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

The geography of undocumented Mexican families in New York City is another surprise. Because New York has historically been less of a destination city for Mexican immigrants, there are fewer Mexican neighborhood, and newly arrived immigrants are more likely to be scattered across the city. Dominican families, in contrast, have been immigrating to New York in waves since the 1950s and have a gathering place and a community anchor in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The lack of centralization and a co-ethnic social network among Mexican families creates what Yoshikawa calls a “distressing lack of access to social capital.” This isolation phenomenon is hidden in other studies, including the author’s own pilot study. That study recruited families from low-income ethnic communities and social service organizations in East Harlem. The disparities between families in the pilot study and those in the main sample, who were recruited from public hospitals, were stark, Yoshikawa writes. “It was the difference between knowing about the immigrant workers’ march and not knowing about it,” he explains, “between hearing about the existence of Head Start and public libraries and not learning about them.”

The book covers a host of experiences among the undocumented immigrants in New York City. Imagine the potential diversity of the nation’s undocumented, a population in plain sight of the nonimmigrant public with what is likely to be astounding array of hidden lifestyles and survival strategies. Some strategies are simple, such as renting the living room of an apartment to boarders, which is common among the Mexican families. Some are more complicated, like the network of Chinese American “travel agents” for hire by Chinese parents in New York, who will fly a baby to his grandparents in Fujian Province for around $1,000 plus the cost of a plane ticket.

Yoshikawa writes as an education researcher who is studying the effects of a parent’s documentation on their young children, choosing to focus more on case studies and path models than broader discourse on immigration. In doing this, he often sidesteps immigration politics, framing arguments according to cognitive benefits or losses that are experienced by the legal children of the undocumented.

But the author can’t help but eventually make the case for his preferred policy fixes, three in particular: easing the path to citizenship (that is, immigration reform); strengthening labor laws and working conditions (that is, more unionization); and improving community-based support organizations that serve undocumented families. The reader is left with a feeling that much of the book has been building toward a previously unannounced advocacy message—and not a very persuasive one, in that none of his trio of reforms is likely to happen or be easy to pull off. Meanwhile, Yoshikawa gives short shrift to some targeted and valuable ideas—like having more social workers on hand at hospitals to help enroll parents with newborns in community programs—that might be achievable regardless of whether or not broad immigration reform happens.

Still, the education field needs more research like this to inform policymakers. Hispanic and English language-learning students are among the groups in America who perform lowest on standardized tests and are least likely to graduate from high school, and we have virtually no national strategy for how to shape the estimated 350,000 children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States last year—8 percent of all newborns— into productive members of tomorrow’s labor force. This is where Immigrants Raising Citizens, and similar works that will, one hopes, be written in its wake, could turn out to be quite valuable.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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