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Most Undocumented Immigrants Are Not Mexican

The make-up of the country's undocumented population is changing. Can white Americans' preconceived notions keep up?
New American citizens celebrate at a naturalization ceremony in Newark, New Jersey.

New American citizens celebrate at a naturalization ceremony in Newark, New Jersey.

The undocumented immigrant population in the United States has been changing for a long time—and now, according to a new study released by the Pew Research Center, Mexican nationals make up less than half of the group for the first time in about half a century.

For the last decade, North America has seen a massive exodus of Mexican-born immigrants out of the U.S., largely motivated by the Great Recession in the late 2000s. Since 2015, Mexican migration into the U.S. has been at a net negative—which is to say, more Mexicans have moved south across the border than north. According to Pew, between 2007 and 2017, about two million of the Mexican immigrants who left the U.S. had been living in the country undocumented.

That change has contributed to an overall decline in the estimated undocumented immigrant population in the U.S, which has gone down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007 to a low of 10.5 million in 2017. According to Pew, Mexican-born immigrants now account for only 47 percent of the undocumented immigration population. Though Mexicans still make up the largest portion of the group, this is the first time that most undocumented immigrants in U.S. have not been Mexican since the U.S. placed strict quotas on Mexican immigration in the mid-20th century (which criminalized the northward migration that had occurred for centuries).

While trends in undocumented immigration have changed significantly in the last decade, some Americans' attitudes toward immigration have struggled to keep up. In 2018, researchers completed a broad study of white Americans' attitudes toward immigrants. The researchers found that white Americans (both liberal and conservative) were much more likely to suspect someone of being undocumented if that person was from Mexico.

Though white Americans made similar assumptions about people from El Salvador and Cuba (as well as Syria and some of the other Muslim-majority countries where President Donald Trump declared his travel ban), white Americans were, in general, much less likely to suspect someone of being undocumented if their country of origin was in Europe or Asia.

That attitude clashes with reality: Today, people from Asian countries make up the fastest-growing population of undocumented immigrants. By race and ethnicity, more Asian immigrants (both documented and undocumented) have arrived in the U.S. than Latinx immigrants since 2010.

Of course, like Latinx, the racial term "Asian" describes people from many different national and cultural backgrounds (for instance, the category includes both Sri Lankans and Koreans). But because so much of the U.S. discourse on undocumented immigration remains focused on Latinxs, some researchers have called undocumented Asian immigrants an "invisible" population. Last fall, Soo Mee Kim, a sociologist at California State University–Los Angeles, and Aggie J. Yellow Horse, an Asian Pacific American studies professor at Arizona State University, argued in the sociological journal Contexts that undocumented Asian immigrants remain "in the shadows," as the national conversation focuses on Latinx immigrants and border issues. "When undocumented Asian immigrants are acknowledged, media outlets invoke the stereotype of the 'model minority,' framing even undocumented Asians as hardworking immigrants poised for high socioeconomic success," they wrote.

The four largest Asian undocumented populations are from India, Korea, the Philippines, and China. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of Indian undocumented immigrants in the country alone grew by over 60 percent, from 325,000 people to 525,000—about 5 percent of the total undocumented immigrant population. By 2065, the Asian immigrant population is projected to become the largest immigrant population in the U.S., surpassing the Latinx immigrant population.*

*Update—June 13th, 2019: This post has been updated to clarify that there has been an increase in the total number of Indian undocumented immigrants in the U.S.