflates the experience of all undocumented immigrants fails to fully capture the
depths of this opposition. Overall, this study seeks to evaluate whether and how Mexican
illegality stigma changes the quality of daily life interactions, fosters discrimination, and
5 See reviews of Asad and Clair (2017), Hatzenbuehler et al. (2013), Torres and Young (2015), and
Pearlin (2010).
generates specific stressors, stress, and psychological distress for undocumented immigrants
from Mexico. In order to identify the unique ways undocumented Mexicans experience and are
affected by this stigma, I compare the experience of undocumented Mexicans with their U.S.-
born Mexican-American counterparts, who are U.S.-born citizens
I compare how undocumented Mexicans and Mexican Americans (U.S.-born citizens),
with similar socioeconomic backgrounds experience, and are affected by, Mexican illegality
stigma. Specifically, this study seeks to identify Mexican illegality stigma stressors and whether
this stigma affects the psychological well-being of young adults with and without legal status
Recruitment. This research uses a snowball-sampling frame. I recruited in Southern
California because California is the state with the largest undocumented Mexican immigrant
population6 and a disproportionate number live in Los Angeles and Orange Counties—roughly
one million and 270,000 respectively between 2010 and 2014 (Bachmeier and Van Hook 2014).
To increase sample variability, I tapped into the social networks of four research assistants, three
key informants, and a community based organization (CBO). The four research assistants were
undergraduate students who had undocumented relatives and friends. The three key informants
were project directors at two non-profit organizations that service immigrants. They provided
advice on the interview questions, helped recruit study participants, and helped verify the
validity of the findings. At the CBO, I was given permission to solicit interviews from people
seeking services at their legal clinic and was given a private office to conduct interviews. My
affiliation with the CBO allowed me to gain the trust of hard-to-reach undocumented immigrants
who were applying for DACA,7 the VAWA-visa and the U-Visa.8. Finally, as a formerly
undocumented immigrant of Mexican origin, I have an insider-outsider position that allowed me
to build trust and rapport with both undocumented and U.S.-born respondents. My positionality
also allowed me to have difficult conversations about the young adults’ shame and anger over
being mistreated in the U.S.—as opposed to more politically correct conversations about being
Sample Characteristics. Based on all these recruitment strategies, I recruited 52
participants. In 2012, I interviewed 30 undocumented Mexicans who either entered the U.S.
without authorization or overstayed their tourist visas. In 2015 and beginning of 2016, I
interviewed 22 U.S.-born young adults of Mexican descent. All respondents had similar
individual and socioeconomic characteristics. Undocumented young adults9 were on average 28
years old and the U.S.-born young adults were on average 26 years old. I interviewed the same
proportions of undocumented and U.S.-born women and men. All interviewees grew up in
6 California was home to approximately 3 million undocumented immigrants (out of roughly 11.1 million
nationally, 2010-2014).
7 In June 2012, President Obama established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Only one
respondent had DACA, but it was too soon to assess the impact of the policy. Thus, this study does not
capture the impact of DACA.
8 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the U-visa protect victims of domestic violence and other
9 Young adults are between the ages of 18 and 35 (Gonzales 2011). I included three respondents who
were 35 years old when we met but turned 36 around the time of the interview.
households with an average household income below the living wage—which was $59,03610 in
2015 for a family of four living in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Santa Ana metropolitan areas
(Glasmeier 2016). The average self-reported annual household income of the undocumented
respondents was $20,638 and ranged from $5,000 to $48,00011. Similarly, the average self-
reported annual household income of U.S.-born respondents was $25,590 and ranged from
$6,000 to $50,000. Finally, the parents of the respondents were similar socioeconomically. All of
the participants’ parents grew up in low-income households in Mexico and had no college
education. All respondents grew up with at least one undocumented parent and were exposed to
some level of parental stress associated with Mexican illegality stigma.
Measurements. I developed an in-depth and semi-structured interview protocol and
modified it as new themes emerged during the data collection process. To measure Mexican
illegality stigma, all respondents were asked questions around four themes: 1) What made
undocumented status visible; 2) How people in the U.S. society viewed undocumented
immigrants and Mexicans; 3) Whether they had been belittled, mistreated, or discriminated for
being or being confused as an undocumented Mexican immigrant; and 4) Whether they felt
ashamed about their own or their parents’ undocumented status. As seen in figure 1, to measure
Mexican illegality stigma stress, respondents were asked to describe their most difficult
experiences and how opposition to undocumented Mexicans affected them. To measure how
young adults coped with stressors, I asked respondents to describe their sources of social,
emotional, and instrumental support and what they did to soothe themselves during difficult
times. Given that citizens have more rights, protections and benefits than undocumented
immigrants, I also asked respondents if these resources helped them to cope. To measure
psychological distress, I administered the Kessler 6 (K6) for the last 30 days and 12 months
(Kessler et al. 2003). To account for psychological distress over the life course, during the semi-
structured interview I asked respondents to describe the most difficult things they have ever dealt
with and I asked questions from the World Health Organization’s Composite International
Diagnostic Interview12 (WHO CIDI) on depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Analysis. I analyzed the in-depth interviews using HyperResearch. I coded Mexican
illegality stigma as instances when institutional actors, service personnel, relatives, friends,
peers, or strangers who were perceived as having negative views of undocumented immigrants
from Mexico mistreated respondents or their parents. I do not consider service personnel at
places of consumption (i.e, cashiers) institutional agents because they are not guarding access to
a resource (e.g., college admissions) and cannot impose hefty fines (e.g., traffic violation tickets)
10 This is annual income before taxes for a family of four living in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and
Anaheim California.
11 Two male respondents lived alone in the U.S., one earned about $38,000 a year and the other earned
$9,000. They both sent money to family members in Mexico.
12 These questions were: What worries you the most? Have you ever felt so worried, anxious and fearful
that it became difficult to go about your daily life? What do you think caused this feeling? In your entire
lifetime, have you ever had an attack of fear or panic when suddenly you felt frightened, anxious or very
uneasy? Another kind of attack is when all of a sudden your heart begins to race, or you feel dizzy or
faint, or you can’t catch your breath. I’m not talking about a heart attack or some other attack caused by
physical illness or mediation or drugs, but an attack that occurs for no apparent physical reason, just out
of the blue. Have you ever had an attack like this? How often do you do you feel so sad you have trouble
doing everyday things in your life? How does your behavior change? In your life, have you had a period
of two weeks or longer when you lost interest in most things like work, hobbies, and other things you
usually enjoy?
or fire a person. Nonetheless, they can engage in interpersonal discrimination and refuse people
service. In this manner, the power they can exert is similar to that of other peoples within the
interpersonal realm. I coded Mexican illegality stigma stressors as instances when respondents
were confused as or discovered to be undocumented Mexicans and then mistreated. I coded for
both acute life changing events (e.g., getting fired) and more chronic stressors that are hard to
detect but harmful when they repeat and accumulate (Pearlin 2010). Respondents whose
experience with Mexican illegality stigma generated more than one incident of stress were coded
as having Mexican illegality stigma stress. Respondents who did not experience Mexican
illegality stigma or who were not affected by these interactions were coded as not having
Mexican illegality stigma stress.
To determine whether the Mexican illegality stigma stressors generated distress, I
followed five steps to triangulate the responses from the K6 and the in-depth interviews. First, I
analyzed the answers Kessler 6 questionnaire. Respondents were asked six questions about their
psychological well-being in the last 30 days and the last 12 months and were asked to select one
of five values in the scale: all of the time (score 1), most of the time (score 2), some of the time
(score 3), a little of the time (score 4), or none of the time (score 5)—as used by CHIS (2011). A
score from 6 to 16 indicated high psychological distress, a score from 17 to 24 indicated
moderate psychological distress, and a score from 25 to 30 indicated low psychological distress.
Second, I analyzed the answers from the in-depth interviews. Respondents who did not have any
depressive episodes, anxiety, panic attacks, or drug or alcohol problems at any point in their lives
were coded as not having experienced psychological distress. Respondents who had one or more
of these symptoms were coded as having experienced psychological distress. Third, I compared
codes from the K6 and the in-depth interviews. Respondents who had some psychological
distress according to in-depth questions and moderate or high psychological distress in the K6
were coded as having high psychological distress—the other respondents were coded as having
low psychological distress. Fourth, I used the interview data to verify whether Mexican illegality
stigma was the source of distress. Finally, I cross-tabulated Mexican illegality stigma stress (low
vs. high) and psychological distress (low vs. high). In this manner, I differentiated between
respondents who experienced distress because of Mexican illegality stigma and those who
experienced distress because of other difficulties.
Experiencing Mexican Illegality Stigma
--Insert Table 1--
At the interpersonal level, both undocumented and U.S.-born young adults had at least
one experience with a relative, friend, peer, strangers, or service personnel who assumed they
were undocumented Mexicans and then mistreated them. As seen in Table 1, three-quarters of
the undocumented young adults had interpersonal experiences were they felt belittled or
mistreated whereas roughly half of the U.S.-born respondents did. As one undocumented
respondent described in reference to an interaction with his neighbors:
Jorge: the little discrimination I have experience[d] was with my own people [other
Latinos]. … who have … [legal] immigration status … They have said, “Oh, wetback
Mexican, you shouldn’t be here.” [Undocumented, 29 years old]
“Wetback” is a derogatory term used to describe undocumented Mexicans who entered the U.S.
without authorization by swimming across the Rio Bravo del Norte. Even though Jorge was a
college student and entrepreneur who had been in the U.S. for 15 years at the time of the
interview, he described how his documented neighbors stigmatized him with pejorative
references to his illegal status.
Jorge also explained that documented high school students regularly harassed their
undocumented peers:
Jorge: In high school … in South LA [Los Angeles] … most of the people that I would
hang out were immigrants… [and] a group of [U.S. born students] … I remember they
scared us once, they screamed “oh la migra ahi viene por ustedes,” [Immigration is
coming to get you!] loud and everything. … [and] people got scared and started running
out of the door and they [the U.S. born students] were just cracking up. … They always
said, “wetbacks,” and “go back.” [Undocumented, 29 years old]
Even in low-income high schools of South Los Angeles composed of Latino and black students,
the U.S.-born students used derogatory terms such as “wetback” to scare, poke fun at, and
demean their undocumented classmates, who were assumed to be from Mexico.
Moreover, half of U.S.-born respondents also had unpleasant interactions with peers and
strangers who incorrectly assumed they were undocumented and mistreated them. Diego
explained that this happened to him often because he had dark brown skin:
Diego: We were seating in a [University of Southern California] USC fans section. …
And we [UCLA] were winning the [football] game. … I was cheering and people really
responded to my cheers with racial slurs … “get out of here Mexican! …Wetback!” …
These were mostly White USC fans. [U.S.-born, 30 years old]
Diego believed that the USC fans saw his dark brown skin, assumed he was an undocumented
Mexican, and called him a “Wetback” to belittle him. Their demeaning verbal slights indicate
that U.S.-born young adults can be confused as undocumented and experience interpersonal
attacks. Overall, both undocumented and U.S.-born young adults described experiences when
either relatives, friends, peers, and/or strangers knew or assumed they were undocumented
Within the institutional realm, undocumented respondents experienced more
discrimination than U.S.-born interviewees (see Table 1). Undocumented young adults shared
dozens of stories about how educators unfairly block them from accessing opportunities,
employers unfairly demoted their wages, or how law enforcement officers imposed hefty fines
for petty offenses. According to respondents without legal status, these institutional actors
discriminated against them because they were undocumented Mexicans. For instance, Edgar
described how his English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher attacked the undocumented
students from Mexico:
Edgar: The ESL teacher was very conservative. … I asked him, “what do you think about
scholarships for undocumented students,” and he [said], “I don’t support undocumented
students, if I knew I had undocumented people here I would call immigration and deport
them. … They don’t deserve to be here; they are taking our money.” [Undocumented, 20
years old]
Edgar clarified that although the ESL teacher knew that many of his students were Mexico
immigrants, he still made those threats. Educators, such as this ESL teacher, who air their
opposition against undocumented immigrants can use, or in this case threaten to use, their
discretionary power to prevent undocumented students from accessing resources and
opportunities. In addition, they create an atmosphere of fear that prevents undocumented students
from asking for assistance when applying for college or jobs.
In contrast, about a third U.S.-born responders felt discriminated by institutional actors
who applied the racialized stereotypes of undocumented Mexicans to them (see Table 1). For
instance, some U.S.-born young men reported being harassed by law enforcement who stopped
and questioned them about being gang members or drug dealers who were here without legal
status. In addition, a U.S.-born young woman described an instance in which she believed that
her educators refused to help her find college housing because she had a son and embodied the
stereotype that Mexican origin people are overly fertile and academically incompetent.
Isabel: I was asking for AP classes and she [the counselor] told me I could not get them
because she was saving them for her smarter children [students]. … I felt angry, I felt
really angry. I felt like she thought I was dumb. … Maybe she was like, you know
everybody always say that the Mexican girls are going to get pregnant and well that is
kind of what happened [I got pregnant in high school]. … [At Humboldt State
University] … I couldn’t get that [campus housing] because I had a baby and so I thought
like I was just seen as those Mexican girls who have kids [cries intensely] and I thought
that they didn’t believe in me [cries more intensely]. [U.S.-born, 21 years old]
Isabel felt that the stereotypes that Mexican origin women are overly fertile propelled her
educators to exclude her from resources and support. These experiences substantiate previous
findings that the conflation of Mexican descent with illegality also stigmatizes Mexican
Americans (Garcia 2017). Nonetheless, Isabel was one of two respondents who experienced a lot
of exclusion because of the stigmatization of undocumented Mexicans. Most U.S.-born
respondents were able to leverage their legality to mitigate or end mistreatment associated with
Mexican illegality stigma within institutional settings and with institutional actors.
Mexican Illegality Stigma Stress
--Insert Table 2--
To evaluate the health effects of Mexican illegality stigma, I compared whether the
stigma was a stressor for U.S.-born and undocumented young adults. As seen in Figure 2, I found
that the Mexican illegality stigma was a stressor only for undocumented respondents. Almost
half of the 30 undocumented young adults described incidents in which they were mistreated,
belittled, or discriminated for being undocumented Mexicans as stressful. In comparison, about a
tenth of the 22 U.S.-born young adults found these incidents stressful. For instance, even though
Diego had been called a “Wetback” several times, these incidents did not stress him because:
Diego: It doesn’t really bother me, because I know I am contributing to this society …
some Mexicans who are here illegally … might actually not be contributing to society. …
I really do not get faced by it because I know what I am doing and we are not … in that
category [U.S.-born, 30 years old]
Diego was not affected when he was called a “Wetback” because he was born in the U.S. and did
not identify as an undocumented Mexicans. In addition, Diego reinforces the stereotype that
some undocumented immigrants are a burden and do not contribute to U.S. society. These
distancing strategies helped Diego, and many the other U.S.-born young adults, protect their self-
worth and psychological well-being when socially rejected and discriminated. It demonstrates
how the U.S.-born could leverage their legality to dismiss erroneous maltreatment and in doing
so protect their self-regard.
In contrast, almost half of the undocumented respondents were negatively affected by
incidents were they were discriminated and belittled for being undocumented Mexicans (see
Table 2). In the following sections I provide a deeper analysis of how Mexican illegality stigma
was a source of stress and distress for undocumented young adults from Mexico.
Mexican illegality Stigma and Psychological Well-being
—Insert Table 3—
As seen in Table 3, about half of undocumented interviewees experienced stress and
psychological distress (i.e., depression and anxiety) from repeated experiences with Mexican
illegality stigma. I provide two case studies, of Alma and Juan, to illustrate a common pattern
among the 13 undocumented Mexicans who reported different Mexican illegality stigma
stressors that deteriorated their psychological wellbeing.
Alma is one of the 13 undocumented respondents for whom the stressors from Mexican
illegality stigma accumulated and proliferated into psychological distress. Alma migrated to the
U.S. at the age of 20, had been undocumented for 11 years at the time of the interview. She was a
single mother who worked at a garment factory. When I asked Alma how people in the U.S.
perceived undocumented Mexicans, she explained:
Alma: They see us like trash. … Kids called me “frijolera’ [a derogatory term for
undocumented Mexicans] ... I feel really bad. … [At stores,] they think I stole it [the
credit card] … when I show the matrícula, it’s like saying I am undocumented. … It’s
embarrassing. … I wanted to buy an iPhone at Verizon and the salesperson said, “Not
that one, I have prepaid ones that don’t require a social security number.” … That
happens in a lot at stores. … When you have brown skin, they can tell you are
undocumented …they refuse me service. … At work, the documented woman regularly
say things like, “You are late … I thought you were detained and deported,”… to send
the message, “I am authorized to be here, I have papers, and you don’t.”
During Alma’s daily life, she felt that strangers, children, and coworkers regularly reminded her
that undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. are as valuable as “trash”.
Alma’s brown skin and lack of U.S. identification documents signaled to others that she
was an undocumented Mexican and made her vulnerable to social rejection and discrimination.
For instance, the salesperson at Verizon saw her and did not let her buy the IPhone. Alma
believed that he saw her brown skin and assumed she was undocumented. She was also turned
down for renting a “cheap worn out room” in a “bad neighborhood” for not having a social
security number which revealed her undocumented status. Additionally, the Mexican
matrícula—an identification card the Mexican Consulates gives undocumented immigrants—has
become associated with illegality. Thus, Alma was ashamed of using her matrícula because when
she did, most service personnel realized she undocumented and did not attend to her. Alma
reasoned that the service personnel associated her with stereotypes, i.e. that undocumented
Mexicans are criminals, and so assumed she stole her credit card. Even Alma’s documented
coworkers, who knew her, belittled her being undocumented.
While we do not know the motivations of the people who mistreated Alma, the way she
perceived these experiences affected her well-being. She explained that:
Alma: I feel bad. I feel horrible, these are small things, but they add up and affect me. …
It bothers me because injustice bothers me. … In this society … undocumented Mexicans
are at the very bottom. … I stop[ped] going to places I liked.
The chronic stress of Mexican illegality stigma strained Alma’s coping resources. First, they
took a toll on Alma’s dignity and self-worth because she was constantly reminded that as an
undocumented Mexican she was devalued. She also had to regularly manage negative emotions
such as fear, anger, humiliation, and a sense of injustice. All the while she struggled to befriend
documented people (i.e., her coworkers) who saw her as less than and mocked her
undocumented hardships. As these experiences accumulated, Alma tried to lessen the stress by
excluding herself from activities she once enjoyed—frequently a symptom of depression.
However, Alma could not avoid all the sources of stress from Mexican illegality stigma.
She was certain that her employer discriminated against her and intentionally decreased her
hourly pay, stopped paying her an hourly minimum wage, and demoted her by paying her per
clothing item she completed because she was an undocumented Mexican. When I asked her what
was the hardest thing she has ever dealt with, she responded:
Alma: I felt really sad because of my situation at work I could not celebrate my
daughter’s birthday. She was really looking forward to her birthday celebration and I felt
really bad. … I was given very little work and I did not have enough money for rent and
if I spent the money on that [her birthday] I was not going to be able to pay rent … [The
worse thing is] how little I earn. How have I survived? …Yeah I think it is anxiety. I have
anxiety. Every 15th day of the month and I am there thinking: the end of the month is
coming. I have 15 days [to pay rent].
While we do not know the true intentions of the employer, Alma’s perceptions matter because
she saw it as a chronic stress that caused her economic hardship and disrupted her ability to
provide for her daughter and transition into motherhood—these are secondary stressors.
Specifically, Alma never knew how much she was going to earn in a week and at times did not
earn enough to provide her daughter with food and proper shelter. Alma tried to regain a sense of
control over the situation by “constantly fighting” with her boss to increase her wages. But she
never succeeded and this strained her sense of mastery over the situation. Subsequently, Alma
explained that, “I have anxiety.”
In another effort to regain control over her future, Alma started taking English classes to
eventually find a better job. However, the class also became a source of stress because:
Alma: the English learners teacher … said, … “many of you [undocumented immigrants]
come to the U.S. to steal jobs.” And I got really angry and I told him that, “In the eight
years I’ve worked at the factory, I’ve never seen an American … ask for a job there.”
Alma had to endure the emotional toll of hearing her teacher’s various negative views of
undocumented Mexicans and the stress of defending the legitimacy of her presence in the U.S.
As the stressors of Mexican illegality stigma accumulated in Alma’s life, her coping
resources diminished and her anxiety intensified. As a last resort, Alma started suppressing her
emotions. “I try not to think. I block things… I used to have a lot of anxiety when I did not block
things,” she explained. However, this is a maladaptive emotional regulation strategy coping
strategy (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2013) and not very effective. Alma’s K6 results indicated that in
the 30 days before the interview she often felt restless and fidgety, nervous and worthless,
hopeless, and so depressed nothing could cheer her up. In the year before the interview, her K6
scores indicated that her emotions interfered with her performance at work. Overall, the stressors
of Mexican illegality stigma proliferated in Alma’s life and brought on secondary stressors (e.g.,
financial hardship and a disrupted transition to motherhood), which weakened her coping
capacities to the point that she was having psychological distress.
Mexican illegality stigma was also a source of distress for undocumented young adults
who had better-paying jobs. Such was the case for Juan, who was 31 years old, immigrated to the
U.S. at the age of 18, and had been undocumented 13 years at the time of the interview. Juan
earned $48,000 a year because he learned to install banners for big retail stores. Yet, throughout
the interview Juan cried as he described over 20 interactions with service personal, his employer,
coworkers, and law enforcement that made him feel belittled and mistreated for being
undocumented and Mexican. These experiences were chronic stressors that strained his coping
resources and generated psychological distress.
Specifically, Juan explained that people in the U.S. saw undocumented immigrants from
Mexico “as inferior [and] … as a burden,and as such regularly discriminated him:
Juan: [The apartment manager] told me that I could be a terrorist … [because I] did not
have an identification from [the U.S.]. … That was really upsetting. … That ID [the
matrícula] … they reject it everywhere, … at stores … at nightclubs. … I feel bad. … I
feel the humiliation.
Juan believed that when people saw his matrícula or noticed his lack of U.S. identification
documents they discovered he was undocumented and mistreated him. For instance, even though
he had a stable job and savings to prove his economic solvency, Juan believed that the apartment
manager realized he was undocumented when he saw his matrícula, equated him with a terrorist,
and did not lease him the apartment. Experiences of everyday discrimination made Juan feel bad
about himself, humiliated, and upset.
Juan also believed that law enforcement officials unfairly targeted him and other
undocumented Mexicans. Juan drove without a California driver’s license because he did not
have the right to one13. He described how highway patrol officers had the power to help or
unfairly fine him:
Juan: they stopped me … four [or] five times. … [Some] say, “OK, you have five to ten
minutes for a licensed driver to come pick up the car.” … [Others] are racist. … They
stop you, tow your car, and make business deals with the tow companies. …. They made
huge profits from undocumented Mexicans. …Whenever I see the police lights, I feel like
my heart is going to burst! … [I think] that they are going to tow my car, give me a
$2,500 ticket … [and] the negative impact it’ll have on them [my daughters].
These incidents illustrate how law enforcement officers have discretionary power to determine
how they penalize undocumented and unlicensed drivers. Some officers were considerate and
helped Juan avoid impound fees. Others aggressively imposed high fines and profited from
towing the cars of undocumented Mexicans. Juan, and many other respondents, believed that
officers who engaged in this behavior dehumanized undocumented immigrants to the extent that
it was easy for them to aggressively exploit their legal vulnerabilities. The racist officers who
imposed high fines stirred so much anxiety about his and his daughters livelihood that Juan
coped by avoiding, “the cities that have more racist … I try to not go there.” Thus, Juan was
limited his life to eschew life-threatening situations.
Juan also had to cope with the stress of his employer and coworkers regularly belittling
and discriminating him for being undocumented and Mexican. He explained:
Juan: [My boss] said, “If you cannot fix your papers, I’ll have to fire you,” … [and] he
has not increased my salary in seven years. … It’s harassment. … My boss, … he is a
racist because he belittles Mexicans. … I see how he treats people differently. … [For
example, I have] a normal cell phone … but they [my documented coworkers] were
given the iPhone. My assistants earn more than I do because they have papers. … That
frustrates me a lot. … I worry a lot … I get angry a lot seeing these injustices. … [Also,]
they did not pay me [for my paid vacation]. That really upset me.
13 I interviewed Juan in 2012. In January 2015, the California bill AB-60 gave undocumented immigrants
the right to a driver’s license.
Juan believed his employer refused to compensate him fairly and excluded him from company
benefits because he devalued undocumented Mexicans’ lives. Although we do not know the
employer’s motivations, Juan’s perceptions mattered because they affected his well-being. Juan
was angry his employer was sabotaging his professional development and experienced his job as
a chronic stressor. Additionally, the employer’s behavior made it acceptable for other employees
to belittle Juan. For instance, the administrative assistant helped the boss rob Juan of his
promised vacation benefits. Juan’s supervisor scolded him for speaking in Spanish and listening
to Mexican country music, taunting him that he could be discovered to be undocumented and
deported. For Juan these experiences were very stressful and made him feel angry, sad,
humiliated, and a general sense of injustice.
Juan described how he tried to cope with the chronic stress of his work situation:
Juan: [my brother] plans to open his own company and I am waiting to go work with him.
… I go to the gym. … I fight for what I want. … I try to fix my mistakes. … I evaluate
things. I am one of the few undocumented immigrants who have overcome barriers.
Juan viewed himself as a fighter capable of overcoming obstacles. This sense of self-mastery
sometimes protected his self-regard. Juan’s brother also helped him imagine a better future. In
the meantime, Juan exercised and reflected to reduce stress.
Seeking to take control of the situation, Juan confronted his employer for a promotion
and better treatment. But his sense of self-mastery deteriorated when his employer refused and
he was forced to tolerate humiliations, threats of getting fired, and non-payment. Juan’s stymied
transition into his professional life took a toll on his psychological well-being. He explained that
the hardest things he had experienced were, “my separation and … my work. … I am starting to
feel very resentful towards my boss. … I feel like I hate them [the people at work]. ... It’s
enraging.” The Mexican illegality stigma that Juan experiences at work was the second hardest
thing he had ever dealt with—second only to his divorce, which is one of the most traumatic life
changing events (Wheaton et al. 2013; Pearlin & Bierman 2013). Additionally, Juan K6 scores
indicate that in the 12 months before the interview he had moderate psychological distress and
felt nervous most of the time, which interfered with his performance at work, his social life, and
his relationship with family and friends.
Overall, for Alma, Juan, and many other undocumented young adults I interviewed, the
stressors associated with Mexican illegality stigma accumulated, strained their resources,
disrupted their transitions to adulthood, and negatively affected their psychological well-being.
Mexican illegality stigma is a stressor and source of psychological distress for
undocumented young adults. Given that many Americans conflate Mexican origin with
“undocumented immigrant,” all of the respondents, documented and undocumented, reported
experiences with everyday discrimination. But while the U.S.-born respondents experienced
mistreatment when confused as undocumented Mexicans, they were able to mitigate the stressors
associated with the stigma by proving their legality (e.g., U.S. passport), thus, signaling to
potential harassers that they had legal rights, benefits and protections. Additionally, their self-
regard was protected because they distanced and differentiated themselves from the stereotypes
associated with undocumented Mexicans and they knew they were incorrectly attacked. In
contrast, undocumented Mexicans who were mistreated because of their immigration status and
nationality could not easily alleviate the repercussions of the incident, which resulted in negative
consequences for their psychological well-being.
Young adults without legal status experienced repeated social rejection and
discrimination for being undocumented Mexicans and these stressors had negative repercussions
for their transitions into adulthood and psychological well-being. For instance, undocumented
respondents believed that law enforcement officers targeted them for petty offenses and gave
them excessive fines, that employers demoted wages, and that educators excluded them from
opportunities because they were undocumented Mexicans. Although I do not have data on the
motivations of institutional actors, how respondents interpreted these incidents matters because it
has the potential to affect their psychological well-being. For instance, for undocumented
respondents, wage demotion stirred negative emotions and resulted in secondary stressors
because it disrupted their professional development and ability to provide for their children.
Unable to prove their legality, undocumented Mexicans were often unable to mitigate the
consequences of social rejection, discrimination, or excessive fines. This then diminished their
self-regard, sense of mastery, and financial resources and gave way to symptoms of
psychological distress.
Stereotypes and racial markers about who is undocumented made some respondents more
vulnerable to everyday discrimination. Given the stereotype that conflates illegality with
Mexican origin, respondents who had an indo-mestizo phenotype—or dark brown skin and
indigenous features—experienced more discrimination than those who had light-skin
complexion. This finding aligns with previous research on the racialization of illegality
(Enriquez Forthcoming; Garcia 2017; Asad and Clair 2017; Patler 2014). This study contributes
to the racializing illegality and everyday discrimination literatures by specifying that these
incidents are stressors that particularly affect undocumented Mexicans with dark brown skin and
indigenous features. Undocumented young adults who had dark brown skin tended to experience
more social rejection and discrimination than those with lighter skin complexion. Unable to
prove their legality while embodying the markers of illegality, these undocumented young adults
could not to prevent discriminatory behavior and had to endure the psychological burden of
Mexican illegality stigma.
Additionally, undocumented respondents described other markers of illegality that
uniquely affected them. The Mexican matrícula and passports were markers of national origin
that signaled to others that those who posses them are likely undocumented Mexicans. Also, not
having U.S. government issued identification documents (i.e., social security numbers and State-
issued driver's license) have become markers of Mexican illegality that make undocumented
respondents vulnerable to discriminatory treatment.
These findings build on previous research on perceptions of discrimination stress among
Latino and Mexican immigrants (Umaña-Taylor and Updegraff 2007; Finch et al. 2000) by
focusing on undocumented Mexicans and the context of Mexican illegality. Specifically, this
study adds that the conflation of Mexican origin with “undocumented immigrant” has fostered a
unique Mexican illegality stigma that is a source of every discrimination stress and distress that
particularly affects undocumented Mexicans.
Additionally, this study focused on how Mexican illegality stigma affects young adults as
they transition into adulthood. This study finds evidence that Mexican illegality stigma
negatively affects undocumented young adults from Mexico because it deteriorates their self-
regard, sense of control over their lives, and financial stability that can disrupt their transitions
into parenthood and the workforce. These experiences are unique for undocumented Mexicans
and differ from how Mexican Americans experienced Mexican illegality stigma in their daily
lives. As noted earlier, Mexican Americans who were harassed or maltreated when incorrectly
assumed to be undocumented did not incur the same negative consequences as did
undocumented respondents. This finding points to the increased salience of how racialized
illegality uniquely affects the psychological well being of undocumented young adults from
Mexico (for reviews see Torres and Young 2015, Williams and Mohammed 2009).
It is important to note that these findings are based on a non-representative sample in
southern California and I encourage scholars to develop this line of research in other samples for
this and other populations. For instance, quantitative research could test the significance of the
relationship between Mexican illegality stigma and the stress process. Also, future research could
focus on the attitudes and behaviors of institutional agents (i.e., educators) towards
undocumented Mexicans. Furthermore, this study focused primarily on low-income young
adults. It is possible that poverty exacerbated the stressors of Mexican illegality stigma; thus,
future research could focus on middle and upper-middle class Mexican immigrants and Mexican
Americans to assess whether class reduces exposure to or mitigates the negative consequences of
Mexican illegality stigma. Additionally, this study does not have data on Mexican immigrants
with legal status. Future work should compare the experiences of undocumented and
documented Mexican immigrants to tease out how Mexican illegality stigma affects these groups
differently. Also, this study did not measure biological predispositions to psychological distress
which could impact that findings. Finally, the findings presented here are likely even more
salient in the present historical moment. The data described here were collected before Donald J.
Trump became President. Since 2017, the Trump administration has deliberately targeted and
maligned undocumented immigrants, particularly Mexicans. The impact of the intensification of
Mexican illegality stigma on the psychological well-being of all individuals of Mexican-Origin
deserves close monitoring.
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Figure 1. The Stress Process Model for Mexican Illegality Stigma
! !
Source: Author’s modification of Wheaton et al. (2013: 300)
Experiences of
Most Difficult Life
anxiety, and panic
attacks (WHO
Distress in last
month and 12
months (K6)
Mexican Illegality
Table 1. Extent of Experiencing Mexican Illegality Stigma
* This includes interactions with relatives, friends, peers, strangers, and service personnel
Table 2. Affect of Experiencing Mexican Illegality
Stigma (N=52)
No Stress
About Half (13)
Almost All (20)
Yes Stress
About Half (17)
Almost None (2)
Table 2. Psychological Distress among Undocumented Young
Adults Experiencing Stress from Mexican Illegality Stigma
No Stress
Yes Stress
Low Distress
Two-thirds (8)
One-seventh (4)
High Distress
One-sixth (5)
~One-half (13)
* This was based on the K6 30 days and 12 months scores and on the open ended WHO CIDI
... Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress of precarious jobs, involuntary unemployment, underemployment, and professional stagnation was more prevalent and severe for immigrants. Immigrants experience more work stress than citizens because they are more likely to have precarious and nonstandard bad jobs with high risk and security [8,[16][17][18][20][21][22]. Specifically, immigrants who have undocumented or liminal legal status, are racialized, and have low educational attainment with fewer employment opportunities, forcing them to endure the stress and distress of bad working conditions and daily discrimination from coworkers and employers [21,22,25]. ...
... Immigrants experience more work stress than citizens because they are more likely to have precarious and nonstandard bad jobs with high risk and security [8,[16][17][18][20][21][22]. Specifically, immigrants who have undocumented or liminal legal status, are racialized, and have low educational attainment with fewer employment opportunities, forcing them to endure the stress and distress of bad working conditions and daily discrimination from coworkers and employers [21,22,25]. Even highly educated immigrants experience the stress of underemployment or a loss of professional status in the destination country [15]. ...
... Even highly educated immigrants experience the stress of underemployment or a loss of professional status in the destination country [15]. Though, immigrants with more coping resources (e.g., robust social supports, lawful permanent residency, and a sense of self-mastery) can better cope with these stressors and prevent psychological distress [21]. ...
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According to the social stress process model, global crises are macro-level stressors that generate physiological stress and psychological distress. However, existing research has not identified immigrants’ COVID-19 containment policy stressors or examined the social stress of sending remittances amid crises. Drawing on in-depth longitudinal interviews with 46 Venezuelan immigrants—half before and half during the pandemic—in Chile and Argentina, we identified the COVID-19 containment policies’ stressors. We focused on Venezuelan immigrants because they constitute one of the largest internationally displaced populations, with most migrating within South America. We found that the governmental COVID-19 containment measures in both countries generated four stressors: employment loss, income loss, devaluation of employment status, and inability to send needed remittances. Moreover, sending remittances helped some migrants cope with concerns about loved ones in Venezuela. However, sending remittances became a social stressor when immigrants struggled to simultaneously sustain their livelihoods and send financial support to relatives experiencing hardships in Venezuela. For some immigrants, these adversities generated other stressors (e.g., housing instability) and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Broadly, for immigrants, the stressors of global crises transcend international borders and generate high stress, which strains their psychological well-being.
... Links between discrimination and psychological distress (Lee and Ahn, 2011) suggest that discrimination toward Latinx immigrants may be a major obstacle to their successful integration in U.S. society (Alamilla et al., 2009;Ayón 2017;Cabral and Cuevas, 2020;García 2018;Hwang and Goto, 2008;Kline and Castañeda, 2020;. A growing body of literature has shown that anti-immigrant and amplified immigration enforcement policies have had negative effects on individuals' physical and mental health, particularly among Latinx individuals, beyond the undocumented (Asad and Clair, 2017;Del Real 2019;García 2018;Patler et al., 2020;Santos et al., 2017;Toomey et al., 2014). For instance, Russell B. Toomey and colleagues (2014) found that young U.S.-born Latina mothers were less likely to utilize the public assistance they were eligible for after the passage of SB1070 in Arizona-commonly referred to as 'show me your papers' legislation-compared to before. ...
... However, since undocumented immigrants live, work, and pray with others of their own ethnicity who hold permanent status or U.S. citizenship, the impact of today's legal regime have ripple effects beyond the presumed target population of undocumented. Such effects reach a variety of groups who are perceived to phenotypically 'look' or be Latinx (Del Real 2019;Gómez Cervantes 2019;Menjívar 2021;Menjívar et al., 2018). Race and illegality thus have become increasingly conflated, particularly for Latinxs (Armenta and Vega, 2017;Provine et al., 2016). ...
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Drawing on two online studies among predominantly U.S.-born and lawful permanent resident Latinxs, we developed a self-report scale intended to capture how discrimination related to perceived legal status, as well as perceptions of racial/ethnic marginalization of Latinxs in U.S. society, are experienced among a wide swath of the Latinx population. We also explore how these processes may be associated with psychological distress in this population. In line with the immigration scholarship that has identified a spillover effect of immigration enforcement and the racialization of legal status beyond the undocumented population, our exploratory factor analysis results from Study I (N = 355 Latinxs) collected in fall of 2013 revealed four factors among our study population: Fear of Deportation, Marginalization of Latinxs in U.S. Society, Marginalization Due to Perceived Illegality, and Fear Due to Perceived Illegality. Results from a confirmatory factor analysis from a separate study conducted in spring of 2016 (Study II; N = 295 Latinxs) provided evidence in support of the structure identified in Study I. Results also revealed evidence of the association between the Stigma of Du Bois Review. 0:0 (2021) 1-25.
... Using the Latino/a/x population as an example, the conflation of "Latino/a/x" with being undocumented has been associated with greater stress, discrimination, and social rejection [21,140,146] in addition to feeling unsafe [25]. These experiences translate into delays in seeking medical care among undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, and even U.S.-born Latinos [25,115,140,147,148]. ...
... Instead, it is the racial context of immigration that matters. López et al. examined people's "street race", that is, what people would say a person's race would be "on the street" [146]. This study can serve as a model for studying the effects of racialized legal status on health outcomes by substituting legal status for race, thus examining others' perceptions of a person's legality. ...
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Immigrant health research has often noted an “immigrant health paradox”, the observation that immigrants are “healthier” compared to their native-born peers of similar demographic and socioeconomic profile. This paradox disappears as immigrants stay longer in the host country. Multiple arguments, including migrant selectivity and cultural and behavioral factors have been proposed as reasons for the apparent paradox. Recently, the field has focused on immigrant legal status, especially its racialization. We review the literature on the immigrant health paradox, legal status, and racialized legal status to examine how this debate has taken a more structural approach. We find that immigrant health research has taken a needed intersectional approach, a productive development that examines how different markers of disadvantage work concurrently to shape immigrants’ health. This approach, which factors in immigration enforcement practices, aligns with explanations for poor health outcomes among other racialized groups, and promises a fruitful avenue for future research.
... Theory and research have connected disproportionate violent encounters for Black Americans to societal assumptions of criminality (Alexander, 1994;Thomas & Blackmon, 2015). While this is true for Latinx individuals as well, police encounters in Latinx communities are also driven by societal assumptions of illegality (Del Real, 2019). Latinx families of a range of residency statuses live in constant fear of being detained or deported due to the volatility of immigration policy (Roche et al., 2018). ...
We hypothesized that the goodness‐of‐fit between profiles of observed, caregiver‐provided ethnic–racial socialization (ERS), and child self‐regulation (i.e., inhibitory control) would differentially associate with child behavioral outcomes. Conversations between 80 caregivers (45% Latinx; 55% Black) and their children (M age = 11.09; 46% female) were rated for ERS. Measures included an inhibitory control composite (ages 2.5–3.5) and the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; age 12). Three profiles were determined: Comprehensive (n = 34), Reactive (n = 8), and Pragmatic (n = 38). Only youth with low inhibitory control in preschool appeared to benefit from Pragmatic ERS, whereas youth with normative or high inhibitory control in early childhood displayed lower internalizing and externalizing behaviors when they had Comprehensive or Reactive rather than Pragmatic caregivers.
... Implication of sociopolitical context on the data collection process. The current historical and sociopolitical processes have created an environment where undocumented status is a highly stigmatized identity (Del Real, 2019), heightening fear among the immigrant population (Callaghan et al., 2019). Apart from the recruitment challenges discussed above, the nature of the sociopolitical context thus appeared to impact data collection as well. ...
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Although undocumented immigrants represent a particularly vulnerable population, they are underrepresented in health research. To facilitate the engagement of undocumented immigrants in health research, in this article, we describe the methodological issues encountered while conducting a qualitative study where we sought to understand the health care–seeking experiences of undocumented African immigrant women in the United States. Strategies employed in addressing methodological challenges and recommendation for future studies will also be discussed.
... Studies have found that immigration is a topic that elicits strong emotional responses (Suarez-Orozco, 1995). Recent research has found that the stress of growing up undocumented in the United States has been linked to emotional and mental health (Gonzales et al., 2013;Real, 2019). Similarly, Salas, Ayon and Gurola interviewed Mexican immigrant families in focus groups and found they expressed feelings of traumatization, powerlessness, and other mental health issues related to anti-immigrant sentiments and policies (Salas et al., 2013). ...
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Relying on in-depth interviews and ethnographic data in Los Angeles, California, this study examines the health experiences of unaccompanied, undocumented Latin American-origin immigrant youth as they come of age as low-wage workers. Findings demonstrate that unaccompanied, undocumented youth undergo cumulative physical and mental health disadvantages in the United States’s secondary labor market and during critical developmental life stages while lacking the parental monitoring and guidance to navigate them. Developing comparisons between their past and present living conditions and between themselves and other youth in Los Angeles—what I refer to as an emergent frame of reference—youth workers come to perceive family disruptions, and especially separation from their parents, as the most salient factor affecting their health. While some youth ultimately resign themselves to short-term attempts to assuage illness, injury, or distress through activities like substance abuse, others pursue community connections and support groups that can sustain them long term.
This study examines how a rapid change in social perceptions of a national‐origin group triggered by the COVID‐19 pandemic influenced immigration judges' decision‐making in US removal proceedings. Using originally compiled court data on removal proceedings decided between 2019 and 2020, we applied a difference‐in‐differences framework to produce three key findings. First, consistent with theory of event stigma, Chinese respondents experienced a significantly higher removal rate during the early pandemic period. Second, consistent with theory of associative stigma, East and Southeast (E/SE) Asian respondents also experienced a significantly higher removal rate during the early pandemic period. Third, the removal rate declined for both Chinese and E/SE respondents during the later pandemic period, but this decline was more gradual and lagged for E/SE Asian than for Chinese respondents. Finally, increases in the number of cases involving Chinese respondents increased the removal rate for E/SE Asian respondents during the early months of the pandemic. The last two findings suggest that associative or indirect stigmatization may be harder to combat than direct stigmatization owing to the implicit nature of bias underlying associative stigma. This study highlights the socially constructed nature of national origin groups, and the importance of both direct and indirect stigmatization in the production of social inequality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people and communities differently depending on individual social status and as members of society. Undocumented immigrants are a group that is especially vulnerable to uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19 in the US due to their low status in societal hierarchies, and obstacles like adverse policy. The undocumented immigrant population has been estimated to be around 10.5 million—nearly a quarter of the entire US foreign-born population, yet the inability to vote fundamentally excludes undocumented immigrants from the constituency that elected officials and lawmakers owe formal accountability. Consequently, undocumented immigrants often face substantial barriers not experienced by naturalized citizens of the host nation. The inability to identify oneself in the information economy and often being labeled as having no rights make undocumented immigrants an important group for understanding the detrimental effects of such social disadvantages. Through focus group studies, the researchers explore undocumented Hispanic immigrants’ experiences during the pandemic. Eight recurring themes were identified and discussed.
Heightened immigration enforcement in public spaces has brightened the boundaries of exclusion for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Yet, these immigrants simultaneously experience belonging and inclusion within the personal and social spheres of their lives. This article explores this tension among young people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Drawing on interviews with 408 DACA beneficiaries in six states, our analyses underscore the significance of personal and social spheres as spaces of belonging. DACA expanded these spaces, helping respondents derive meaning, agency, and membership in their everyday lives. However, these personal and social spheres were at times disrupted by hostile and exclusionary contests to function as spaces of vulnerability. Respondents experienced the boundaries between belonging and vulnerability as unstable and, at times, ambiguous-as they navigated a state of social liminality. Ultimately, conflicting sociopolitical climates at the national, state, local and institutional levels have created this social liminality.
Omi and Winant examine the creation and negotiation of race's role in identify construction, contestation, and deconstruction. Since no biological basis exists for the signification of racial differences, the authors discuss racial hierarchies in terms of a "racial formation," which is a process by which racial categories are created, accepted, altered, or destroyed. This theory assumes that society contains various racial projects to which all people are subjected. The role that race plays in social stratification secures its place as a political phenomenon in the United States. This stratification is tantamount to what Omi and Winant call "racial dictatorship," which has three effects. First, the identity "American" is conflated with the racial identity "white." Second, the "color line" becomes a fundamental division in American society. Finally, oppositional racial consciousness became consolidated in opposition to racial dictatorship.
By shedding light on how Mexicans are racialized, scholars have brought racism to the forefront of migration research. Still, less is known about how “illegality” complicates racialized experiences, and even less is known about how gender and class further complicate this process. Drawing on 60 interviews with Mexican-origin women in Houston, Texas, this research explores how documented and Mexican American women are racialized, the institutional contexts in which this process occurs, and how women’s racialized experiences relate to feelings of belonging and exclusion. Findings suggest a form of discrimination that is intersectional and imbued within an anti-immigrant climate. “Racializing illegality” unfolds within institutional contexts that include the workplace, criminal justice system, educational institutions, and health care settings. Both immigrant and Mexican American women experience feelings of belonging and exclusion but face more exclusion associated with an anti-immigrant sentiment. This article shows the gravity of “illegality” as it extends across legal status, nativity, race, and generation status. It also contributes to the race and migration literature by suggesting the need for an intersectional approach to studying “illegality.”
Using data from 53 in-depth interviews with undocumented immigrant young adults in Florida, we argue that undocumented legal status leads to a range of emotional challenges among this group. Lack of ontological security is at the core of emotions they must contend with, from frustration, fear, shame, and depression to anxiety about their future. Positive coping strategies include individually oriented activities such as listening to music, exercising, playing sports, attending church, and turning to close family members or friends for advice or compassion. Negative coping strategies often include behaviors that result in self-harm, including starving themselves, overeating, drinking, smoking, using drugs, and even ideating or attempting suicide. The most positive mechanism to foster well-being draws from social and emotional health generated by membership in immigrant advocacy organizations that provide opportunities for empowerment and belonging. Meaningful social connections result in positive emotional states, which in turn, provide young immigrants with emotional capital to aid in the process of resocialization, leading them to recast negative emotions into positive ones. We conclude with a discussion of conditions most conducive to the emotional well-being of undocumented immigrant young adults and factors that enhance emotional capital and contribute to greater well-being among this population.
Exclusionary immigration policies, as a form of structural racism, have led to a sizeable undocumented population that is largely barred from access to resources in the United States. Existing research suggests that undocumented immigration status detrimentally impacts mobility, yet few studies have tested the impacts of legal status on psychological wellbeing. Most importantly, we know little about how changes to legal status impact wellbeing. Announced in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows eligible undocumented youth to apply for temporary lawful status. Drawing on cross-sectional survey data from 487 Latino immigrant young adults in California collected in 2014 and 2015, we analyze the predictors of three specialized outcomes related to immigrants’ psychological wellbeing—distress, negative emotions, and deportation worry before and after a transition from undocumented to lawfully present status. Results show that retrospective reports of past psychological wellness, when all respondents were undocumented, are predicted primarily by socioeconomic status. However, reports of current psychological wellness are predicted by DACA status. Our results demonstrate, for the first time, the positive emotional consequences of transitioning out of undocumented status for immigrant young adults.
Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Fit to Be Citizens? demonstrates how both science and public health shaped the meaning of race in the early twentieth century. Through a careful examination of the experiences of Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, Natalia Molina illustrates the many ways local health officials used complexly constructed concerns about public health to demean, diminish, discipline, and ultimately define racial groups. She shows how the racialization of Mexican Americans was not simply a matter of legal exclusion or labor exploitation, but rather that scientific discourses and public health practices played a key role in assigning negative racial characteristics to the group. The book skillfully moves beyond the binary oppositions that usually structure works in ethnic studies by deploying comparative and relational approaches that reveal the racialization of Mexican Americans as intimately associated with the relative historical and social positions of Asian Americans, African Americans, and whites. Its rich archival grounding provides a valuable history of public health in Los Angeles, living conditions among Mexican immigrants, and the ways in which regional racial categories influence national laws and practices. Molina's compelling study advances our understanding of the complexity of racial politics, attesting that racism is not static and that different groups can occupy different places in the racial order at different times.