Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

'The Faceless America': Undocumented Immigrants in Boston

On Tuesday, Nov. 2 The Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program presented “The Faceless America,” a panel discussion involving organizations working to support the 180,000 undocumented immigrants in the Boston area. 

One panelist was global communications practitioner Denzil Mohammed. Mohammed is the director of the Immigrant Learning Center Public Education Institute. He has an MS in Global Communications from Northeastern University and a BA in Communication Studies/Literatures in English from University of the West Indies.

Another panelist was Boston College’s very own Professor Marilynn Johnson. Johnson’s work focuses on urban social relations in late nineteenth and twentieth century America, internal migration during World War II, and police brutality. Her newest book, The New Bostonians, explores the history of new immigrants in the greater boston area since the 1960s. 

Johnson began the presentation by focusing on refugees and mentioned that the Boston area has been a receiving area for refugees for more than 400 years. 

Johnson described how World War II was a turning point in the history of refugee migration. With the creation of the United Nations, the U.S. and other countries began working to resettle displaced persons after the war. Laws passed by congress permitting certain displaced persons to enter the country as well as the post-war refugee crisis “opened the door a bit for refugees.” Johnson described how the U.S. welcomed refugees during the Cold War as well—most of whom were displaced people from communist countries.

Johnson also described how Boston was one of the top ten resettlement sites for Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War. The U.S. admitted more than one million Vietnamese and Southeast Asian refugees who were fleeing from new communist regimes. 

Johnson described how the U.S.’s “openness to refugees has wavered, especially after 9/11, provoked by the war on terrorism as well as the pandemic” and how “our unwillingness to admit eligible refugees contributes to growing numbers of people who cross the border anyway and end up living in the shadows.”

Johnson concluded her portion by describing how recent refugees in Massachusetts are much less likely to settle in the city of Boston and are far more likely to settle in “gateway cities” such as  Lawrence, Lowell, Brockton, and Worcester due to affordability in housing. 

The discussion was then handed over to Denzil Mohammed who devoted his portion to disproving misconceptions about immigrants in America. 

Mohammed shocked the audience by sharing that the total foreign born population in America is 13.7%, though we’ve been led to believe it to be around 50% because of rhetoric such as “infestation” and “swarming” used to describe immigrants in America.

Mohammed described how there are 200,000 undocumented people in Massachusetts and more than half have lived in the state for over a decade. 

Mohammad also mentioned how immigrants are more likely to work in America, and how integral immigrants are to the workforce because “without them, social security will collapse.” 

He disproved the misconception that immigrants don’t pay taxes: “even undocumented immigrants pay taxes due to ITIN which is built into the IRS,” he said. The ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, is a way that allows undocumented people to work in America because the IRS wants their tax payments.

Mohammed mentioned how though the number of immigrants decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, there wasn’t a huge interruption of food supply because immigrant essential workers risked their lives to continue doing their jobs.

Mohammed concluded his presentation by discussing how immigrants revitalize areas. He stated how immigrants move to areas where the rent is cheap and, over time, will improve these areas. Areas such as Field’s Corner “have become safer," and "now have parks, gardens, and storefronts.”

A question and answer portion then followed the panelists' presentations. One student from the audience asked, “one of the big drivers for immigrants is labor shortages, and immigrants can often be mistreated because they do not have the political power to fight back. Now that we’re having a labor shortage at this time, do you think we’ll see more of that super exploitation or do you think it could offer undocumented immigrants an ability to fight back?” 

“The answer is very localized,” Mohammed replied, and stated how local unions are able to talk with their companies to get the benefits they need from their local employers. 

Marilynn Johnson chimed in with her prediction that the U.S.’ need for young immigrant workers will increase. “I think we are probably going to see the pendulum swing back a bit toward finding a way to allow more immigrants in because of the need for labor,” she said.

The event concluded with the audience's ability to browse posters that had information about organizations and learn more about how to get involved with immigration aid in America through volunteer opportunities.