Driving Undocumented Parents Underground Hurts Students

According to a new report, legalization for parents helps kids perform better in school.

By Julianne Hing Nov 04, 2011

Children whose parents are undocumented immigrants are less likely to finish high school, but their parents’ legalization tangibly improves students’ educational opportunities and outcomes, researchers have found.

Researchers examined how 4,780 adult children of Mexican and Asian immigrants in Southern California fared in school, and found that students whose parents were undocumented finished two fewer years of school than students whose parents had legal status.

The study found that parents’ legalization added about a year and a half to the amount of schooling that children completed, which researchers say, points to a tangible policy solution. The findings underscore the need for policies that allow for immigrants to become legalized, researchers said in their report.

"It’s not just unauthorized immigrants we’re talking about," said Susan Brown, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine and a co-author of the report. "There’s a legacy effect of people remaining in the shadows."

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are currently 5 million children in the U.S. whose parents are undocumented, and 80 percent of them are U.S.-born citizens.

Researchers found that mothers, in particular, had a larger influence on how much schooling students finished. According to the study, students whose mothers were undocumented finished just 11 years of schooling, compared to the 12 and a half years of education students with undocumented fathers completed.

"This is in part because mothers are largely the ones who are care for kids, who take care of their kids’ schooling and meet with teachers," said Susan Brown,

It’s not so much about legal status per se as it is about the social and economic impacts of being forced to live underground. Undocumented immigrants are not authorized to legally work in the country and live under the weight of restrictive immigration enforcement policies that limit their ability to work and support their families. Children of undocumented immigrants face more pressure to leave school to help support their families, often have to move around a lot and don’t have access to the same extracurricular activities and academic support that other families have, Brown said.

"How much money your family has matters for whether you finish school," she said.

This mirrored the experience Paulina, a sophomore at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles, had growing up as the daughter of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Her father sells elote, corn on the cob, out of a cart he pushes through town. The $200 to $400 he’d sell a day used to be just barely enough to support her family of six, Paulina says. But these days, with the recession, he makes a fraction of that.

Paulina is the only one of her siblings who’s still in school. Her older sister left high school to work in a garment factory downtown to help support their family, and her brothers have more or less dropped out of school

"My mom just cries, she doesn’t know what to do about them," Paulina said.

When asked if she thought she’d graduate from high school, Paulina shrugged.

"We’re talking about U.S. citizens whose education is being truncated because of their parents’ status," Brown said, adding that people should remember that parents’ welfare deeply impacts their children’s.

"These children are growing up here, they’re going to be taxpayers and have jobs and getting the best possible start is not only in their best interest, it’s in society as a whole’s best interest to have an educated citizenry."