Undocumented Parents Struggle To Raise Citizen Children

In Texas yesterday, President Obama argued that America's current immigration system tolerates rule breakers and punishes rule abiders. He stressed the need for comprehensive reform. Harvard Professor Hiro Yoshikawa says four million children are born in the U.S. to undocumented parents, and these parents juggle particular hardships that hurt their children's development. Host Michel Martin speaks with Yoshikawa about his new book Immigrants Raising Citizens.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Next, immigration; particularly unauthorized immigration has been a regular topic on this program. And yesterday, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on that topic in El Paso, Texas.

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President BARACK OBAMA: Today, the immigration system not only tolerates those who break the rules, but it punishes folks who follow the rules. While applicants wait for approvals, for example, they're often forbidden from visiting the United States. Even husbands and wives may have to spend years apart. Parents can't see their children. I don't believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families.

MARTIN: So much of the discussion around illegal immigration centers on what to do about the unauthorized immigrants who are already in this country. But at the heart of that conversation is the realization that migrants are no longer mainly unattached men who work and live on the margins, but rather family men and women who put down roots and form families.

According to the latest numbers from the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, there are four million children in the U.S. who were born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. Hirokazu Yoshikawa is a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, was interested in the circumstances these children face. And he researched the question for his new book titled "Immigrants Raising Citizens." And Hirokazu Yoshikawa joins us from our bureau in New York. Professor Yoshikawa, thank you so much for joining us.

HIROKAZU YOSHIKAWA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, your book is a result of a three-year study where you followed hundreds of Chinese, Dominican and Mexican families living in New York City. Can you tell us, is there a typical profile of a family that you study?

YOSHIKAWA: Yes. Most of these were stable parents, two-parent households here in the U.S. for the long haul, had been in the U.S. for years working before they had their first child. And the way in which they differed from simply other very hard-working low-wage workers in the United States is that they faced this choice in raising their kids between enrolling their citizen kids in programs they were eligible for and their fear of being deported, and that ripping apart their family.

Nevertheless, the kids of undocumented parents did end up falling behind in their cognitive and language skills, as early as at 24 months, which is really something we should be very concerned about. This is the period when brain architecture is still developing.

MARTIN: And why is that?

YOSHIKAWA: These parents were afraid to enroll their kids in learning opportunities like high-quality center care and particularly the child care subsidies that would help purchase that form of care. And that's because child care subsidies, for one thing, in our country require confirmation of earnings and employment. And despite the fact that these families were making such low level of earnings, that they more than qualified for subsidies for their citizen children, they were afraid to enroll their kids.

In many cases, with the undocumented moms and dads, our field workers were the first to tell them about things like public libraries. Our undocumented parents had more adults in the household, but less help with taking care of kids, help with making ends meet, help that they reported available to them. And that was puzzling to us until we realized that for the undocumented moms and dads, all the other adults in their household pretty much were undocumented as well. And that meant that the levels of information about learning opportunities for kids were just lower in these families.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if the research indicates how the experience of people coming to this country affected what happened to them later on.

YOSHIKAWA: We heard some really harrowing stories. Whether they were of crossing the border from Mexico into this country, or for our Chinese undocumented immigrants, literally trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas with 10 people sharing one chicken over the course of several days and a few people dying along the way. But what was extraordinary, as we kind of got to know these families, was how matter of factly they told these stories. And so this was kind of a, of course, tone in the sense that this was their investment that they made in terms of hazards to come to the United States.

MARTIN: But you used the word investment, you know, coming here as an investment. One of the things that we find in the book and in your research is that sometimes what it costs immigrants to come here has consequences for their parenting later on. You tell the story about a woman named Ling. And I want to mention here, that many of the people you describe in the book you're using pseudonyms. You're verifying that they're stories are real, but that you don't use their real names, right?

YOSHIKAWA: Yes. Some of the details, but none of the, kind of, important patterns.

MARTIN: And so one of the women named Ling who came here from China, she had friends and relatives already in the U.S. and they loaned her tens of thousands of dollars to get here. But she worked so hard to pay off the debt that she couldn't spend any time with her children. She wound up sending at least one of them back to China. What were the consequences for that?

YOSHIKAWA: That's right. That was one of the real surprises in our studies as we were trying to follow our Chinese infants at our six-months point, where we were calling them - over two-thirds of them, nearly three-quarters had sent their babies back to China already at six months. When grandparents didn't exist here in the United States and these families, in some cases, were still paying off their debts, they were working typically very, very long workdays, six days a week in Chinese restaurants, for the most part. And that meant that they simply had no money for infant daycare. And so they sent these babies to be raised by their grandparents in China with the plans to bring them back around preschool age.

MARTIN: But then when they came back, what happened?

YOSHIKAWA: Well, unfortunately we weren't able to follow that group. But I have interviewed preschool directors and teachers here in New York who see these returning kids and they do say that these kids have emotional and behavioral problems, which is not surprising when they go through these two huge shifts in attachment figures. When - first when they go to China and are adjusting to their grandparents and then when they return at preschool age and have to make an adjustment to parents that they've never known.

MARTIN: So they were angry. Were they angry at being sent away? Or...

YOSHIKAWA: We did have one family with an older kid in middle childhood who was angry and still would ask his parents: why did you send me home? And when he first went to preschool, he apparently, in response to a teacher's question said, no, my parents don't care for me, only my grandparents do.

MARTIN: That must be so painful for the parents to hear when they're experiencing so much for the sake of their children.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Hirokazu Yoshikawa. He's a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We're talking about his new book. It's called "Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children." It's a deep study - a three-year study of undocumented from three different immigrant groups and their children who were born in the U.S.

When they came here, when they were thinking about what their lives would be, did many of these parents think that it would be as hard as it has turned out to be for many of them? I know there's one story that I found very moving, where there was one man who was a - had been working as a delivery man for, you know, years. And was still making the same wage he'd been making when he started, like, less than $10 an hour, and became ashamed as his children got older. Did you ever ask them that - did you think it was going to be this hard?

YOSHIKAWA: Yeah, we did sometimes get stories about that. One great story, which is very interesting because the Chinese group is fascinating because they were coming and raising their kids at a time when the Chinese economy in mainland China was growing so fast. So I remember one of the Chinese moms telling a field worker that, look at my life here in New York, living in what we could only call a really, crappy apartment. And her cousin in Fujian province was living in a nice apartment like the middle class in China - had hired her own cleaning person and someone to help raise her kids. And that's, ironically, the job of many of the undocumented parents in our study in New York. So she was making this comparison to the economic growth in China. And on some level, wondering why she was here and not there.

MARTIN: Well, did she consider going back?

YOSHIKAWA: I think she did. But one of the things that happens with all of the undocumented parents that we really got to know, was that they were really laying down roots in this country. They were not thinking about a permanent return to the country of origin anytime soon.

MARTIN: You sound very sympathetic to these families, and I can understand why - having spent a lot of time with them, having seen how much they desire for their children and how hard it can sometimes be. On the other hand, that is the ongoing policy question. Should the time and treasure of the United States be extended to those who did not follow the rules? Because there are rules. And if this is a nation of laws - that it might make us feel bad that these families are having the difficult time that they're having - but at the end of the day, there has to be a consequence for not following the law. And for those who feel that way - and we know that many Americans feel that way - what do you say?

YOSHIKAWA: I would say nothing to argue against strong border enforcement, for example. But I think the fact is that we do have nearly four-and-a-half million citizen children in the United States, right now, with at least one parent without papers. And so the question is, should we view them as potentially assets to the economy in the coming decades? Or as burdens to cast aside or even deport? And I think, considering the consequences of considering them as burdens, not assets, is something that is important to look at.

MARTIN: Hirokazu Yoshikawa is the author of a new book. It's titled "Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children." He's a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Professor Yoshikawa, thank you so much for joining us.

YOSHIKAWA: Thank you so much.

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