On Political Books

September/October 2011 “My Mommy Doesn’t Have Any Papers”

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

By Maggie Severns

Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children
by Hirokazu Yoshikawa
Russell Sage Foundation, 196 pp.

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.

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.

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


  • Shakil A. Khan on August 30, 2011 12:26 PM:

    It is a shame.

    We need more studies and long term solutions for this problem, as well as the problems faced by the children of the legal immigrants and the children of the native born. These children are the future of our nation and we can't afford to ignore their psychological, physiological, social, and economical health.

    As a non-profit, umbrella organization of various ethno-cultural groups, we invite your readers to send their ideas and possible solutions to the Multicultural Council of America at info@multiculturalcouncil.org