Blog: Latino Ed Beat

“In the Shadows” with the Youngest Children

Monica beat me to it today with a post on the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review, which focuses on how immigration status affects children. I’d also like to discuss this article, concentrating on the impact in the earliest years of these students’ lives.  This article makes a few important points about how undocumented status can exacerbate two issues that hinder cognitive development in young children: poverty and social capital.

Research on a cohort study of low-income families who were recruited to participate after they had a child born at one of New York City’s public hospitals showed disparities in cognitive development as early as two and three  years of age between the children of citizen/lawful immigrants and those of undocumented immigrants, even when other socioeconomic factors were accounted for.  The researchers traced the difference to greater economic hardship and fewer social supports for the undocumented parents, which resulted in longer work hours and less chance for children to access toys, books or center-based child care. These problems exist within many low-income families of all ethnicities and immigration statuses, but this research found they were especially concentrated among undocumented immigrants, many of whose children were U.S. citizens by birth.
The research is also a new book, Immigrants Raising Citizens, and New America Foundation’s Maggie Severns recently reviewed it for the Washington Monthly. The review gives useful background as to how the study evolved–at first, researcher Hirokazu Yoshikawa intended to study the survival strategies employed by immigrants of all statuses working low-wage jobs. But they observed immigration status was the factor that drove many families’ decision-making, and adjusted the research accordingly.

Severns notes some compelling comparisons, such as the contrast between two youngsters, one whose mother has immigration papers, the other without:

Three-year-old Lucio is the son of two undocumented Mexican immigrants. His mother, Alfreda, takes care of Lucio and some neighbors’ children during the day, and works the overnight shift at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn on the weekends. She is committed to her son’s learning, but she is often exhausted, sometimes even nodding off during job interviews. She also has little social support from friends or relatives.

Compare Lucio to Alberto, whose documented Dominican mother has a unionized (though still low-wage) job and a reliable social network. Alberto enjoys more toys, social interactions, and other stimulating experiences that enable his brain to grow. At the end of thirty-six months, his cognitive skills are three standard deviations above Lucio’s.

However, Severns says the book is long on anecdote and shorter on quantitative data. (Full disclosure: I have yet to read the book myself.) From the review, it appears to be a very localized ethnography. I already wonder if a similar study in Chicago would show different results. The review notes that while Dominicans in New York have an established neighborhood and social networks, Mexicans are scattered and less likely to access social capital. Here in Chicago, the situation is quite  different–there are large, well-known Mexican neighborhoods in the city and suburbs of all economic levels, and while there are few Dominicans and they are scattered, they are more likely to be well-educated and live in the suburbs.


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