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Yoshikawa Briefs Capitol Hill on Challenges of Immigrants Raising Citizens

When Marcelo (not his real name) first arrived in the United States from Mexico, he took a job selling flowers on the street in New York for what amounted to $150 a week. This was well below minimum wage at the time, but, like many undocumented immigrants, he felt it was best to keep quiet. His next job was at a restaurant where he worked a 12-hour shift, six days a week earning a total of $250 each week (also under the minimum wage). Over the following 16 years, all at the same restaurant, he only received two pay increases, and after all those years was still earning below $10 an hour while raising young children in the most expensive city in America.

Marcelo's family took part in Professor Hiro Yoshikawa's study of 400 Mexican, Dominican, Chinese, and African-American families in New York City. These families are the subject of Yoshikawa's new book, Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children, the first book to examine how parental undocumented status affects children's early development. Early in March, Yoshikawa told Marcelo's story in a packed hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill to illustrate the daunting challenges facing undocumented immigrants in the United States and the impact these challenges have on their citizen children.

The briefing, which provided Yoshikawa the opportunity to speak directly to those who will be making policy decisions, was organized by First Focus, an organization that advocates for families and children in federal policy and budget decisions, in conjunction with the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Caucuses, and the Foundation for Child Development. Yoshikawa was joined on the panel by CUNY Professor Donald Hernandez, senior advisor for the Foundation; Miriam Calderon, director of early childhood education for the Washington, D.C. public schools; Ajay Chaudry, a senior fellow a the Urban Institute; and Randy Capps, senior policy analyst and demographer at the Migration Policy Institute.

There are 4 million citizen children of undocumented immigrants in the United States. According to Yoshikawa, these children typically have lower early cognitive skills than children of documented immigrants of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. He seeks to know why, pointing out that "early childhood is a crucial period for the foundational skills that predict life success. The laying down of the foundations of brain architecture in these years sets the stage for lifelong health, learning and behavior - and ultimately economic productivity."

Yoshikawa's study included surveys, child assessments, and longitudinal ethnography conducted between birth and 36 months. He found three main mechanisms that can lead to lower cognitive development of these children.

First, undocumented immigrant parents tend to stay "under the radar" because, as Yoshikawa explained, "the same government that offers benefits to citizen children can also deport the parents." These parents are less likely to take advantage of -- or even know about -- opportunities that may benefit their children. Yoshikawa noted that some parents did not know about Head Start until his study's field workers informed them about it.

Second, undocumented immigrant parents, like Marcelo, often have lower rates of benefits, lower job quality, and lower wages than documented immigrants. Yoshikawa noted that in his study, between 30 and 40 percent of the group with majority undocumented parents - the Mexicans - earned below minimum wage. Children of undocumented parents had much lower access to child care subsidies and center-based care, due to the parents being reluctant to reveal their employers.

Finally, undocumented parents often experience higher levels of stress and economic hardship than documented parents. This can result in less interaction with children, which studies have shown leads to lower cognitive skills in the children.

At the end of his presentation, Yoshikawa outlined four public policy recommendations: create pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrant parents; increase enforcement of labor laws; increase access to child care subsidies and preschool for children of undocumented immigrants; and restructure the delivery mechanisms for immigrant parents to increase levels of trust and ease of enrollment. He concluded that the United States cannot afford restricting the developmental and ultimate economic potential of 4 million of its youngest citizens, at a time when the nation is rapidly aging.


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