Stanford sociologist unveils how undocumented immigrants navigate everyday forms of surveillance

Compiling ethnographic interviews and national surveys with Latino immigrant families, Asad L. Asad shares how undocumented immigrants endure institutional surveillance to manage life’s hardships.

“Tell me the story of your life.”

Asad L. Asad

Sociologist Asad L. Asad’s new book looks at how undocumented immigrants deal with the everyday interactions with societal institutions that monitor them. (Image credit: Steve Fisch)

That’s the prompt Stanford University sociologist Asad L. Asad began with in each of his interviews with undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Their answers unearthed a common thread about what it means to live without authorization in this country: Life’s daily demands all but require undocumented immigrants worried about government surveillance to interact with societal institutions that monitor them. These interactions are seemingly mundane but can be stressful and complex for undocumented immigrants settled in the United States, impacting quality of life and creating generational trauma through a punitive immigration system that often has no efficient or straightforward path to legality.

Asad, assistant professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, documents these findings in a new book, Engage and Evade: How Latino Immigrant Families Manage Surveillance in Everyday Life, published by Princeton University Press on June 13.

Heavy burdens on undocumented immigrants

Nationwide, there are upward of 11 million undocumented immigrants. Since about two-thirds of that population are from Mexico or Central America, Asad focused his research on undocumented Latinos to better understand the tangled web of surveillance that both threatens and maintains their life in the U.S. – from the workplace to policing to interacting with social services.

“Undocumented immigrants have to find ways to work that won’t raise the suspicions of institutional authorities who may audit their hiring documents. But, outside the workplace, undocumented immigrants also have to pay extra attention to behaviors that many U.S. citizens might take for granted, such as ensuring that they buckle their seat belt or that they don’t run a red light,” Asad said.

Their experiences unveiled the tension resulting from the overlapping forms of legal, financial, and social hardships imposed on them, according to Asad. Things that might seem mundane or simply inconvenient to most citizens – seeking health care, applying for a job, or interacting with law enforcement – were actually perceived as a threat by those who are undocumented because of the potential for being discovered and deported in daily life. A fear of institutional surveillance can make people avoid calling the police, seeking health care, or applying for public assistance, Asad found.

Chronicling everyday experiences

Asad’s ethnographic research began in 2013 during his graduate studies at Harvard and continued through postdoctoral work at Cornell in 2018, as immigration rhetoric shifted under the Trump administration. Asad, who is fluent in Spanish, spent months during five of those six years in Dallas County, Texas, interviewing 60 adults from 28 Latino immigrant families, who had all come to the U.S. sometime between 1974 and 2007. Among the topics covered in his research: understanding a person’s journey in wanting to migrate to the U.S.; one’s role as a new immigrant; being an immigrant parent; and what it’s like to be an immigrant petitioning the government for legal status. Asad even spent time in immigration court in Dallas to gather additional ethnographic observations among immigration officials making consequential decisions about undocumented immigrants’ societal presence.

“It was a multi-year journey to discover undocumented immigrants’ tug of war between fear and exclusion, and hope and inclusion,” Asad said. “My focus was on ordinary people who just happened to be undocumented. None were Rhodes Scholars, but their experiences are no less important. They show us the burdens of this immigration system on not just the average undocumented immigrant but also their children.”

Dealing with both helpful and harmful institutions

Not everyone Asad spoke with entered the country undocumented, but many ended up undocumented later on by overstaying visas. Once in the country, some purchased papeles chuecos – false identity documents, like a Social Security card or green card (permanent resident card) – so that they could set up their new lives in the United States.

One woman Asad writes about in the book, Alma, shares her experience traveling from Mexico to reunite with her undocumented parents in Dallas, even though she herself had no legal authorization. With the help of a coyote, Alma successfully crosses the border undetected via a small boat across the Rio Grande. Asad follows the challenges in Alma’s life from when she enters the U.S. as a single 19-year-old to her life years later starting a family with two citizen children. Asad’s research found having citizen children often forced undocumented parents into interacting with institutional authorities like doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers.

“Undocumented immigrants didn’t want to fulfill the stereotypes that they knew others had of them, so for much of their life, they would delay their own health care, or go without food for a while if they had to, just to make sure that they weren’t seeking out public benefits that they were already not entitled to in the country,” Asad said. But after having kids in the U.S., “all of a sudden you have this new slate of institutional authorities that you had long sought to avoid who are watching you and making sure you’re taking good care of your children, even if you are excluded from resources that deny you the opportunity to take good care of yourself.”

Asad noted that oftentimes, the families he interviewed are thinking about how to be more moral than the average U.S. citizen, because they understand that the odds are stacked against them as they go about daily life.

“They know that their efforts won’t help them to legalize anytime soon because they have lived in the country for so long without that opportunity,” Asad explained. “But they also know that there are many reasons they might be deported, so they try their best to meet the expectations they believe institutional authorities hold them to as undocumented immigrants and as parents to citizen children.”

Shifting the immigration conversation

Asad’s own personal life story is reflective of an immigration experience. His Palestinian parents, who legally immigrated to the U.S., settled in the Midwest in the early 1970s, raising Asad in Milwaukee.

“My parents didn’t have the same experiences as the families profiled in the book,” Asad explained, because they were documented and migrated from a place with a different history of migration to the United States. “But I think what many of the people whom I talked to appreciated about our interviews was that it was a chance to talk with someone who, like their own children, was a child of immigrants and who wants to see changes to the immigration system.”

Asad hopes the book sparks a renewed conversation about immigration, a topic he laments has long been defined by dramatic extremes in the United States.

“Both in the U.S. and other countries, there will always be undocumented immigrants, because the law doesn’t make room for all the different reasons people may want to or have to migrate,” Asad said. “So I think the question is not ‘How do we stop undocumented immigrants from coming?’ but ‘How do we make it so that we’re imposing fewer burdens on undocumented immigrants?’ – recognizing that they will always be a foundational part of any country, that they’re going to set up lives here and that those lives deserve dignity and respect.”

Engage and Evade: How Latino Immigrant Families Manage Surveillance in Everyday Life was published by Princeton University Press on June 13 in the U.S. and will be published Aug. 8 in the U.K.