“My Mommy Doesn’t Have Any Papers”

How the underground life of undocumented immigrants leaves their children cognitively impaired.

In the spring of 2010, Michelle Obama visited an elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym, with news cameras rolling, she called on an apprehensive second grader who had raised her hand. Why, asked the girl, was the president “taking everyone away” who doesn’t have papers to live in the United States? “My mom doesn’t have any papers,” she told the first lady.

Immigrants Raising Citizens:
Undocumented Parents and Their
Young Children

by Hirokazu Yoshikawa
Russell Sage Foundation, 196 pp.

Most of us can only guess about this girl’s life, or who she will become in the future. But we could use more than guesswork. There are estimated to be more than four million native-born children with at least one undocumented parent living in America today, roughly one child per public school classroom in the country. All are birthright citizens of the United States. Does the undocumented status of their parents negatively affect their chances of growing up to be productive citizens? If so, in what ways, and what might be done to help them? These are hard questions to answer, because few people have studied the lives of children with undocumented parents, in large part because families fear they will be deported.

A new book, Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children, steps into the breach. Its author, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, has conducted a first-of-its-kind study of how the documentation status of parents in America may be affecting their children’s development. He finds that hardships common among undocumented parents, such as low wages and social isolation, can harm their infants’ cognitive development at a startlingly young age—as early as twenty-four months into their lives.

Yoshikawa didn’t set out to study children of the undocumented. He and his colleagues had designed a study to examine survival strategies among low-income immigrant families in New York City. But they quickly realized that the families’ immigration status, rather than their economic standing, was what often drove behaviors of both parents and children, and so the researchers adjusted their study to better examine this phenomenon. Yoshikawa and his team recruited 400 low-income mothers with newborns from public hospitals in New York City and tracked them for the first thirty-six months of the children’s lives. These subjects all self-identified as being Chinese, Mexican, Dominican, or African American, the four largest ethnic groups in the city. Some had documents and others didn’t, and the researchers did not ask up front about the participants’ immigration status. Still, during hours of extensive interviews, the study’s subjects opened up and were willing to divulge that one or more of their family members were in the U.S. without papers. The researchers were then able to track behavior patterns common among the undocumented: they typically worked at extremely low-paying jobs and lacked the most basic of amenities, such as a driver’s license or a bank account, further isolating them from society at large.

Many undocumented workers’ jobs are in plain sight—they provide affordable housekeeping and landscaping services, or sell cheap flowers on the street corner. In most cases, child care is provided by a friend or relative, or from a local child care provider who is unlikely to be professionally trained to work with children. This lack of enrollment in professional child care is, in turn, associated with lower levels of cognitive development among children at three years old, likely because untrained caregivers don’t give children enough of the kind of interaction and stimulation that helps young brains develop.

Three-year-old Lucio is the son of two undocumented Mexican immigrants. His mother, Alfreda, takes care of Lucio and some neighbors’ children during the day, and works the overnight shift at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn on the weekends. She is committed to her son’s learning, but she is often exhausted, sometimes even nodding off during job interviews. She also has little social support from friends or relatives.

Compare Lucio to Alberto, whose documented Dominican mother has a unionized (though still low-wage) job and a reliable social network. Alberto enjoys more toys, social interactions, and other stimulating experiences that enable his brain to grow. At the end of thirty-six months, his cognitive skills are three standard deviations above Lucio’s.

Stories like these, gleaned from the researcher’s interviews and observation sessions, make up the bulk of Immigrants Raising Citizens, with quantitative data and analysis taking a backseat. And this is a real problem with the book: we don’t get a sense of how much these delays matter, if or how they can be compensated for, or how they compare to other groups of Americans—say, non-immigrants at the same income level.

Yoshikawa is a good storyteller, though, and his study is compelling because he has managed to coax a lot of intimate information from his subjects. His anecdotes make clear that the consequences of living in poverty in America are more diverse and nuanced than most of us would imagine. The difference between an undocumented mother who has knowledgeable friends and a driver’s license and an undocumented mother who lacks both can be the difference between a relatively normal American life and one that is riddled with isolation, depression, and some of the worst working conditions in the country.

Diversity among the undocumented comes with its share of surprises. Take the case of infants from the Chinese subgroup: of the fifty-six undocumented Chinese mothers in the study, forty chose to send their infants back to China (often to a single county in Fujian Province) to be raised by grandparents until preschool. Chinese parents reported that their choice was economically motivated: raising children is expensive, and the Chinese parents had often incurred large smuggling fees just to get into the United States—larger than those paid by Mexicans or Dominicans. While the study’s Dominicans generally just overstayed tourist or work visas and Mexican parents paid between $1,000 and $2,000 to be snuck across the border, one Chinese mother reports that she is still $25,000 in debt to the smuggler who brought her into the United States in 1990.

The geography of undocumented Mexican families in New York City is another surprise. Because New York has historically been less of a destination city for Mexican immigrants, there are fewer Mexican neighborhood, and newly arrived immigrants are more likely to be scattered across the city. Dominican families, in contrast, have been immigrating to New York in waves since the 1950s and have a gathering place and a community anchor in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The lack of centralization and a co-ethnic social network among Mexican families creates what Yoshikawa calls a “distressing lack of access to social capital.” This isolation phenomenon is hidden in other studies, including the author’s own pilot study. That study recruited families from low-income ethnic communities and social service organizations in East Harlem. The disparities between families in the pilot study and those in the main sample, who were recruited from public hospitals, were stark, Yoshikawa writes. “It was the difference between knowing about the immigrant workers’ march and not knowing about it,” he explains, “between hearing about the existence of Head Start and public libraries and not learning about them.”

The book covers a host of experiences among the undocumented immigrants in New York City. Imagine the potential diversity of the nation’s undocumented, a population in plain sight of the nonimmigrant public with what is likely to be astounding array of hidden lifestyles and survival strategies. Some strategies are simple, such as renting the living room of an apartment to boarders, which is common among the Mexican families. Some are more complicated, like the network of Chinese American “travel agents” for hire by Chinese parents in New York, who will fly a baby to his grandparents in Fujian Province for around $1,000 plus the cost of a plane ticket.

Yoshikawa writes as an education researcher who is studying the effects of a parent’s documentation on their young children, choosing to focus more on case studies and path models than broader discourse on immigration. In doing this, he often sidesteps immigration politics, framing arguments according to cognitive benefits or losses that are experienced by the legal children of the undocumented.

But the author can’t help but eventually make the case for his preferred policy fixes, three in particular: easing the path to citizenship (that is, immigration reform); strengthening labor laws and working conditions (that is, more unionization); and improving community-based support organizations that serve undocumented families. The reader is left with a feeling that much of the book has been building toward a previously unannounced advocacy message—and not a very persuasive one, in that none of his trio of reforms is likely to happen or be easy to pull off. Meanwhile, Yoshikawa gives short shrift to some targeted and valuable ideas—like having more social workers on hand at hospitals to help enroll parents with newborns in community programs—that might be achievable regardless of whether or not broad immigration reform happens.

Still, the education field needs more research like this to inform policymakers. Hispanic and English language-learning students are among the groups in America who perform lowest on standardized tests and are least likely to graduate from high school, and we have virtually no national strategy for how to shape the estimated 350,000 children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States last year—8 percent of all newborns— into productive members of tomorrow’s labor force. This is where Immigrants Raising Citizens, and similar works that will, one hopes, be written in its wake, could turn out to be quite valuable.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Maggie Severns

Maggie Severns is a program associate at the New America Foundation.