Invisible Immigrants

by Ayano Tsukada

New York City is a city of minorities and immigrants. Unlike other cities like Los Angeles or Miami where one ethnic group makes up majority of the immigrant population, New York receives immigrants from all over the world. Their identities vary among the ethnic groups as well as within the groups. Here I would like to focus on second-generation Black Immigrants in New York City because they become invisible in two ways:

  1. The government does not track the second-generation of immigrants (They become Americans officially);
  2. The second-generation immigrants lack their parents’ distinctive accents and they look very similar to native-born Black American.

If they don’t tell their ethnicity, they can easily be seen as native-born Black Americans or act like native-born Black Americans.

But they don’t react to this situation in a same way. They adopt different types of racial and ethnic identities. Mary Waters, in her survey in New York City, found that there are three types of racial and ethnic identities adopted by Black immigrants: Black American identity; Ethnic or hyphenated national origin identity; and Immigrant identity. These identities are related to different perceptions and understandings of race relations and of opportunities in the United States. Second-generation immigrants with Black American Identity tend to see more racial discrimination and limits to opportunities for Blacks in the United States and disagree with parental judgements that there are strong differences between Black Americans and Immigrant Blacks. Those with Ethnic Identity tend to see more opportunities and rewards for individual effort and initiative and agree with their parents’ idea that Immigrant Blacks are better than Black Americans. Those with Immigrant Identity take a more neutral stance, but they are more like visible immigrants since they are likely to have immigrated recently and have distinctive accents and styles of clothing.

The interesting fact revealed by Water’s study is that these second-generation immigrants are aware of the generalized negative view of Blacks in the United States and yet some choose to be part of them while others try hard to differentiate themselves from Black Americans. What we can see from the fact is that they are helping to maintain the structure of racism in the United States. Second-generation immigrants with Black American identity are doing so by accepting the stereotypes of Blacks and those with ethnic identity do so by differentiating themselves from Black Americans.

So they are not challenging the current system.

They are making racism and colourism in the United States craftier and more invisible.


Waters, Mary C. 1994. “Ethnic and Racial Identities of Second-generation Black Immigrants in New York City.” International Migration Review 28(4):795-820.

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