Citizen children and life under the radar


President Obama spoke Tuesday about the economic reasons for providing a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented. This is clearly a polarizing issue, and there is much room for honest disagreement. But there’s one fact we can’t ignore: Undocumented immigrants in the U.S. include the parents of 4.5 million children who are legal citizens. What that means is that, on average, one or two children in every elementary school classroom in the country is coping with huge uncertainty about future family stability.

As the president noted in his speech, border enforcement is now stronger; the number of people illegally entering the U.S. is declining. But these millions of citizen children are here and will remain. It is in the interest of all of us to ensure that these children grow up to become productive citizens.

I recently published a study that followed hundreds of young children in immigrant families in order to examine how parents’ undocumented status affects their children’s development. Our findings are sobering.


Living under the radar creates enormous stress and necessitates terrible choices for these families. Many choose to keep their citizen children from taking advantage of programs and opportunities that would improve their development because parents fear that putting in applications could increase their risk of being deported and their families’ risk of being ripped apart. This means that the children of undocumented immigrants are less likely to receive the kind of high-quality, center-based child care that research has shown to improve early development. The results are lower cognitive and language skills that can be seen as early as 24 months.

For more than three years, my colleagues and I visited families in their homes, neighborhoods and workplaces from the time their children were born. We got to really know parents and children, and many of us feel personally obligated to speak out on their behalf.

Living in fear of deportation and family separation comes at a high price. Afraid to request raises at work, undocumented parents generally don’t get them. Scared to complain, they endure terrible working conditions — more than a third of the parents in our study were paid less than the legal minimum wage. Reluctant to report their landlords to authorities, undocumented parents silently endure disasters like ceiling collapses that are never fixed. In many parts of the country, parents without papers are afraid even to let their children go outside to play.

This doesn’t mean they are not good parents. The undocumented mothers and fathers in our study, despite working long hours, were just as likely to read books, tell stories and interact with their infants and toddlers as were their citizen-parent counterparts. One father without papers, for example, had done deliveries for a deli for over 15 years. Like many of our undocumented dads, he worked 12-hour days, six days a week, with no vacation, sick days or overtime. Afraid to ask for a raise, he worked for less than the minimum wage. Despite these hardships, he was engaged in nurturing care, play and reading to his young son. Year after year, the undocumented mothers and fathers in our study showed high levels of nurturing and social engagement with their babies.

Many of us know undocumented parents, and there are things we can do on behalf of their citizen children. First, we can inform parents about the opportunities and resources available for their children. Some of our field workers were the first people to tell undocumented parents about public libraries, pre-kindergarten programs and early-intervention services to identify and support children with disabilities. These are services that pay for themselves in returns to society.

Second, we can work with organizations in our communities to increase their capacity to serve low-income immigrant families. Many undocumented parents in our sample attended church regularly. Congregations should be sure they are providing information and resources about opportunities for children.

Finally, we can support policy change. In 2006, President George W. Bush proposed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now Obama has voiced ideas of his own about how to fix our broken immigration system to meet the nation’s economic and security needs. We must add our voices to theirs.

The citizen children of undocumented parents are growing up among us. They will populate the workforce of tomorrow. And it is in the interest of all of us that they have the skills and motivation to become secure and high-achieving members of society.

Hirokazu Yoshikawa is the incoming academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author “Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children,” Russell Sage Foundation 2011.