The developmental challenges faced by children of undocumented immigrants

Hirokazu Yoshikawa

Psychologist Hirokazu Yoshikawa studies how the undocumented status of immigrant parents in the U.S. can have harmful consequences for their children.

Meeri Kim: In your work, you’ve looked at the effects of public policies and programs related to immigration on children’s development. What kinds of unique challenges do the children of undocumented immigrant parents face?

Hirokazu Yoshikawa: In the U.S., there are a variety of ways that having a parent who is undocumented can affect a child’s development — and as you might suspect, they all pretty much run in the negative direction. Right now, the policy climate is creating a very heightened threat of deportation which is affecting virtually all of the 11 million undocumented in the U.S. This used to be the case in only a subset of very harsh policy environments, such as the state of Arizona.

What’s happening right now is a heightened sense of anxiety and fear that is most likely exacerbating some of the effects we have seen before. These include not accessing public programs and benefits for citizen children, avoiding public spaces, avoiding picking up and dropping off kids from school, and even kids being kept out of school. In the U.S., close to one-third of children of immigrants are in this situation – so a very large population of children.

MK: In particular, how are these children’s learning and development negatively affected?

HY: There are a variety of educational and mental health barriers for this population from early childhood all the way up to adulthood. Research by myself and others shows that, in early childhood, there may be lower levels of cognitive development due to less access to center-based childcare. By middle childhood, we see lower levels of academic achievement if a child has a parent who is undocumented relative to having parents who are documented immigrants or citizens.

By adolescence, having at least one undocumented parent is associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms. And by early adulthood, having a parent who is undocumented is associated with lower levels of educational attainment.

And that’s not even considering the kids who are actually undocumented themselves. Those kids face a variety of barriers to the normal developmental milestones of adolescence, including getting a driver’s license, accessing formal employment, and taking part in higher education.

MK: Opposition to immigration in general has become a significant political issue in many countries, with some citizens wanting stricter laws against those with undocumented status. Given your extensive research on children of the undocumented, what do you want policymakers to know?

“This kind of climate is going to be driving these populations further out of public spaces and out of contact with public agencies.”

HY: There’s one really obvious solution, which is that a pathway to citizenship would address the vast majority of barriers faced by these kids. Absent that, states and localities can provide outreach assuring undocumented parents that they can enroll their citizen children in benefits for which the children are eligible, and provide them the other forms of support they need.

Again, all of this is very uncertain because of today’s overall policy climate. Now local law enforcement as well as federal immigration and customs enforcement officials in the U.S. are being pressured to deport undocumented adults  and youth. The level of fear that started right at the time of the election could constitute a level of chronic stress that reaches toxic levels. This kind of climate is going to be driving these populations further out of public spaces and out of contact with public agencies.

Hirokazu Yoshikawa is the Courtney Sale Ross Professor of Globalization and Education, and a University Professor at New York University.  He conducts research on the effects of programs and policies related to early childhood development, immigration and poverty on child and youth development. He co-directs (with Larry Aber) the Global TIES for Children Center at New York University.  He is also Co-Chair of the Thematic Network on Early Childhood Development and Education of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the research network advising the Secretary-General on the development and implementation of the global SDGs. He serves on the boards of trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation and the Foundation for Child Development, and the advisory boards of the Early Childhood Program of the Open Society Foundations and the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report.