By Baylee Rogers
“Is that…for me..?” my mother asked, looking in her rearview mirror. I turned around and saw the red and blue flashing lights she was referring to.
“There’s no way,” I responded, laughing and blowing it off. “They probably just want to get around you.”
My mother was probably the most careful driver I knew—definitely one of the slowest. There was no way she was getting pulled over for a speeding ticket. There were no recent stop signs or lights that we could have run through.
Obediently, my mother began to slow down and pull over, but I was still racking my brain for what my mother could have done wrong. The cop got off of his motorcycle and started walking toward us. I was stumped.
Of Pew Research Center’s estimated 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in 2008, my mother was one of them. She had entered the country on a valid visa back in the 80s, started a small business, married a citizen, and had two children. As many immigrants do, she had provided crucial social support to some of her close friends by helping them prepare and drive them to their U.S. citizenship tests and interviews. She had not, however, made the move to either extend her visa or take the step in becoming a permanent resident or citizen. So, she was still undocumented.
And she had just been pulled over.
Asian and Undocumented
As I watched from the back seat as the officer walked up to the driver’s side window, I knew I shouldn’t say a word. My mother must have told the officer she didn’t have her driver’s license on her because she read off her license number from memory. The cop told her it had expired years ago. There was a brief discussion in which he explained that because he had just pulled us over for a broken brake light, that he couldn’t do anything about the expired license.
Or maybe he said that he wouldn’t do anything about the broken brake light. Regardless, we were stunned and grateful that my mother happened to be stopped by this cop and was simply issued a “fix it” ticket. This officer’s whims and biases happened to work to our advantage.
This brief interaction was one of the only times my mother’s undocumented status had much of an impact on our lives. Like many undocumented immigrants, there was an underlying stressor knowing that she was breaking the law every day to go about her life. Most days we were able to brush that little voice aside because the odds of getting caught without a license were slim: you can’t see an expired license through a car window. You can, however, see the color of a person’s skin. The fear that my mother and I felt is far more prevalent in the daily lives of Black and Brown folks when the stakes of driving without a license are astronomically higher. Ironically, for so many people of color, a broken tail light serves as an excuse for an officer to pull them over and investigate something else. For my mother, it was just a bit of bad luck that her tail light was out. We weren’t thinking that it was only a matter of time before someone thought she was worthy of investigation and tried to cite her for any number of bogus traffic violations.
California has the largest percentage of undocumented migrants by state as of 2008, most of whom are from Mexico. Living three hours away from the US-Mexico border, my mother wasn’t typically seen as the stereotypical “undocumented immigrant” that Republicans point to when talking of restricting immigration, tightening border control, and expelling existing immigrants. Rather, many of our neighbors were.
Over half of the immigrants who came to the U.S. to be with their families or to attend school in 2019 were from Asia. In contrast, one-third of people who came for work that year were from Mexico, more than any other country. Despite increasing rates of immigration from Asian countries, or perhaps due to the differences in reasons for immigrating, the rhetoric and policies surrounding immigration and law enforcement continue to perpetuate the idea of a certain type of undocumented immigrant. That is, an undocumented immigrant that is Brown and, often, engaged in some type of labor, like custodial services, construction, agriculture, or landscaping. This perception is aided by the dehumanization and prejudice toward Mexican immigrants by the American public.
Researchers highlight how law enforcement and immigration enforcement cooperate to target undocumented individuals. To no one’s surprise, racial profiling plays an essential role in this targeting. Not only do law enforcement agencies directly enforce immigration law and cooperate with federal immigration authorities, but they also police Black and Brown communities more heavily. This is made possible due to the ways in which race and ethnicity can be conflated with undocumented status. Because skin color is visible through a car window, discretionary arrests and over-policing of these communities can be used as a mechanism to funnel removable immigrants into the deportation system.
I know that the stress I felt when my mother was pulled over is only a fraction of what individuals and families feel when they or their loved one gets behind the wheel. The chronic stress surrounding a daily task is sure to take a toll on individuals. However, traffic stops aren’t the only chronic stressor that undocumented individuals at risk of being racially profiled or their loved ones have to face. Tens of thousands of household and workplace raids by immigration and law enforcement occur annually, primarily in already marginalized neighborhoods. Studies have shown that many undocumented individuals and their loved ones who encounter these types of stressful events experience negative health effects including the development of PTSD symptoms, as well as intergenerational effects.
So, for those of us who would otherwise be able to go home after a traffic stop, whether because of our citizenship status or the lighter color of our skin, it is important to recognize that not everyone has this privilege. We can be thankful that we may not face this issue, but we should also be working towards and voting for a system where no one has to face this. Acknowledging and addressing differential policing, and limiting the amount of discretion that law enforcement has in their actions is paramount to ensuring that everyone does have equal protections under the law. No one should have to fear their family being taken from them for simply getting behind the wheel of a car and going about their daily lives.
Baylee Rogers is a second-year master’s in public health candidate at the University of Michigan in the Department of Health Behavior Health Education. She hails from southern California and received her bachelor’s degree in Psychobiology with a minor in Global Health from the University of California, Los Angeles.