AQ Feature

The Dream Deferred

Children are the unwitting victims of exclusionary policies toward immigrants. (video interview available)
Not in the business of separating families? U.S.-born children march with their undocumented parents in front of the White House on July 28, 2010, to protest the record levels of deportations under President Barack Obama. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

*Watch an AQ Q&A interview with Marcelo Suárez-Orozco.

The U.S.-born children of immigrants, and newcomers who arrive at an early age, have deep roots in their communities. Regardless of whether their parents “have papers” or not, these children and youth attend U.S. schools, learn English and develop an emerging American identity. But for children from households lacking documentation, their or their parents’ status hangs over their daily lives and future.

The fear of apprehension and deportation, for themselves or their parents, is ever-present and immensely damaging. For a mixed-status family, routine activities like dropping off a child at school, grocery shopping or taking public transportation present a constant danger of confrontation with law enforcement—and the possible separation of children, parents and spouses.

Federal paralysis over the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. has given way to a punitive crackdown in several states on these individuals and their families. Nowhere is the story of undocumented immigration more dystopic than for the children who grow up in the shadow of the law.1

New Trends, Old Policies

The rhetoric surrounding immigration in the U.S. does not reflect the recent shifts in the flow of immigrants—namely who and how many are coming, how they are coming, and the nature of their experience after they settle. The debate continues to focus on “illegal immigration.” Indeed, during the boom economic years of the past two decades, the unauthorized population grew dramatically from under 1 million in 1980 to a peak of nearly 12 million in 2000. But in just over a decade, the trend has reversed—leaving the political rhetoric on both sides of the spectrum disconnected from reality.

Republican presidential candidates during the primary elections repeatedly warned their base of the increased “illegal immigrant” threat, while President Barack Obama has both intensified the Bush-era mass deportations and stepped up the militarization of the border. In fact, shortly after the 2008 recession, undocumented immigration to the U.S. had come to a virtual standstill and unauthorized crossings reversed: there were more unauthorized immigrants leaving than entering the country.2

Much of the rhetoric on this issue has focused on the supposed impact of undocumented immigration on security and public safety. But immigration—including undocumented immigration—is systemically associated with lower rates of criminality, making the immigrant-rich cities in border states some of the safest in the nation. And contrary to claims that immigrants resist assimilation into American culture, the children of today’s immigrants are learning English faster and better than previous waves of immigrants, while (sadly) they are losing their ability to speak their home language within a couple of generations.

Public concern over immigration is aligned with general discontent with the federal government, which is regarded as bloated, ineffectual, out of touch, and unable to discharge even its most basic duties. Several states have exploited this concern by enacting controversial laws—most notably Arizona, Alabama and Georgia.

These three states experienced a perfect storm of social and economic phenomena that made undocumented immigration a salient political issue. The reasons were threefold. First, all three states endured a severe economic shock during the financial crisis. For example, the real estate sector in Arizona and Georgia, which had been stimulated by, and benefited from, mass immigrant labor during the boom years, crashed in 2008. According to the Case-Shiller Index, home prices in the Greater Phoenix area declined by 55.9 percent from 2006 to 2011.3 Second, there is a deepening demographic asymmetry between older, whiter, wealthier, native citizens, and a rapidly growing younger, darker, poorer, immigrant population. Arizona now has the widest gap in the nation between its adult population (65 percent white) and its population under the age of 18 (58 percent non-white). Finally, Arizona, Georgia and Alabama were destinations for a steady flow of undocumented immigration. The Tucson sector of the U.S. border more than doubled the apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants—from approximately 300,000 apprehensions in 1998 to over 600,000 by 2005.4

There is nothing unique about states inserting themselves into immigration policy. Before Arizona, there was California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, also known as the Save Our State initiative, that proposed a state-run citizenship screening system to prohibit access by the undocumented population to public health care, education and other social services. But the underlying impetus for SB 1070 in Arizona, HB 56 in Alabama and HB 87 in Georgia is the belief that more undocumented immigrants are a strain on the economy and on public resources.

Reducing immigration to labor and economic concerns without considering children in families with undocumented parents is a counterproductive, misguided policy. The most meaningful unit of analysis in immigration is the family, not the individual immigrant worker. Undocumented immigrants are disproportionally young, and in prime childbearing years; hence their children make up a large share of the American newborn (8 percent) and school-age (7 percent) populations. How these children mature in the U.S. and ultimately contribute to our economy and society will depend on how our immigration laws address them and their parents.

Undermining a Child's Hopes and Future

There are an estimated 5.5 million children and adolescents below age 18—1 in 10 children in the U.S.—growing up with parents without legal status. Of these, 4.5 million (79 percent) are U.S.-born citizens.

Marieli is one of over  1 million children who face the dual challenge of being an undocumented person and growing up with undocumented parents. When she was four, Marieli’s father was assassinated in front of his wife and children. Left a widow responsible for her family, Marieli’s mother reluctantly left Guatemala for the United States. Once in California, she applied for asylum status and waited patiently for her papers to be processed. It took six years and a small fortune to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth until she could begin the process of applying to reunite with her children. In the meantime, the grandmother who had been raising the children in her absence back home died.

With no one to care for them, Marieli’s mother made the drastic choice of having her children make the crossing without papers. Following the harrowing experience of being smuggled into the country by coyotes, Marieli finally arrived in northern California at age 11. By then she had spent more than half her childhood away from her mother, and the reunion was bittersweet. Marieli still does not have her papers and remains in legal limbo.

Well over 100,000 children who are U.S. citizens have been separated from their parents through deportation and consequently face a choice no child should have to make: staying in the U.S. with relatives or going with their parents to a country they often do not know.

In addition to the day-to-day economic and social challenges that arise when a child loses his or her primary caregiver, children of deported parents exhibit multiple behavioral changes in the aftermath of parental detention and removal, including anxiety, frequent crying, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal, and anger. Such behavioral changes have been documented both for the short-term after the arrest, as well as for the long-term at a nine-month follow-up.5

Beyond deportations, the current strategy of “attrition through enforcement”—the concerted effort to make everyday life, such as driving a car, getting a vaccination or cashing a check, so difficult that undocumented immigrants will begin self-deporting in massive numbers—is having direct, if unintended, effects on children, immigrant and citizen alike.6

These policies have resulted in significant increases in housing instability, food insecurity and a diminishing sense of basic trust in the institutions of society—key indicators of basic developmental wellbeing. Millions of youth are growing up in a culture of insecurity. Such insecurities, while heightened for children whose parents are detained, are ongoing and life-defining for children growing up in mixed-status households.

Housing insecurities are often associated with unplanned moves midway through the school year. Insecurity caused by unauthorized status and poverty characterizes the lives of millions of children, even though most unauthorized immigrants have jobs. According to the 2010 Supplemental Poverty Measure of the U.S. Census, 28.2 percent of Hispanics live in poverty, compared to 30 percent of children growing up in unauthorized households. Furthermore, the economic recession has had a disproportionate adverse effect on immigrant households.

Current policies take a heavy toll on educational attainment among children in mixed-status households. Data from the Harvard Immigration Project, which Carola Suárez-Orozco and I co-directed from 1997 to 2002, reveal that children who underwent protracted immigration-related separations from their parents were more likely to have declining academic performance than comparable youth.

Other data show that the school drop-out rates among foreign-born Hispanic youth (approximately half of them have no papers) is almost twice the rates among Hispanic youth born in the United States. Youth without papers who do manage to graduate from high school face strictly limited options moving forward. Every year, approximately 65,000 undocumented young people graduate from high schools without the requisite papers to either access federal financial aid to attend college or to legally find employment. Even young people who manage to attend and graduate from college at their own expense will not be able to legally work upon graduation.

The experience of Korean immigrant John is telling. John’s parents brought him to the U.S. when he was a toddler. He speaks English without an accent. After graduating from a New York magnet school, he attended a prestigious college, graduating with honors in engineering, and he even pursued a second degree in business. When his parents’ visas expired, they remained in the U.S., eventually making John an undocumented immigrant in the only country he knows. Dispirited by his limbo status, he now makes deliveries for a local restaurant instead of advancing his career in business or engineering.

Research suggests that unauthorized parents are less likely to take advantage of a range of benefits to which their citizen children are entitled, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Head Start, the Women, Infants and Children’s Nutrition Program, Medicaid, and others. Unauthorized parents must manage poverty, linguistic isolation and limited access to extended social networks that can provide information, babysit or lend money in a crisis. Researchers at New York University and Harvard have shown that millions of children coming from mixed-status immigrant families are at risk of lower cognitive and educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility, and an ambiguous sense of belonging to their adopted country.7

Immigration can be particularly stressful to parents, who find themselves unable to draw on their usual resources and coping skills at a time when the balance and wellbeing of the family is at stake. Unauthorized immigration is doubly stressful. Stripped of many of their significant support networks (extended family members, friends and neighbors) and living in the shadow of the law, unauthorized immigrants may never fully develop the social maps to help them find their way as parents in a foreign land—a situation that often leaves them marginalized from the larger society.

The fear that accompanies unauthorized immigration often threatens the identity and cohesion of the family. This transforms traditional parenting roles—even to the extent of undermining the values of authority, reciprocity and responsibility. Even under the best of circumstances, the family is never the same after such migration.

A Threshold of Belonging

To address the socioeconomic and developmental challenges faced by mixed-status children, U.S. policymakers must change the immigration laws that create such precarious circumstances. Repeated failures in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform show this is no easy task—and how divorced from reality the policy and public debate remain. Even as the flows of unauthorized immigration are at a standstill, Americans by a large majority (72 percent) believe that the federal government is not doing enough to prevent unauthorized immigration.8

Although polls indicate opinion is split on issues such as building more fences on the border with Mexico (50 percent support it), large margins agree that the U.S. should be doing more to fine employers who hire unauthorized immigrants (64 percent) and put in more border patrol agents (81 percent).9 The U.S. has neither the infrastructure nor the financial capacity to deport en masse 11 million unauthorized migrants, and in the process split up millions of families. The “attrition-through-enforcement” approach is not generating massive “self-deportations,” but rather pushing immigrants out of certain cities and states and into others.

At the same time, U.S. citizens sense that the status quo is not acceptable. A 2010 CNN poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the idea of “creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. for a number of years to apply for permission to remain permanently if they have a job and pay taxes.”10

How do we get beyond the impasse? Is there a way out of the shadows for today’s unauthorized immigrants and their children? The most sensible, humane and realistic path forward is based on a clear set of principles establishing a “threshold of belonging” and “shared fate.” Those principles are not only identifiable and measureable, they are also fundamental to a theory of citizenship.

First, unauthorized immigrants would have to pass a “threshold of belonging.” Have they been de facto, if not de jure, members in good standing of the communities where they are settled? Proof of this could include a history of steady work, evidence of good moral character and standing in the community—perhaps in the form of affidavits from community leaders such as a supervisor, teacher or religious leader. Do their relatives, including children, have roots in the community—in schools, in places of worship and in the job market?

Setting a test for citizenship based on an individual’s contribution to his or her community, expressed through a solid work history, participation in local institutions, paying taxes, a crime-free record, and even evidence of interest in learning the language and history of the U.S., would provide de facto evidence that such an individual has passed the “belonging threshold.” But in the current culture of gridlock in Washington, it is (sadly) unrealistic to think that legislation incorporating these concepts is possible today. What, then, can be done immediately? Here, the lowest-hanging fruit is applying these same standards for the children currently trapped in the policy deadlock.

Regularizing the status of over a million youth and young adults who have continuously lived in the U.S. through childhood, earned a high school diploma or a GED, and go on to college or military service, is smart policy. The bipartisan Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would give some 360,000 unauthorized high school graduates a legal pathway to work and attend college, and could generate incentives for over 700,000 youngsters between ages 5 and 17 to finish high school and pursue secondary education.

These youths cannot be held responsible for breaking the law at the border. They have benefited from taxpayer-subsidized public education and have played by the rules. They have certainly passed the “belonging threshold.” Yet today they can neither work nor take advantage of a full range of educational opportunities beyond high school. It’s bad for them and bad for the country. We have invested heavily in these youth, and the U.S. will depend on them to fill the ranks of our labor force when they reach adulthood.

Taking the long view, even without any further migration, the U.S. is facing the greatest demographic transformation in a century. The children of immigrants now constitute the fastest growing sector of the population. They are our future scientists, nurses, businesspeople, and teachers. It is too late for Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. But in other states we need to decide whether we want to harness the energies of all new young Americans or waste the talents of a generation. The choice should be obvious.


1.    Antonio Alarcon, "Do-it-Yourself Deportation," The New York Times, February 1, 2012.
2.    Douglas Massey, Lecture at the Nieman Foundation conference on the Futures of Immigration, Walter Lippman House, Harvard University, September 30, 2011.
3.    See David Streitfeld, "Bottom May Be Near for Slide in Housing," The New York Times, May 31, 2011.
4.    More unauthorized crossings in Arizona's unforgiving dessert led to more deaths at the border: "Further, the increase in deaths occurring within the Tucson Sector accounted for the majority of the increase in deaths along the southwest border. For example, our analysis of the NCHS data indicates that the increase in deaths in the Tucson Sector from 1990 to 2003 accounted for more than 78 percent of the total increase in border-crossing deaths along the entire southwest border." (Government Accounting Office 2006, p. 17). See, accessed January 31, 2012.
5.    Chaudry, A., Capps, R., Pedroza, J., Castañeda, R. M., Santos, R., & Scott, M. M, Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement (Washington DC: Urban Institute, 2010).
6.    Alarcon.
7.    Suárez-Orozco, C., Yoshikawa, H., Teranish, R., and Suárez-Orozco, "Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Consequences of Unauthorized Status," Harvard Educational Review, 81 (3) (2011): 438-473.
8.    CNN opinion Research Corporation Poll, Immigration, August 6–10, 2010. Retrieved from July 31, 2012.
9.    Ibid.
10.    Hanson (2009).

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Immigration, DREAM Act, Marcelo Suzrez-Orozco