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.