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Parents Without Papers: Living With Undocumented Parents

By Michelle M. Hu, Crimson Staff Writer

When Harvard sophomore Jane was in kindergarten, she could not communicate with her teacher or classmates. She was only able to speak and read Spanish, and the sole phrase she could express in English was to ask if she could go to the bathroom. As an American citizen growing up with parents who were undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Jane—whose name has been changed to protect her identity—had to learn the English language on her own.

However, unlike many other children whose parents are undocumented, Jane had a valuable resource in her mother, who attended law school in Mexico. Her mother consistently encouraged her and stressed the value of education, allowing Jane to ultimately excel at her academics and gain admission to Harvard.

But in many ways, Jane is the exception.

Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducts research on the effects of growing up as the child of undocumented parents. In his recent book, titled “Immigrants Raising Citizens,” he concludes that these children often show signs of developmental delays due to the additional challenges posed by their parents’ status.

Though the Harvard students with undocumented parents have managed to overcome these education challenges, several of them say that they have seen firsthand how living under the radar can take its toll.

STRUGGLING IN THE SHADOWS

Yoshikawa conducted interviews with Dominican, Mexican, and Chinese immigrant families in New York while writing his book. He found that the children of undocumented immigrants were often outperformed by their peers.

“For quite a few of our families, it looked like, in a variety of ways, being undocumented had effects in lowering their [children’s] cognitive skills and their language skills,” he says.

Yoshikawa cites multiple reasons for this lag, but he said the root cause was the stress of living in the United States under the radar, which meant parents had to work longer and harder with illegally low wages and, in some situations, were afraid to seek out or didn’t know about educational resources.

During Jane’s childhood, she faced many of the difficulties documented by Yoshikawa. Her father labored without the legal protections afforded to U.S. citizens, and her parents were often fearful that their illegal immigrant status would be discovered.

Nonetheless, Jane managed to thrive with the support of her mother.

“She was very interested in my education,” Jane says. “So I feel like that sort of fostered my own interest in learning and made it easy for me to get by, even though I was at this really crappy, large public school.”

But Jane saw firsthand how her classmates—many of whom were also the children of undocumented parents—struggled through their educations.

“I remember back to elementary school, kids reading at 2nd grade levels in 5th and 6th grade,” Jane says. “Since my mom helped out a lot, she would sit with them and try and help them. It’s hard to see. It’s not their fault. It’s not their parents’ fault.”

Jane adds that she also encountered students in her community service work that had parents who acted in the way Yoshikawa observed.

“I’ve encountered a lot of parents who just don’t know how it is they can help their kids, that there are Head Start programs,” she says.

PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK

Jane says her mother learned English mainly by helping with her homework.

“She was a very hands-on mom, but I feel like she’s very much the exception in my community,” she said.

Jane’s mother and father, who is now deceased, first arrived in California in the 1980s. They lived near the border for several years before ultimately making the decision to seek a life in the U.S.

During the time, immigration policies were much more relaxed, and Jane said her parents simply drove into California.

In 1986, Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which made illegal the hiring of undocumented workers but also granted amnesty to seasonal agricultural immigrants and illegal immigrants who had been in the United States prior to 1982. Jane says her father was eligible for these requirements.

“My dad was here for the 1986 amnesty and he started going through the process, but he irresponsibly never finished it,” she says.

Her father’s failure to pursue citizenship ultimately resulted in a difficult economic situation for Jane’s family. He worked in landscaping and gardening, and eventually became self-employed, but his wages were barely enough to support a family of four.

“Work was very uncertain,” Jane says. “It isn’t really a stable occupation.”

Though Jane’s father made a minimal amount of money, her mother nonetheless stayed at home because that was what was expected of her.

However, after her father passed away, Jane says her mother began working full time, and she struggles to invest the same amount of time in raising her younger brother, who is now 10 years old.

“She still tries to sit down with him and work on homework with him, and she wakes up early to go over it,” Jane says. “She still puts in the same amount of effort, it’s just very taxing on her.”

Though he is smart, Jane says she worries about her brother’s future since he now spends time after school with his cousins, who are not as studious as Jane. She goes on to say that, due to their mother’s undocumented status, her brother may not have access to educational resources that could help ensure his academic success.

FEARING THE GOVERNMENT

In his book, Yoshikawa writes, “The undocumented parents in our sample lived this paradox: the very same government that could deport them also offered resources to their citizen children, in the form of public supports for families in poverty.”

Oftentimes, he says, parents do not know about opportunities for their children, or might be reluctant to pursue them for fear of being exposed as an illegal citizen.

“[The families] were avoiding situations where they had to show a lot of paperwork and identify their employers,” Yoshikawa says.

Because children are unable to seek out these opportunities themselves, Yoshikawa writes, parental involvement is vital for their early development.

For Joanna Marquina ’10, whose mother was an undocumented immigrant, it was her father’s conditional residency that allowed her to be involved in these opportunities at a young age.

“We found out about different opportunities that I think my dad was able to push us toward, because he had the advantage of residency,” she says.

Marquina says her father had previously been married to an American but later divorced her and overstayed his visa. Despite the complications, she said his status still allowed him to work and provide for his children.

“We were really dependent on him and took our lead from him,” she said. “He was the one who encouraged us to do well in school and take advantage of different resources within the community like libraries or enrolling us in bilingual preschool.”

When Marquina began excelling in her studies, she said her father was able to go to her teachers and inquire about additional resources.

“Just having the comfort of not being found out makes you feel more comfortable looking for other opportunities and asking certain questions,” she says.

However, Marquina said her cousins and other children she knew were afraid to pursue educational opportunities due to their parents’ undocumented status.

“You don’t really know who was in charge of certain things or if they were going to ask questions dealing with your status or if anything was dependent on your status,” she said.

IMPROVING THE SYSTEM

Though Yoshikawa is an expert in child development, he says his research is relevant to the larger immigration debate. In his opinion, Yoshikawa says the lack of assistance to undocumented parents is a “public failure.” He has testified in front of Congress and appeared on NPR about this research, and says the developmental delays of children who grow up with undocumented parents is an argument for immigration reform.

“If you play by the rules and demonstrate commitment and contribute to the United States, you should have an opportunity to get in line and wait for citizenship,” he says.

—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at michellehu@college.harvard.edu.

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