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Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children

reviewed by Carol Cleaveland - July 19, 2011

coverTitle: Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children
Author(s): Hirokazu Yoshikawa
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, New York
ISBN: 0871549867, Pages: 168, Year: 2011
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Earlier this year, Alabama became the most recent state to enact legislation to escalate the criminalization of undocumented immigrants by making it illegal for them to rent housing without first proving legal status. The law also requires that school districts establish each child’s immigration status, a policy that while not necessarily circumventing the Supreme Court’s landmark Plyer v. Doe decision of 1982 that guaranteed immigrants public education from kindergarten through grade 12, would certainly have a chilling effect on immigrants who attempt to enroll their children in school. As has been examined in the seminal works on immigration by anthropologists Nicholas DeGenova (2004) and Leo Chavez (2001), as well as sociologists Douglas Massey (2005) and Alejandro Portes (2007), the pervasive othering of immigrants – chiefly their racialization via discourse in the public realm as well as lawmaking – serves critical functions. It influences power relationships within the state and serves to relegate undocumented immigrants to employment in the residual economy. As noted in this robust literature, the grouping of immigrants under the term “illegal” carries with it implied criminality and serves to imbue these populations as a whole with a stigmatized and marginalized status.

Lost in much of the nation’s discourse over “illegal immigration” is the fact that the progeny of those who cross the border without documentation, having been born on U.S. soil, are Americans. In this intriguing longitudinal study of families from Mexico, China, and the Dominican Republic in New York City, Yoshikawa seeks to answer the research question, “Why might children of undocumented parents perform less well than children of documented parents in their early learning and cognitive skills?” (p. 17). The cohort studied included infants (n=380) from Mexican, Dominican, Chinese and African American findings. Using both qualitative and quantitative analysis, Yoshikawa presents a convincing argument that undocumented immigrant parents’ marginalization, fear, and lack of access to stable employment ultimately deprive infants and young children of interaction necessary for cognitive development. Undocumented status, together with lack of access to stable employment and social welfare programs combined to elevate parental distress such that it had more influence on children’s cognitive development than other factors such as parental behavior. Fear of deportation affected parents’ interactions with their children. “Greater hardship among parents – both their economic and psychological – can harm children’s learning by lowering parents’ active engagement with their children, the quantity and quality of their language, or their warmth and responsiveness” (p. 81).

The author contrasts the experience of undocumented Mexican parents with those of Dominicans, who had better experiences by virtue of kinship networks that facilitated their obtaining of legal status and also provided support such as extended family to help care for children. The results of such differences are revealed vividly in fieldwork accounts of researcher visits to homes. While Dominican children were lavished with attention from happy and appreciative members of the extended families, their Mexican counterparts internalized parental anxiety. Overcrowded conditions, as unrelated adults crammed into small apartments to make ends meet, exacerbated the distress. As one mother said, “I feel that I am suffocating here – I could asphyxiate – but I have my three children” (p. 71). Such conditions left children with little access to positive stimulus in the form of toys or books. Among the findings of this study meriting serious consideration was the notation that undocumented Chinese, heavily in debt to the “snakeheads” (human smugglers), had sent their children back to China. Having paid close to $30,000 for passage to the U.S., Chinese found themselves lacking familial and monetary assets necessary for raising children. Thus, they sent them to relatives who remained in China.

Yoshikawa offers vivid descriptions from ethnographic immersion. Ethnography’s strength as a research method lies in its ability to offer rich, thick description of people’s lived experiences – which Yoshikawa deploys effectively to illustrate how the combination of “illegal” immigration status, low-wage labor, and lack of access to supports for family impedes children’s cognitive development. One Mexican mother who admitted experiencing despair worked taking care of three neighbor’s children on weekdays. On weekends, she worked the overnight shift at a Mexican restaurant, forcing her to leave home shortly after 9 p.m. and return at dawn. Such hours were common. Indeed, some of the most compelling data presented concerns about parents’ working conditions:

She worked in the twenty-four-hour Laundromat, on the 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. shifts, six days a week. She worked until she was eight months pregnant with her first child…The work was physically hard…the large laundry bags she had to pack and put away sometimes weighed 80 to 150 pounds and required two people to heave. (p. 99)

Such working conditions occur within a political and economic context that could arguably have been better developed in the author’s discussion. Yoshikawa skillfully weaves together the assaults of relegation to the low-waged service sector, jobs that depend largely on the labor of undocumented immigrants, with the rigors of social isolation, and lack of access to legal immigration status. A substantial number of immigrants in this study worked below the nation’s minimum wage – even as they tried to support families in New York City. A broader contextualization, however, would help facilitate readers’ understanding of why immigrants are working in such deplorable conditions. As has been examined by sociologists Saskia Sassen (2006), Douglas Massey and Patricia Fernandez Kelley (2007), and geographer Doreen Massey (2005), the phenomenon of migration across borders is a global trend that escalated prior to the turn of the century by virtue of policies abetting unrestrained trade across borders. These trends have led to worker displacement across the globe. By recognizing globalization as a consequence of policy decisions rather than viewing it as an immutable force, the citizenry can recognize its potential for changing the policies that create untenable conditions for people who now migrate to the U.S. with the “help” of snakeheads or coyotes.

The above criticism should not be seen as dismissive: Yoshikawa’s study is impressive in both its scope and rigor. Her findings merit serious consideration. Yoshikawa’s testing and statistical modeling establishes that a combination of factors may adversely affect the children of immigrants, the avoidance of authorities and programs (fear of deportation), social isolation, and parents’ exhaustion and on-going stress from jobs that demand too much and pay entirely too little. As she notes, the effects of these stressors can be seen in children as young as age two. The costs for this society’s failure to incorporate undocumented immigrants, and to offer pathways to citizenship, may well be felt for years to come.


Chavez, L. (2001). The Latino threat:  Constructing immigrants, citizens and the nation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

De Genova, N. (2004). The legal production of Mexican/migrant “illegality.” Latino Studies 2(2), 160-85.

Fernandez-Kelley, P., & Massey, D. (2007). “Borders for whom? The role of NAFTA in Mexican-U.S. migration. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610(1), 98-118.

Massey, D. (2005). For space. London: Sage.

Massey, D.S. (2005). Backfire at the border: Why enforcement alone cannot stop illegal immigration. Center For Trade Policy Studies. Retrieved July 11, 2011 from http://www.freetrade.org/pubs/pas/tpa-029.pdf

Portes, A. (2007). Migration, development, and segmented assimilation: A conceptual review of the evidence. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610(1), 73-97.

Sassen, S. (2006). Territory, authority, rights: From medieval to global assemblages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16484, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:35:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Carol Cleaveland
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    CAROL CLEAVELAND, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at George Mason University. Her recent research examines contested claims to social space by Latino immigrants and citizens residing in a suburban area.
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