When Undocumented Immigrants Raise U.S. Citizens

Max Benavidez for The American Show

A funny thing happened on the way to the American Dream for millions of American children whose parents are undocumented immigrants. In his new book, Immigrants Raising Citizens, Harvard education professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa tells us that the children of illegal immigrants show lower levels of cognitive development and language development and this negatively impacts their academic performance throughout elementary, middle and high school.

He writes in his book, “Millions of the youngest citizens in the United States, simply by virtue of being born to a parent with a particular legal status, have less access to the learning opportunities that are the building blocks of adult productivity.”

The reason these preschool American children — they number about four million — have these cognitive drawbacks is that their parents live under unrelenting stress: life in the shadows, constantly working and living in poor and often rundown overcrowded apartments. This stress is simply transferred to the children.

According to a story in the New York Times about Yoshikawa’s research,
“The researchers found that poor immigrants cannot afford learning materials or stimulating programs in child care centers. Fear of deportation or ignorance about how the city works often prevents those parents from seeking help from government agencies that provide child care subsidies or food stamps.”

As Yoshikawa writes in his book, “Greater hardship among parents, both economic and psychological, can harm children’s learning by lowering parents’ active engagement with their children, the quantity or quality of their language or their warmth and responsiveness.”

The answer is for social institutions and community organizations to step forward and help these young citizens. As Yoshikawa says, “By bringing these families out of the shadows and providing them with access to better work conditions and learning opportunities, we can ensure that the nation’s most vulnerable young citizens have an equal chance to succeed in their early development, later schooling and adulthood.”

This is what it’s all about. We want and need these young citizens to succeed for their sake as well as for our own economic self-interest. They are the nation’s future. Along with the Latino and Asian children of legal immigrants and citizens, these citizens, who are being raised by undocumented immigrants, will help make up the backbone of tomorrow’s workforce. It’s simply time to wake up to the facts and help our youngest and most imperiled citizens.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

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