May 01, 2011

Immigration Status Matters to Children

Deborah Lee

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Undocumented immigrants are parents too. That is the simple yet critical message of Hirokazu Yoshikawa’s recent Immigrants Raising Citizens, an extremely descriptive study of the lives of approximately 400 immigrant families with United States-born children. In this study, Yoshikawa, along with former colleagues at New York University’s Center for Research on Culture, Development, and Education, recruited infants born to Dominican, Mexican, and Chinese mothers from New York City public hospitals. These infants were then followed for the next three years, with trained field workers regularly observing the children and interviewing their parents regarding their experiences as parents.

This book fleshes out the lives of some of these families as they help teach their children to speak their first words, socialize their children to be polite and inquisitive, and struggle to financially support themselves; Yoshikawa views these families like any other, but wonders if there is any difference to the U.S. citizen child if the parents happen to be undocumented.

Yoshikawa’s interest in these parents is that they are the parents of U.S. citizens who will grow up, with their parents’ support, to be less or more well-adjusted, skilled and contributing members of our nation. Yoshikawa makes clear throughout this book that he did not intend to fixate on the participating parents’ immigration status or take a political stance regarding the current national debate on immigration reform. He even carefully avoided using immigration status as an explicit factor when recruiting parents. Nevertheless, it became clear that participating parents without lawful immigration status had marked difficulties accessing public programs for their U.S. citizen children, having broad social networks to support these young families, and avoiding extremely poor work conditions.

Yoshikawa argues that these three areas influence a child’s early development and puts her at a disadvantage compared to U.S. citizen children with documented parents. Yoshikawa ultimately concludes that, in order to better support the U.S. citizen children involved, laws and public programs need to reconsider their treatment of undocumented parents, whether through a pathway to citizenship, greater labor law enforcement, or partnering with localized community-based organizations.

As an immigration attorney, I personally agree with many of Yoshikawa’s conclusions. But what I found more fascinating about this book is its perspective on immigrants’ lives, one that humanizes them in their daily childrearing concerns. As opposed to being portrayed as one-dimensional “illegals” or pitiable victims, immigrant parents here are fully-formed individuals trying like all of us to do best by our children. Immigration officials, including judges and officers conducting workplace raids, would greatly benefit from appreciating this humanity in the undocumented immigrants they may end up deporting and separating from their families. 

In addition, this portrayal of undocumented immigrant parents provides insight for those involved within the child welfare system, including those who may become involved in a U.S. citizen child’s life following the detention and possible deportation of an undocumented immigrant parent.

Immigration laws are complex and, unfortunately, have little flexibility in considering the best interest of children. Given this lack of consideration for these U.S. citizen children and how they are negatively affected by their parents’ limited opportunities, child welfare and other related social service advocates may perhaps become a more powerful voice in the debate for immigration reform. 

Deborah Lee, Esq., is the Children’s Project Supervising Attorney at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.