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September 22, 2014

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The Neglected Ones: Children of undocumented immigrants seldom receive the services they need | First Steps

These days the news is full of polarizing stories about undocumented immigrants. Rarely do we hear about the 4.5 million children born each year in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents. We recently were enlightened about this rapidly growing section of our citizenry at a lecture by Hirokazu Yoshikawa, of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Yoshikawa is the author of a sobering new book called Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children (Russell Sage, 2011). Based on a three-year study of nearly 400 children from Mexican, Chinese, and Dominican families, the book shows the adverse effects of parents’ undocumented status on their offspring. These young citizens are at great risk in their educational development, largely because of their parents’ precarious legal situation.

Yoshikawa and his colleagues visited homes and workplaces, seeing firsthand how fear of deportation and separation affects all aspects of these families’ daily lives. The researchers learned that any kind of service requiring documentation is out of reach for most of the families. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain child-care subsidies, health care, checking and savings accounts, and even a driver’s license or a public library card.

The parents in the study work long hours, often for less than the legal minimum wage. They endure poor working conditions but are afraid to complain. They rarely get raises because they’re reluctant to make themselves conspicuous to those in positions of authority. Many live in rundown apartments, fearful of complaining to their landlords. Most compelling to us was Yoshikawa’s observation that the children of undocumented immigrants aren’t likely to receive quality center-based child care, which research shows can greatly improve early development. His findings indicate that at as early as 24 months, these children show lower cognitive and language-skill development than their more privileged peers.

Yoshikawa emphasizes that locally based, nonpolitical organizations are currently the best community supports for this remarkably large segment of our population. We especially sat up and took notice when he mentioned that his researchers were often the first ones to tell these families about pubic libraries and all they have to offer.

Yoshikawa identifies three “principles” that low-income immigrant families use to identify community organizations they believe they can trust: the perceived benefit to their children; a familiar, comfortable setting; and ease of enrollment. He reports that WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is one organization that has been a “success story” in its service to undocumented immigrants. He cites several reasons for this. Recognizing that Mexicans and some other ethnic groups disapprove of “cash welfare,” WIC doesn’t dispense money. Instead, it provides food and nutritional counseling, which are regarded as directly helpful to the children. WIC often provides its services in clinics and hospitals where the children were born, so their parents trust the location and feel comfortable taking their children there. And enrollment is simple, thanks to social workers who speak many languages and are available for assistance. Additionally, Yoshikawa notes that parents have come to trust that this organization won’t turn them into authorities who can deport them.

We encourage you to read Yoshikawa’s book. For those of us in public and school libraries, there’s so much more we can learn to continue our profession’s long history of helping new immigrants flourish in a challenging new world.

About Renea Arnold and Nell Colburn

Renea Arnold is coordinator of early childhood resources for the Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR. Nell Colburn is one of MCL’s early childhood librarians.

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