This report is a part of the Embracing Our Strength project, a two-part, immigrant-designed and immigrant-led project meant to address the needs of undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families through state policy recommendations. Learn more about the project here.
The United States marginalizes undocumented individuals in countless ways. It systematically erases their voices and perspectives from public debates and the policymaking process. It frequently leaves them out of federal benefits they have earned as tax-paying members of the country. It constantly delivers the same message: undocumented individuals are not fully human in the eyes of U.S. laws. What’s more, the marginalization frequently extends to exclude and erase their family members, even those with legal immigration status. It recently excluded as many as 14.4 million people in mixed-status families from federal COVID-19 relief programs.
This report looks to the voices of immigrant parents in mixed-status and undocumented families across four states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas. The report’s authors sought to listen deeply and look to their experiences and expertise through focus groups. The conversations that were had in the focus groups revealed the wealth of these individuals’ strengths while acknowledging the challenges they have faced in navigating the United States in four areas: education, health care, livelihood, and safety relative to immigration enforcement. Based on the conversations, the authors propose a guiding framework of policy recommendations across the topics discussed and cross-cutting guidance that will enable states to address the needs of immigrant families, and thus protect the potential of children of immigrants. A supportive state policy landscape is necessary for the children of immigrants to thrive.
Overall, efforts to design and implement equity-driven policy through a cross-cutting framework for protecting immigrant potential should:
- Facilitate effective, coordinated, and representative leadership and policy implementation.
- Center racial justice.
- Foster an equitable and welcoming environment.
The marginalization of mixed-status and undocumented immigrant families cannot end until their experiences are included in public discussion. Children of immigrants are a critical portion of every state, accounting for one in four children in U.S. schools, and they represent our country’s future. But we cannot wait until tomorrow to address their pressing needs. States should fulfill their role. State policymakers can help improve children’s outcomes by listening to immigrant parents and addressing the systemic barriers that stand in their family’s way. Enabling every child to thrive would deepen an opportunity for each state to thrive as well.
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Undocumented individuals are marginalized within U.S. society, which results in a systemic erasure of their voices and perspectives when policy and laws are crafted and implemented. Even if some family members hold legal immigration status, all family members may also bear the brunt of that marginalization. We have witnessed the broader impact of exclusion on mixed-status families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, due to intentional policy decisions. According to Immigration Forum, as many as 5.5 million U.S. citizen and resident children and adults were initially left out of federal relief payments because they live in a household with an undocumented family member who filed their taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number. Moreover, the implications are much broader, impacting physical and psychological well-being and interrupting community ecosystems.
Children are particularly negatively impacted. Children, regardless of their own immigration status, feel the impact of anti-immigrant and exclusive policies meant to target their parents as multi-generational punishment, becoming de-facto undocumented in the process. The hypervigilant caution that can come from growing up with parents who are targeted and criminalized by law and immigration enforcement, let alone being thus targeted themselves, fits the parameters of an adverse childhood experience. The prolonged stress such environments create for children sets the stage for toxic stress, a condition that affects healthy brain development and has serious short-and long-term implications on life outcomes. However, toxic stress can be mitigated and even countered through supportive environments. When children have strong relationships with supportive adults, they are better able to get through adversity without significant detrimental impacts on life outcomes.
To build these sorts of environments, however, parents must be supported and enabled to provide for their families. As mixed-status and undocumented families wait for new pathways to permanent residence at the federal level, ensuring more inclusive policy at the state level will allow them to survive and even thrive until that moment arrives. Individuals should not be forced to place their lives on hold or jeopardize the outcomes of their children because of a shifting political landscape. States have an important role to play, and their responses must be guided by the voices of those most impacted.
Bringing the Voices of Mixed-Status Immigrant Families into Policy Solutions
Listening closely to firsthand experiences of the aspects of life on which a policy touches experiences, especially when those experiences are kept hidden or private due to stigma, could support in the creation of more inclusive, and thus stronger, policy, as well as make the case for furthering such policy development. There is transformative potential in centering the voices of those who are typically silenced—in valuing their lives, stories, and perspectives. We must make these people our agents of change.
In this report, we have laid the groundwork for exactly this kind of paradigmatic shift in state policy affecting immigrants. Parents were chosen as a focus of our analysis because for many children, they are a first line of defense against toxic ecologies, and because the experiences, challenges, and priorities of parents have been under-prioritized in the immigration conversation. There has been increasing research in the past decade regarding undocumented youth, their transition from high school to adulthood, their activism, and the impact of policy on their lives, without much accompanying focus on their parents’ experience. There also has been a lack of comparative research studies across states regarding the impact of state policy on mixed-status and undocumented immigrant families.
This report looks to the voices of immigrant parents in mixed-status and undocumented families across four states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas. The authors of this report sought to deeply understand their experiences through focus groups that discussed four topics: education, health care, livelihood, and safety relative to immigration enforcement. Participant expertise helped guide and identify policy recommendations for states to better protect the children of immigrants by addressing the barriers their families face, and create state policy landscapes where these children can thrive. Partnerships with the direct-service and advocacy organizations ImmSchools and Haitian Bridge Alliance were instrumental in making the work possible. The deep trust these organizations have established with mixed-status immigrant families helped generate a space where participants could feel safe sharing their experiences and trust that their confidentiality would be protected.
Interrupting Single Narratives: Expanding the Common Understanding of Who Undocumented and Mixed-Status Families Are
This report foregrounds the immigrant community’s rich tapestry of culturally, linguistically, racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse people. When people think of mixed-status and undocumented families, the image that typically comes to mind is of Spanish-speaking immigrant families from Mexico and Central America. While these immigrants comprise about 68 percent of the United States’ undocumented population, the full story of undocumented and mixed-status families is far more diverse. There are 16.7 million people in the United States living with an undocumented individual. These families include people from every corner of the planet, including Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.
A single narrative prioritizing Spanish-speaking Latinx immigrants limits resources and services for other immigrants and contributes to disparate consequences, which are faced in particular by Black and Afro-Latinx immigrants when it comes to family separation and deportations. For instance, Haitians asylum seekers experienced record levels of deportation and expulsion even during the pandemic in the last months of the Trump administration. Their asylum claims were increasingly denied, and many Haitians were threatened with the loss of their temporary protected status (TPS) by the Trump administration. The complex factors that push Haitians to immigrate to the United States stigmatize and erase the experience of mixed-status and undocumented Haitian families in the country. For these reasons, as well as the broader tendency to ignore or undervalue the experience of Black immigrants in the United States within the immigration conversation, Haitian participants were prioritized as a group to include in the focus groups for this report.
This study is not exhaustive: multiple other immigrant groups were not included because of language, time, and financial constraints. Furthermore, even within the specific immigrant communities we have called upon, we present nothing like a comprehensive perspective: to do so is impossible, because no community’s narrative is a singular monolith. Immigrant experiences range broadly based on racialization, length of time that families have been in the United States, the different types of immigration and citizenship statuses held by family members, the state in which they reside, the languages they speak, their socioeconomic status upon arrival, and the education levels they’ve had access to, among other factors. Nor does every immigrant and/or undocumented child benefit from reliable parents or a stable family structure, in the United States or in a previous country of residence: constraints have prevented this report from being able to take their specific challenges and needs into consideration.
The focus groups’ findings thus are not representative of the diverse immigrant population, and cannot be neatly generalized even to the demographic and state in which the groups were conducted. Regardless, we found shared experiences resulting from noncitizen immigrants’ exclusion that can—and should—influence how states prioritize and develop policy going forward, and that a focus on families, and on parents in particular, is essential for any successful expansion and reform. This report highlights ways to improve the policy landscape for undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families in the states, particularly as they concern creating an environment where all children can thrive.
Parallel to the collaborative research done for this report, Next100 surveyed the prevalence of fifteen of the most important state policies for supporting mixed-status and undocumented families. That overview, “Mapping State Policies to Support Immigrant Families,” has been compiled into an interactive map available here, and includes discussions of model and innovative examples of each policy where they exist. Where useful, the analysis has been used as a reference in this report.
The following section describes two exemplary advocacy organizations, who provide excellent role models and potential collaborators for state policymakers, and who were instrumental in our research for this report. See the methodology section below for details on the partnerships.
Making a Difference: Haitian Bridge Alliance
Proximate Leadership—Immigrant Women Leading with Urgency
Founded in 2016 by Guerline Jozef, the Haitian Bridge Alliance has been a labor of love and passion, an act of resistance against the anti-Blackness that pervades to whiteness, Latinidad, and dominant immigrant narratives, and an assertion that the immigrant community is stronger when it can hold and draw from its multiple narratives. The organization has been fueled by the urgent needs that have resulted from the Department of Homeland Security disproportionately detaining, separating, and deporting Black immigrants and asylum-seeking families from the Caribbean and Africa.
Innovative Solutions to Expand Narratives and Build Power—Addressing a Need
The disparate consequences of immigration policy that impact Haitians in particular and all Black immigrants in general are due in part to disproportionate discrimination at the hands of the U.S. immigration system. They are further exacerbated by the lack of adequate services, information, and understanding regarding this population’s needs and circumstances among the broader immigration advocacy community and among immigration lawyers, coupled with systemic racial discrimination and the criminalization that attends it. Because Black communities are over-policed, Black immigrants have higher rates of interaction with the criminal justice system. They are then transferred from the criminal justice system to immigrant detention at high rates, where they face higher bonds than do non-Black detainees.
Black immigrants, including Afro-Latinx immigrants, tend to be marginalized as a subgroup within immigrant communities, which has tangible consequences on their lives, including being the last to get any type of services or assistance from lawyers, which, when coupled with higher bonds, presents additional family reunification obstacles. Where a lack of support and specific barriers exist, Haitian Bridge Alliance works to address them by centering Black immigrants and asylum seekers’ needs and voices. The organization provides country conditions training and legal case strategies to attorneys, legal assistants, and service providers around the country who work with Haitian asylum seekers and other Black migrants. By educating legal practitioners, these supports increase the success rates of Haitians seeking asylum and other forms of protection. The organization also works directly with impacted communities, providing legal training and assistance to migrant communities in their dominant language and regularly visiting asylum seekers in detention centers to assess their needs. They provide translators, connect asylum seekers with legal services, and obtain third-party bonds for release through the Black Immigrants Bail Fund.
While the Haitian Bridge Alliance’s work began as a fight against family separation and child detention affecting Haitian immigrants, the organization now seeks to connect all Black migrants they encounter with adequate support across multiple issues. They elevate the issues that Black migrants face to build more solidarity and collective momentum toward policy change. In a field that tends to be dominated by Latinx immigrants’ needs, in the process excluding Afro-Latinx and Black people’s needs, the immigrant and refugee population’s true diversity collectively benefits and learns from the Haitian Bridge Alliance’s advocacy and efforts.
In-Depth Support and Flexibility—Addressing Critical Needs
As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Haitian Bridge Alliance rapidly responded with humanitarian assistance to support those affected by the pandemic. They started a binational COVID-19 cash assistance relief program. They are currently providing cash assistance for 125 Black immigrant families in Tijuana and 140 families in the United States. The organization has also worked tirelessly to respond to the added threat of the Trump administration’s pandemic response to asylum seekers, which has included policies barring people from their right to seek asylum. Throughout March and June of the COVID-19 pandemic, 44 percent of the families detained in the Karnes Detention Center were from Haiti, and Black immigrants have continued facing disparate consequences in detention centers. In October, Haitian families began being rapidly expelled and deported to Haiti. Haitian Bridge Alliance has been working as the last line of defense to connect with families in detention centers, get them the legal support they need, and stop deportations, all while drawing attention to the injustice these families are facing.
Making a Difference: ImmSchools
Proximate Leadership—Immigrant Women Leading with Ugency
Founded in 2017 by Viridiana Carrizales, Vanessa Luna, and Lorena Tule-Romain, three formerly undocumented educators, ImmSchools is guided by an intimate knowledge of the complex factors at play that impact undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families. Having each personally navigated the obstacles presented by their immigration status as students, family members, and educators, these women understand the critical need to tap into educational entities—classrooms, schools, and school districts—as places with the potential for transformative change.
Innovative Solutions to Work across Silos—Creating Safe Spaces:
Anti-immigrant and exclusive policies have a detrimental impact on the well-being and academic outcomes of the 4.1 million immigrant students in K–12 schools living in mixed-status immigrant households. However, when educators create a safe and supportive learning environment, their likelihood of success is greater. Students and families can tap into their power and recognize their potential. ImmSchools partners with K–12 schools and educators to support undocumented students and families by leading professional development, immigrant-centered workshops, and advocating for pro-immigrant policies. They have served over 2,330 educators and school staff and 1,550 students and families in the two years since their founding. To date, ImmSchools is the only national organization supporting the undocumented community’s unique needs in the K–12 education system.
While the immigrant rights movement has traditionally stayed out of schools—and the work towards education equity rarely forays into issues affecting undocumented immigrants— ImmSchools’ work centers that intersection. Schools are essential institutions in immigrants’ lives: they are required to serve every child regardless of immigration status and can help build social and navigational capital for millions of immigrant families. When districts support teachers, they make it possible to support families in a range of ways: helping them meet basic needs, providing better educational opportunities, and helping them navigate the highly politicized environment surrounding immigration in the United States. The intentional creation of safe and inclusive educational spaces for immigrants strengthens the fabric of our society.
In-Depth Support and Flexibility—Responding to a Global Pandemic
Informed by undocumented families, ImmSchools rapidly shifted programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the organization switched to virtual programming, which included educator professional development in supporting undocumented students and families during COVID-19 and hosting student and family workshops on their rights inside and outside of school. They also addressed the needs of undocumented and mixed-status families systematically left out of federal and state government relief by providing financial assistance to hundreds of immigrant families. In a moment of severe hardship and amid heartbreaking headlines regarding immigrants’ exclusion, ImmSchools uplifted the immigrant community’s power by supporting families in sharing their perspectives, both within and beyond education systems. Their constant centering of students in undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families contributes to a much-needed narrative pivot on the immigrant community’s power and value in our K–12 system and beyond.
Focus Groups: Participant Selection
Four focus groups were conducted, one each in California, Texas, New York, and Florida, between July and September 2020. The states were selected because they are the four states with the highest population of undocumented immigrants and mixed-status immigrant families. Participants were required to: be parents, be members of a mixed-status or undocumented immigrant household, agree to respect and maintain the confidentiality of all participants, and be able to join a virtual conversation via the Zoom online platform. Participants were recruited through incentive snowball sampling, meaning that we started recruiting by going to the people we know have undocumented family members or have connections to undocumented individuals and asking them if they could refer us to others who might be interested in participating in the study. A $100 incentive was offered to acknowledge and honor the time and expertise of focus group participants, especially during a global pandemic which has exacerbated economic challenges for many immigrant families. A simple flyer was sent to prospective participants in their native language, stating the focus group’s topic, the date and time of the virtual conversation, the $100 incentive for participation, and the phone number with which to get in contact with the authors if they were interested in participating. Haitian Bridge Alliance and Next100 then followed up with interested participants via phone call, explaining the focus groups’ purpose, answering any questions, and ensuring that interested participants fit the study parameters.
Bringing the Focus Groups Together
In Florida and California, the Haitian Bridge Alliance took on the outreach to and recruiting of Creole-speaking Haitian participants in Haitian Creole. In New York and Texas, Next100 took on outreach and recruiting for Spanish-speaking Latinx participants in Spanish, with support from ImmSchools in Texas.
It proved challenging to find Haitian parents in Florida who were willing to speak with the facilitator. Because Haitian Bridge Alliance had not previously done these types of focus groups in the state, we turned to alternative sources who were likely to be respected and trusted to support participants’ recruitment: pastors, well-known professionals in the community, and family members. Despite referrals, many prospective participants were unwilling to speak on the record about their experiences in one-on-one interviews, much less in small focus groups. The Haitian culture is steeped in privacy, especially on issues like legal status, mental health, and government assistance, so the hesitation to participate in the focus groups was understandable from a cultural perspective. Some individuals would not refer the facilitator to others, or would not even talk to her, because that would mean their siblings or friends might find out their legal status. In addition, there was mistrust due to previous disappointments from other organizations that had failed to follow through on promises for change, and the thought that the FBI could be listening in on undocumented immigrants’ calls. These concerns were voiced during initial referral conversations. This community has seen the legal system at its worst, which, unfortunately, has encouraged misinformation and incomplete information to be passed around via word of mouth, Facebook, and WhatsApp, resulting in more mistrust and the possibility of lost opportunities. Recruitment for this group took over a month. Ultimately, four participants from Florida consented to participate in the focus group, including two fathers and two mothers. The parents are all originally from Haiti and live in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, and Naples. Their children ranged in age from babies to young adults.
California parents, also Haitian, were more likely to speak with Haitian Bridge Alliance and agree to participate in the focus group when compared to the Florida parents. Their willingness to participate was potentially due to the deep community connections facilitated and direct service provided by the organization to Haitians in the San Diego area. Six participants were recruited from California, all single mothers originally from Haiti and living in San Diego. They have younger children who have either not entered school, are in PreK, or are in elementary school.
Eight participants were recruited in New York, all living in New York City. They hailed from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. Two of the participants are fathers, and six are mothers. Only two of the participants were connected with local immigrant rights organizations. The other six participants were referred to the focus group through personal contacts. The children of these parents ranged from elementary school age to young adults.
The focus group in Texas came together with relative ease and speed. Parents received a message from ImmSchools or Next100 and quickly responded with interest in participating in the focus groups. The parents were all connected with either the authors, ImmSchools, or another local immigrant rights organization, with whom they had previously engaged in conversations around immigration and immigrant rights. These factors likely contributed to their trust in participating in the focus group. This group did not have any questions during the recruitment stage. They were the most prepared to participate virtually in the conversation, as they were already familiar with the Zoom platform, whether through ImmSchools or their child’s school. Twelve participants were recruited from Texas, all mothers originally from Mexico: two residing in the Rio Grande Valley, two living in the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area, and eight living in San Antonio. Their children ranged from elementary school age to young adults.
How the Focus Groups Were Conducted
Each focus group was facilitated by an author of this report. Participants were introduced to the Embracing Our Strengths project and the purpose of the focus groups: to inform policy recommendations for state policymakers to better support them and their families. Participants were positioned as experts in their lived experience, capable of driving the urgency for policy change—as well as what that change should be—for themselves and their children. Participants were informed of the potential risk for psychological and emotional distress or discomfort during the focus group, because discussion topics would touch on vulnerable issues related to social, economic, and physical harm in this country, as well as the added stressor of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were told to expect to receive a short guide on mental well-being and coping techniques directly following the conversation, along with additional requested resources depending on their needs. Participants were once again asked to affirm that they would respect all participants’ confidentiality. They were told they could choose to no longer participate in the focus group at any point during the conversation by leaving the Zoom platform. They were encouraged to take care of themselves by taking a break from the conversation if needed. Additional group norms were established to ensure each participant’s comfort and participation, and the conversation began.
The focus group conversations ranged in length from ninety minutes to two hours, starting with a grounding in aspirational capital (discussed below), and then moving into discussing four topics aligned with the categories of the fifty-state policy analysis: education, livelihood, health, and sense of safety relative to immigration enforcement. Each focus group conversation was based on a set of guiding questions. Participants were asked to respond to the questions and to the comments they heard from other participants. The amount of time spent discussing each of the four topics varied based on group concerns and challenges experienced. Not all groups discussed every topic because of time constraints. The themes that emerged from the conversations are discussed in the findings section of this report.
The official focus group conversation was closed out by asking participants what had most resonated with them throughout the discussion. The facilitator then reiterated the next steps, including expecting text messages with promised resources the following day and confirming their mailing address via text message for their gift card. Participants were also told that they could provide feedback on the policy recommendations included in the report at a later date.
Some participants chose to stay thirty minutes to an hour past the official conversation to ask questions or voice specific concerns. During this time, participants and facilitators offered each other resources and tips for navigating their situations. In areas for which no resources were immediately available, the facilitator took note of the requested resources to share with the group via text message later on. Participants ultimately received resources regarding taking care of their mental well-being, community health centers or information about health coverage for individuals regardless of their immigration status if available in their local context, a list of scholarships for students regardless of immigration status, and a resource for finding trustworthy lawyers and organizations offering legal services in their area and language.
How We Analyzed the Findings from the Focus Groups
The focus groups were transcribed in their original language and then translated to English by native speakers (in Spanish and Haitian Creole) familiar with the immigrant experience. Once the translated transcriptions were available, each translated transcript was read three times, for a clean read, a read for deductive coding, and a read for inductive coding. Deductive coding sought to capture a predetermined list of items, including challenges, aspirations, and possible solutions to translate into policy ideas, as well as categorize the transcripts according to the four topics discussed in the focus groups, including education, health care, livelihood, and sense of safety relative to immigration enforcement. The inductive coding was based on what emerged from the conversations, and dove deeper into aspirations by coding for the different types of aspirations named; the different kinds of challenges identified; and the forms of strength and community cultural wealth displayed by participants. Each time that a participant spoke of a particular theme was captured as a different instance. Some anecdotes that parents provided were captured as multiple codes, because they captured intersecting themes. The section below delves into findings related to participant strengths and challenges. The section following that, on implications, includes recommendations that address the challenges families named, including solutions they put forth; the section also describes trends towards progress on the inclusion of mixed-status and undocumented immigrant families being seen across multiple states.
Strengths and Assets: Community Cultural Wealth
While each focus group was anchored in the power of agency and aspirational capital by asking parents to name their dreams for themselves and their children, stating aspirations was meant as a practice in well-being amidst a potentially challenging conversation. However, the process created a space of transformation and support. As participants in each group repeatedly offered their testimonies of how they navigated challenges as advice and support for others in the group, it became increasingly clear that the strengths and values they shared needed to be systematically captured.
Dr. Tara J. Yosso, professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside and expert on examining educational access and opportunity through a critical race lens, provides the framework of community cultural wealth. Rather than looking to the traditional forms of capital that posit students as deficient, community cultural wealth centers the assets students bring into the classroom, naming them in the following way: aspirational capital, navigational capital, social capital, resistant capital, familial capital, and linguistic capital. The framework proved useful for categorizing the strengths we witnessed throughout the focus group conversations with parents.
Of the six forms of capital that encompass community cultural wealth, aspirational capital was intentionally invoked at the beginning of focus group conversations. The parents repeatedly exhibited four other forms of capital, including navigational capital, social capital, resistant capital, and familial capital. Participants also repeatedly referred to spiritual capital as a source of hope and strength. In the following, these forms of capital are defined, and their relevance to the members of the focus groups discussed. Each subsection begins with a quotation from a focus group participant.
Aspirational capital relates to the hopes that participants have for a better future and the resilience to get through challenging situations, both for themselves and for their children. The most frequent aspirations participants named for their children included that they receive a quality education, pursue a professional degree, and reach their full potential. Several parents spoke of hoping that their children would surpass them and take advantage of the educational opportunities they themselves never had. Participants most frequently aspired to a better quality of life for themselves and their families, to be able to adjust their immigration status, and to be able to visit family members in their country of origin.
Navigational capital refers to the ability to navigate systems and institutions with policies that are exclusive to certain populations. Parents exhibited this form of capital by discussing what’s expected of them in the United States regardless of their immigration status: they repeatedly referenced paying taxes, following the laws, and exhibiting a persistent work ethic. They discussed seeking information and asking questions in various places to learn how to navigate different institutions.
As parents spoke of navigating systems, they offered their knowledge and answered questions among each other, building social capital in the process. Social capital speaks to the networks and community resources that people tap into for support as they navigate institutions. Participants connected with ImmSchools, Haitian Bridge Alliance, or other organizations repeatedly spoke of the information, opportunities, and support they had gained by being connected to these organizations. They came into the space with more confidence in sharing their knowledge around their rights and had fewer questions, doubts, and misinformation than participants who stated they were not familiar or connected with organizations meant to support immigrants. These findings align with previous research findings that “families transcend the adversity in their daily lives by uniting with supportive social networks.”
Resistant capital involves naming and challenging inequality through oppositional behavior centered on valuing the self and the family. Throughout the conversations, resistance was displayed in comments parents made about refusing to be held back and intentionally building community to challenge injustice by supporting each other. Parents shared experiences where they actively advocated for their children and challenged discrimination. These experiences were often grounded in parents’ understanding of their rights. However, parents did not always feel that their challenges to injustice were especially successful, and seemed more determined to keep fighting when plugged into a larger support network. Parents with more social capital, or more robust networks of support, were more likely to exhibit resistant capital, as were parents who had been in the United States for more extended periods and those who had children born in the United States.
The notion of family was a source of strength for these parents as they reflected on how they sacrificed a family network in their country of origin to secure a better future for their children in the United States. Parents discussed how they seek to support and advocate for their children, particularly when their children experience barriers and obstacles in their education, including when children needed additional support at school and/or sought opportunities beyond the classroom, as with learning how to access higher education. They spoke of actively encouraging and motivating their children when they were faced with obstacles. Parents also shared experiences where they received emotional, social, linguistic, and financial support from their children and other family members, or where family members shared words of advice and encouragement in response to adversity.
Spiritual capital was another source of strength. While Yosso does not include spiritual capital in the framework of community cultural capital, Perez Huber’s analysis of how undocumented immigrant Latina students challenge racist nativism expands on community cultural wealth by adding spiritual capital to speak to the strength of faith that several women discussed helped them trust in a brighter future. Some participants repeatedly spoke of God, mainly when talking about injustices and the uncertainty of how to confront systemic challenges. These comments were also more common when parents referred to their own aspirations, beginning or punctuating comments by saying, “God willing,” as opposed to the aspirations they had for their children.
Finally, linguistic capital, or the skills gained from communicating in multiple languages, did not show up as a source of power for parents. They spoke of language principally as a barrier, referencing a need for interpreters, linguistic support, and reliance on children or family members for support. However, parents acknowledged the value of linguistic capital, with a couple of parents discussing a desire for their children to be bilingual. One mother spoke of her own bilingualism in Spanish and an indigenous language. She noted that her discomfort in speaking Spanish often further isolated her from seeking services and support.
Parents named various challenges throughout the focus group conversations. These have been grouped into five categories based on the challenge’s instigator: differential treatment, economic constraints, stressors on well-being, exclusion, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important to note that while challenges have been neatly categorized into different groups, the reality is that the groupings often intersect and compound each other. Furthermore, challenges were met by strengths, highlighting the resilience of each of the participants amidst formidable barriers. Unsurprisingly, many of the named challenges had roots in state and federal laws excluding undocumented immigrants.
Each of these categories of challenges are discussed below, ordered by the frequency with which they were discussed in the conversations overall. To the five, we have added at the end a discussion of family separation: while this challenge was not discussed across every group, it was such a severe and impactful concern in Texas and Florida that it warrants consideration here.
Differential treatment refers to the discrimination and lack of support that parents felt and identified as they navigated governmental systems and bureaucracies, and had negative interactions with the people who functioned as gatekeepers to the services they were seeking. Parents most frequently mentioned such interactions having occurred within hospitals and schools and that the challenges they experienced often overlapped with language barriers, a lack of information on the provider side on how to address the needs of undocumented and immigrant individuals, and/or a refusal to serve immigrants as an assumedly valid matter of preference. Within hospitals, participants spoke of believing they had a right to seek service and being rejected service regardless. In schools, parents brought up race in speaking of a lack of accurate communication on the part of teachers regarding their children’s performance in schools, and identified racism and educator bias as an underlying factor.
The next most frequent challenge for parents was the economic challenges they, their families, and their children faced. These challenges were in part due to exclusion from various policies and programs meant to support families under certain income thresholds: because of ineligibility for programs such as Medicaid and federal or state financial aid, families were confronted with the full costs of access, which was extraordinarily expensive. This was coupled and further complicated by minimum- or low-wage work with few benefits and protections. These constraints interrupted their family’s access to health care, child care, adequate housing, and higher education.
Stressors on Well-Being Related to Immigration or Immigration Status
There were various instances where participants spoke of stressors related to their immigration status that negatively impacted their mental well-being. Parents shared experiences where they felt fear and anxiety, mostly related to interactions with the police and the thought of engaging with immigration agents. For some parents, these experiences left them hypervigilant of their surroundings, especially cautious of their driving, and anxious about leaving their homes or traveling long distances. Parents felt negatively impacted by watching the news and being bombarded with reports of attacks on immigrants. Some opted to stop consuming so much media. They shared the emotional pain of being separated from family members in their countries of origin and not being with family members when they passed away. They discussed the agony of being unable to provide the stability and support they knew their children needed. They also spoke of the emotional toll of being discriminated against by gatekeepers. They expressed their doubts, uncertainty, and confusion about making decisions, applying for benefits for their U.S.-citizen children, or completing the U.S. Census because of the rapidly shifting and conflicting information they received or heard.
Exclusion due to policy design is a contributing factor in all of the challenges described in this section. Policies across states—and at the federal level—are written in such a way as to actively exclude noncitizens or individuals without access to a social security number. The parents we spoke with were acutely aware of this, and called out exclusion directly in numerous ways. Their undocumented status often meant they were denied access or excluded from eligibility for programs from which others with a similar socioeconomic status could benefit. Sometimes the policy exclusions were present even for those with greater economic means or who were willing to pay for the benefits, such as with people seeking to purchase health coverage on the marketplace. Moreover, their immigration status made it so that they mostly lacked benefits at work, including having paid vacation time, paid holidays, or sick leave, because they either had to work as independent contractors or lacked access to jobs with benefits.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were discussed by many participants, who spoke of the health crisis exacerbating their struggles with health care and livelihood. Participants were not surveyed for who had and hadn’t contracted the virus, but four parents in Texas and New York spoke of themselves and their entire families getting sick with COVID-19. One mother in New York lost her husband to health complications from the virus and was in debt to various family and friends as she struggled to pay funeral costs and catch up on missed rent payments to transfer the lease to her name. A mother in Texas spoke of owing the hospital thousands of dollars for the treatment she and her family sought related to COVID-19. A different mother in Texas spoke of repeatedly being denied testing despite her urgency in knowing whether her symptoms resulted from the virus because of her underlying health condition. Another mother in New York spoke of waiting for hours to be seen and treated, ultimately returning home without care and self-treating her symptoms. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on participants’ economic livelihood was also discussed. Many parents went for months without being able to work. As the conversations were being conducted, some parents were just returning to work or beginning to look for work. One parent in California shared that she had been unable to work since the beginning of the pandemic because she no longer had access to child care for her young child. Furthermore, as undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families, they were all excluded from federal government relief at the time of our conversation.1
As noted above, this issue largely came up in the Texas and Florida conversations. One parent shared her experience of having been separated from her parents as a teenager because of deportation. She was left alone and without support in the United States. Her mother returned to the United States but was ultimately deported again. Now with her young child, this parent’s partner was deported because of a driving infraction. Born in the United States, her child is now separated from his father, and she fears that he will have his life completely uprooted if she is also deported. As a parent with DACA, her immigration status was in a very precarious state. Although the Supreme Court ruled to reinstate the program in June 2020, the Trump administration had not followed through at the time of the focus group conversations, instead cutting the length of the benefit in half from two years to one year. Two families in Florida experienced detention and family separation. For one participant, the fear of being detained again kept them from following through with immigration appointments. For the other participant, the experience left them hypervigilant, fearful, and unwilling to drive without a license.
Other parents in Texas spoke of the threat of deportation and the fear of driving without a license because of the danger of interacting with the wrong police officer. In 2017, Texas passed SB4, against the advice of sheriffs and police chiefs across the state. The law required that local governments and law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal immigration officers, but cooperation is no longer required due to legal challenges. However, local law enforcement can still ask about immigration status during a lawful stop or arrest, and if they learn that someone is undocumented, they can choose to provide that information to ICE, which can result in a routine traffic stop ending in deportation for undocumented immigrants.
Solutions and Policy Recommendations
The need for the policy solutions named by participating parents is extensive, and it varies not just by state, but by local context. So many of the barriers these parents are facing are the result of policies—policies which could be changed. As described above, parents provided insights directly related to the conditions they are facing, conditions that may be quite different across states, and even across cities within a state. While these needs were expressed by residents of only four states and cannot be broadly generalized, they do shine light on the relationship between the lived experiences of mixed-status immigrant families and state policy, and contribute to building a broader understanding of the complexities at work. The reiteration of concerns across groups, the advocacy of local groups across multiple states on certain issues, and the trends and progress in policy across the fifty states suggests that the voiced concerns are reflective of the broader population of mixed-status immigrant families across the country.
In the following sections, state-level policy solutions are considered and recommended in the realms of education, health care, livelihood, and safety. Throughout, recommendations specific to challenges specific to the COVID-19 pandemic are also offered.
While participants shared challenging experiences in K–12 schools as they sought to support their children’s education, they also shared what worked to make them feel supported and encouraged to be involved.
States need—and should invest in developing—a culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse educator workforce. Research provides evidence supporting three theories on how a diverse educator workforce benefits students of color: educator representation increases the cultural value students place on academic success; educators hold higher expectations for their students, thus inspiring them to work hard and put forth their best effort in all assignments; and educators’ cultural understanding of their students affects instructional context, resulting in less cultural bias and more culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy. Multilingual, multicultural teachers, and teachers with empathy and knowledge of the additional barriers many immigrant families face made a difference in the lives of some of the participants and their families. These teachers connected with parents and were able to keep them better informed of their child’s progress in school by knocking down language barriers. They increased language accessibility not just as they communicated with parents about their child’s performance in the classroom, but also as they explained processes for navigating the school system and receiving additional support for their children. This was especially relevant to parents of children with special needs, whose children had individualized education plans (IEPs) that can be complicated to work out and enforce with a school district. Multilingual and multicultural educators also opened doors and extended families’ social capital by connecting them with relevant organizations, information, and resources.
In discussions in the broader field of education equity, diversifying the teacher workforce is a big topic, especially considering that 82 percent of educators identify as white, while the U.S. student population is over 50 percent Black, Indigenous, and of color. According to the latest data from the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education, there are nearly five million English learners in public schools, which is over one in ten students. This underscores the urgency for state efforts to recruit diverse educators that extend beyond racial diversity and consider linguistic diversity. Multilingual educators are consistently in high demand but low supply. States and school districts should provide local community members, especially those who are already working in schools in other capacities, with financial support and alternative certification routes to more quickly grow an educator workforce reflective of the linguistic, cultural, and racial diversity in schools. States should also develop college and graduate school tuition assistance programs for individuals committed to serving English learners, prioritizing outreach efforts among high school and community college students who are current and former English learners.
States should require that teacher preparation programs and professional development requirements prepare educators to better serve the children of immigrants. Developing an educator workforce reflective of the student population is a long-term goal; at the same time though, students cannot continue to be affected by educators ill-equipped to meet their needs while they wait for that workforce to arrive. Research from the UCLA Civil Rights Project on the impact of immigration enforcement on schools in the United States points out the urgency—nearly 90 percent of administrators in their national study observed behavioral or emotional challenges in immigrant students; and 85 percent of the educators who were interviewed in depth reported an increase in their own anxiety and stress due to their students’ experiences with increased immigration enforcement, consistent with definitions of secondary traumatic stress. Educators and administrators need support now. States must require that teacher certification, certification renewal, and annual professional development requirements include training on: the rights of all children to a public K–12 education; the rights of ELs and their families to language access; protection of student privacy as it relates to immigration; and how to implement a trauma-informed framework in the classroom, including through an immigration lens. States must develop student competency standards around socio-emotional learning and provide guidance on high-quality SEL curriculum and culturally relevant pedagogy so that students are better prepared to combat the stigma and discrimination they and their families may encounter.
States must dismantle the barriers to higher education for undocumented youth. Postsecondary education is the surest pathway to a family-sustaining career, and yet too often, college is inaccessible for undocumented students because of higher tuition fees and lack of access to financial aid. While undocumented students cannot access federal financial aid, states can expand access to higher education by ensuring students have access to tuition equity and in-state financial aid. Tuition equity ensures students regardless of immigration status can pay an in-state tuition rate. While public institutions each set their tuition rates, on average the annual cost difference between their out-of-state tuition and in-state tuition rates is $8,990. When students face out-of-state tuition rates, coupled with an inability to access any form of federal aid, limited access to private student loans with higher interest rates, and the pressure to contribute to the family’s earnings, the structural barriers to higher education can begin to seem insurmountable.
Research shows that Latinx non-citizens living in states with in-state tuition policies are up to 54 percent more likely to be enrolled in higher education than peers in states without these policies, and high school completion is as much as 14 percent higher. Tuition equity is not enough though—undocumented students also need in-state financial aid to support the high cost of college. A study out of California suggests that access to state financial aid also has downstream affects, encouraging undocumented students to earn higher grades in their final year of high school, broadening the cohort of students enrolling in higher education, and impacting persistence through college. Versions of tuition equity and in-state financial aid policies have been implemented across thirteen states and the District of Columbia.
States must ensure all relevant school staff, especially secondary school educators and career readiness/guidance counselors, receive professional development and are equipped with accurate information to support students in understanding their options and transitioning to higher education, regardless of immigration status. Whatever a state’s tuition and financial aid policies are, states must ensure that immigrant students and families understand what they are eligible for—and that educators support them in becoming informed and making the best decisions for their needs. Several participants in our focus groups have witnessed their children navigate the challenging transition out of high school, complicated by issues of immigration status. Annually, an estimated 125,000 undocumented students reach high school graduation age, and 98,000 of them graduate from high school. To best support students seeking to attend university, high school staff, including educators and counselors, must be aware of relevant state and federal postsecondary application and financial aid policies and processes, including for undocumented students and students whose parents are undocumented.
Too often, an incorrect narrative exists that students who are not citizens are unable to go to college; educators must be equipped to proactively dispel that, because it is simply inaccurate, and perpetuating the myth is deeply harmful. All high school and college administrators and counselors should be required to complete professional development on post-secondary schooling options open to non-citizen students, both within the state and across the country. State requirements for educator preparation and professional development must account for supporting educators in developing the skills and gaining the information necessary to support these students, who are consistently underrepresented in high school graduation and college matriculation rates.
States should expand access to professional licensure and certification to qualified applicants, regardless of immigration status. To help expand opportunities for young undocumented individuals, states can expand professional licensure and certification to anyone who meets the state qualifications, regardless of immigration status. While giving access to licensure and certification is not equivalent to granting work permits in that it will not allow businesses or organizations to legally hire undocumented professionals—a ban with federal, and not state, jurisdiction—it does allow people to build towards a more financially secure future. The potential benefits to states are numerous, and include boosts to the state’s economy, human capital to fill job demands, a greater return on educational investment, and self-sufficient immigrant communities. And even as the country waits for federal immigration reform, expansion of professional licenses is an investment in business creation because it could allow aspiring entrepreneurs, regardless of immigration status, to seek out and invest in developing and providing their skills to their communities. Eight states have moved forward in increasing access to professional licensure and certification by accepting individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITINs) and striking language requiring citizenship from eligibility requirements.
COVID-19 Recommendation: States must prioritize and protect funding to address the unique challenges faced by vulnerable students, including English learners and children of immigrant backgrounds. Even prior to this pandemic, English learners, some of whom are students in mixed-status immigrant families, required unique support: they are tasked with mastering academic content while simultaneously acquiring proficiency in a new language. School closures due to the pandemic have exacerbated the challenges to ensuring their instructional needs are met, in large part because of disparities in internet access, technology, and language access, but also because of pedagogical challenges inherent in remote learning, district funding shortfalls, and students’ unmet nonacademic needs. If states divert funds from education and ignore the urgency of equitable and adequate school funding, they will see widening learning gaps and inequitable outcomes for students, including in high school dropout and graduation rates and college-going rates.
States should ensure that education funding prioritizes high needs schools and vulnerable student populations within them—including English learners, children of immigrant backgrounds, children living in poverty, students with disabilities, and students of color, for example—so that remote and hybrid learning practices improve, students get access to all the services they need at no charge to parents, and schools begin targeted support to address learning loss. While most states will face substantial revenue shortfalls over the next few years, they should examine all opportunities to reallocate or generate new funding for education; and where cuts must be made, states must do an equity review of all cuts, layoffs, or hiring freezes to ensure they do not disproportionately harm vulnerable students. States must drive equitable funding to ensure its most vulnerable students are protected.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged immigrant communities, never has it been clearer that health coverage improves health outcomes. Without health insurance coverage, access to quality, affordable health care in the United States is largely unattainable. The focus group participants had few and very limited options for accessing health coverage, with eligibility restrictions barring most from any form of government-sponsored health coverage, including Medicare (for the elderly), Medicaid (for low-income individuals), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP, for children and pregnant women in some states), or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces (broader coverage). Legal restrictions that prohibit employers from hiring undocumented workers mean such individuals cannot access employer-sponsored insurance. The only option tends to be private insurance, which is beyond the economic means of most undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families. The parents in our focus groups discussed the importance of having health insurance and envisioned ways to make health care more accessible for themselves and their families.
States should make health care coverage accessible to every adult regardless of immigration status and include mental health support. Research suggests 45 percent of undocumented immigrants are uninsured, compared to 8 percent of citizens. Furthermore, there are tremendous additional stressors on mental well-being that affect mixed-status immigrant families. These challenges are exacerbated by the limited availability of culturally and linguistically responsible care within the mental health field. This is another example of how the health inequities that cause disparate impact amongst certain communities have even more complicated social and economic implications for undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families, who may not have anywhere to turn to get help.
Some focus group participants discussed being enrolled in local health care access programs like NYC Care and CareLink in San Antonio, which offer services like pay installment programs, sliding scale fees, and low-cost or free preventative services. However beneficial, these local programs do not constitute health insurance, and without state involvement there is no way to ensure more equitable access across cities and counties. Adults, regardless of immigration status, need states to develop options for health care coverage. The District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction that has made health insurance available to every low-income D.C. resident regardless of immigration status, through the D.C. Healthcare Alliance. Beginning in 2023, Colorado will offer state-subsidized health coverage options to uninsured people who earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status. More states should follow suit.
Every state should offer health coverage for children and pregnant women currently excluded from eligibility, regardless of immigration status. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that while just 4 percent of citizen children with citizen parents are uninsured, the rate is double for uninsured citizen children with noncitizen parents, and four times as high for noncitizen children who are lawfully present. One in three undocumented children are uninsured. Children need access to consistent health care and annual checkups with pediatricians to ensure their long-term well-being and support their academic achievement, in turn improving their life outcomes. States should pass legislation to ensure all children have access to health coverage.
Access to care must begin before birth, and is relatively straightforward for states to implement. In 2002, the CHIP unborn child option created an opportunity for states to use federal funding to expand access to prenatal care for all low-income pregnant women. This option covers a woman’s pregnancy- and delivery-related care regardless of immigration status, thus increasing access to pregnancy-related medical care, influencing their pregnancy outcomes and improving their infants’ health. Every state should opt into the CHIP unborn child option to ensure pregnant women receive the care they need to safely deliver healthy babies.
While certain states offer health coverage for undocumented children and/or pregnant women under specific income thresholds, these states are the exception, not the majority. Six states and the District of Columbia cover both pregnant women and children regardless of immigration status, while an additional ten states only cover pregnant women.
States should require that health care providers receive training on how mixed-status families can access health benefits, and use that information in public campaigns to inform individuals who may be impacted. Even where coverage is possible, a hostile immigration landscape under the Trump administration erected new barriers through changes to the federal public charge grounds of inadmissibility, which made it more challenging for immigrants who have accessed public benefits or are deemed likely to need support in the future to adjust their immigration status. Many families opted out of coverage for their eligible children because of fear and confusion that enrollment in health or other benefits could negatively impact their ability to apply for citizenship in the future. Focus group participants discussed knowing that their citizen children were eligible for certain benefits, but they feared consequences and did not want to jeopardize their or their children’s future by enrolling in benefits.
Research from the Urban Institute expands on this finding, reporting that over 25 percent of surveyed adults in low-income immigrant families avoided government benefit programs, including those aimed at their children; and pointed out that immigrant families trust government agencies most with information about the intersection of public benefits and immigration status. States must invest in clarifying to families that they will not be jeopardized for seeking services for their citizen children, be clear on implications when they do exist for noncitizens, and take responsibility for staying up to date on a quickly changing political landscape. This should include a public information campaign, as well as ensuring medical professionals understand the complexities of eligibility for mixed-status immigrant families.
COVID-19 Recommendation: States should clarify that seeking care for any COVID-19 related illness or condition will be covered under emergency Medicaid. The lack of health coverage, coupled with language barriers, an anti-immigrant climate, and discrimination within the health care industry that leaves immigrant communities hesitant to seek out care have all created a storm of devastation for the undocumented immigrant community facing the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. There isn’t sufficient data for us to fully understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting immigrant communities: while the disparate impacts of this pandemic on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities are known, further information is not available for immigrant communities or their subgroups. However, given what we do know about barriers to health care coverage and medical services, and based on local accounts, the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families is clear and was to be expected. A lack of health insurance coverage and a fear of the implications of accessing health care mean that underlying conditions go untreated: care is often sought only in urgent circumstances. And even when care is sought, it is sometimes met with a refusal for service. During a global pandemic, such conditions have serious implications for public health within and beyond the immigrant community. These factors contribute to a greater spread of the disease and increases in complications, hospitalizations, and deaths when an individual gets COVID-19. Twelve states have already moved forward in decreasing barriers to COVID-19 related testing and treatment for undocumented immigrants by clarifying care is covered under emergency Medicaid. It is critical that states mandate emergency Medicaid coverage of COVID-19 related care, and that every state expands the mandate to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is available to all regardless of immigration status.
Beyond the obvious threats to health and well-being, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated threats to livelihood for undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families, who were completely left out of the first federal relief bill, the CARES Act (more on the aspects they were left out of, health and livelihood, can be read here). The majority of the focus group participants also lacked access to unemployment benefits. Participants spoke of the urgency of receiving economic support to weather the uncertainty they are currently facing, the supports they felt would most make a difference in their lives, and the personal feelings of injustice and discrimination they felt in being excluded.
States should take action to ensure federal worker protections are enforced for all workers, including protecting noncitizens from workplace discrimination and wage theft. Undocumented parents in the focus groups shared experiences of being openly discriminated against and having wages withheld because of their immigration status, and they did not believe they could turn to anyone for support. These actions violate the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which legally entitles workers to a minimum wage and payment for their work, even if they are undocumented. And yet, the experience of the focus group participants is common. Undocumented workers account for 5 percent of the labor force, and even though they have protections on paper, they may keep from reporting unpaid wages or poor working conditions because of fear or threats of retaliation from employers.
Research suggests that 2.4 million workers in the ten most densely populated states lose $8 billion annually to minimum wage violations alone, and while workers across all demographic groups are affected, immigrant workers are among the most vulnerable. Research also presents evidence that this problem has a solution—stronger legal protections, stricter penalties, and increased enforcement capacity against workplace violations on behalf of states can keep employers from violating the rights of their workers. States can also protect their workers, regardless of immigration status, by ensuring all are aware of their rights in the workplace and their employers’ responsibilities to them. States should require every employer to complete an online training on the rights of workers, regardless of immigration status. Employers who are found to discriminate on the basis of race or immigration status, or pay their immigrant workers less than other workers, should face financial penalties.
States must make driver licenses and state identifications available to their residents regardless of their immigration status. Immigrant parents should be allowed access to some form of state identification: it is a critical part of being able to use other essential services and protects individuals from discrimination, and in the case of driver’s licences, creates safer roads for all. Participants shared the importance of access to reliable transportation to provide for and meet the needs of their families. Many of the participants in Texas assumed the risk of driving without a license; none of the participants in Florida drove, despite lacking access to reliable transportation. The need was less urgent in San Diego and New York City, given that participants had access to state driver licenses if they wanted them and relied heavily on public transportation. In New York City, participants also had access to a locally provided and free identification card, IDNYC.
Participants in Texas and Florida spoke of the critical need for driver licenses within the context of safety in particular, and shared the anxiety that came from the threat of routine interactions with the police turning into arrest, detainment, and long-term family separation. Parents in the Texas focus group shared experiences where they were pulled over, both with and without their children in the car, and how tremendously stressful these interactions were, given the possible outcomes. Studies out of California and Arizona outline how a lack of access to driver licenses resulted in multigenerational punishment and trauma for children in mixed-status immigrant families. Where children should be looking to their parents as buffers to adverse situations, children were instead hyper-vigilant like their parents, constantly on the lookout for police and traffic stops. They were learning to navigate the world as undocumented individuals, which could limit their social mobility or beliefs about their prospects for the future.
While federal REAL ID requirements prohibit undocumented immigrants from accessing identification that is valid for federal purposes, states are not required to utilize the same restrictions. As more states have expanded access to driver licenses for all residents, regardless of immigration status, the benefits to states and their immigrant communities are clear: they increase road safety and insured driver rates, they create additional state revenue and catalyze job creation, and they increase self-reliance and independence within the immigrant community, among other beneficial outcomes. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C. have already expanded access to driver licenses for their undocumented residents. However, within some of those states the driver’s licenses, known as “driving privilege cards”, visibly distinguish undocumented immigrants and cannot be used as identification for other purposes. This limits much of the positive impact. States should ensure that identifications made available to residents regardless of immigration status are not distinguishable, restrictive, or more expensive solely on the basis of immigration status.
States should support expanded financial services for individuals regardless of immigration status. Immigrants need broad access to financial support services to be able to attain some of their aspirations and retain more of their earnings, just like non-immigrant citizens do. Focus group participants in New York spoke of wanting to become homeowners, but lacking the opportunity because banks would not make loans to them. Participants in Texas shared a desire to borrow money from banks to help their children pay for college, but they too, lacked the credit for those opportunities. Several participants did not have a bank account, which has expensive implications. Research suggests that 59 to 75 percent of people without bank accounts use check-cashing services which typically over-charge (one to two percent of the face value of the checks); people then use these same services to buy money orders to pay bills and send remittances. Fees add up, resulting in check-cashing services costing hundreds of dollars more than basic checking accounts on an annual basis. As stated previously, having access to state identification could facilitate access to services like bank accounts and the opportunity to begin building credit, but that is not necessarily the case. For systemic access to financial services, states should require that banks accept any form of state identification and ITINs when opening bank accounts and that banks make their policies clear and accessible for immigrant communities. States could also explore the possibility of partnering with credit unions to support ITIN lending programs for students and families seeking college loans and include ITIN mortgage programs as part of first-time home buyer programs for aspiring homeowners.
COVID-19 Recommendation: States should ensure any pandemic relief programs include all residents, regardless of immigration status, and ensure both program administrators and immigrants understand their eligibility. For workers excluded from unemployment support, not working results in not having access to any financial resources. An estimated 15.4 million people in mixed-status immigrant families were initially excluded from the federal relief payments, including 5.5 million U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, 3.7 million of whom are children. While the second coronavirus relief package corrected and retroactively addressed the exclusion of taxpayers with social security numbers, undocumented immigrants who filed taxes with an ITIN continue to be excluded, as are U.S. citizen children who do not have a parent with a social security number. And yet the pandemic too often imposes new, and tragic, costs: for the focus group participants who faced the more dire consequences of needing hospitalization because of COVID-19 complications, and/or even losing close family members, they are faced with thousands of dollars in debt, whether to hospitals, to landlords, or to family and friends who pulled together to cover funeral costs and care for one another during challenging moments. Other parents also found themselves unable to work throughout the pandemic because of a lack of affordable child care. The challenges parents with young children are facing is not unique to undocumented or mixed-status immigrant families: this broadscale issue is deeply affecting parents across the nation. But being excluded from relief funds exacerbates these challenges. As states and communities continue to weather the pandemic and consider how to rebuild, relief programs and funds of all types must be inclusive of and accessible to the needs of all parents regardless of immigration status. Where possible, these programs should be designed with automatic enrollment for all eligible individuals the system can identify, to lower barriers to entry; where this is not possible, application processes must be as simple as possible, and clearly accept a broad enough range of documents that noncitizens, including undocumented individuals, are able to provide.
And once access is granted, how access is acquired and navigated must be made broadly understood. The pandemic began during a period of hyper-polarization and anti-immigrant attacks, which has left many families feeling confused and anxious about accessing the support and protections they need and for which they may be eligible. As states implement programs, whether in response to the pandemic or beyond, it is critical that any enrollment staff is clear on eligibility requirements for programs, what the implications for benefiting from programs are for noncitizens and mixed-status families, and work with communities to ensure undocumented individuals understand their access.
In this section, safety is discussed specifically as it relates to the threat of immigration enforcement and deportation.
Participants expressed generally feeling safe in their cities and neighborhoods. However, while some named moving to the United States in search of a greater sense of safety, they expressed anxiety and uncertainty when they interacted with local law enforcement. The blurred line between local law enforcement and immigration agents has created additional fear and confusion. “Crimmigration,” or the increased entanglement of immigration law and criminal law, has made it so that immigrants increasingly face harsh consequences for violations of immigration law.
Crimmigration practices dramatically affect the developmental process of children in mixed-status and undocumented immigrant families by disrupting families’ sense of safety and stability in various ways. Research suggests that aggressive crimmigration practices, particularly the use of deportation, result in higher crime rates in neighborhoods with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants because they are fearful of going to the police to report crimes. Public health studies point out increased stress, anxiety, and depression due to the fear of deportation, uncertainty about the future, and concurrent avoidance of, or reduced access to, health services. These practices are shattering children’s protective buffers.
States should prohibit local law enforcement from partnering with immigration enforcement. While interactions with police were strongly correlated with the potential for interaction with immigration agents, this does not have to be the case, and states and localities can ensure it is not. One parent noted, “people see the police and they think it is immigration and they are afraid and it is not the same: police have nothing to do with it (immigration), so if you see a policeman do not be scared.” But her attitudes and beliefs about a distinction between the two is only true in some states and communities. In Florida, a participant was detained for twenty-eight days as result of an arrest, despite having no charges filed against them.
Local and state law enforcement have no responsibility to act as or partner with immigration officials unless actively authorized to do so by their state or locality through county-specific 287(g) agreements or infamous “show me your papers” laws, which have resulted in harm for immigrant and broader communities, including increased rates of victimization and crime against immigrants who are afraid to report crime or collaborate with police. Police departments have noticed these deleterious effects: in some cases, local and state law enforcement have even advocated against crimmigration policies and voiced their concerns about the entanglement between police officers and immigration agents.
States must enact laws that deconstruct crimmigration practices by limiting cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement. Nine states and the District of Columbia have already taken steps towards restricting and dismantling crimmigration practices by passing legislation that limits the sharing of data between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement, forbids law enforcement from honoring ICE detainers, bans ICE from interrogating people held in jails, prohibits law enforcement from asking about immigration status, and/or state governors or attorney generals issuing directives that end 287(g) agreements and restrict law enforcement agencies from working with ICE. These laws could have specific implications for racial justice, discussed in greater detail within the cross-cutting framework below.
States should protect immigrants’ privacy and ensure their information is not used against them. Amidst reports in recent years that state department of motor vehicle offices share information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and law enforcement, or sell personal information to private data companies that DHS then uses to locate and detain undocumented immigrants, it is increasingly important that state laws meant to expand access to benefits for undocumented immigrants include protections of applicant confidentiality. Such provisions can be seen in California, New York, and New Jersey state laws that expand access to driver’s licenses for all, while simultaneously protecting sensitive applicant information. Accessing benefits should not result in becoming a live target for deportation.
COVID-19 Recommendation: States must issue a moratorium on ICE transfers. Nearly 70 percent of people in ICE detention centers were transferred there through jails and prisons. As people have been released from jails to slow the spread of the virus, which has run rampant in jails, prisons, and detention centers, local law enforcement has continued transferring immigrants to ICE custody. A letter from over 4,000 public health professionals calling for ICE to release immigrants and families from detention centers explained that COVID-19 transmission rates are higher in detention centers because their crowded and unsanitary conditions result in inadequate standards for prevention, screening, and containment. Instead of heeding their advice, ICE chose to continue immigration raids, deny asylum seekers, and carry on with deportation and expulsion flights, even during a global pandemic.
While states cannot change ICE’s practices, they also cannot continue to be complicit in ICE’s disregard for our collective public health. They must require that local law enforcement reject ICE detainer requests, and instead release people to their homes and families.
Designing and Implementing Equity-Driven Policy: A Cross-Cutting Framework for Protecting Immigrant Potential
States have little to gain from setting roadblocks and barriers to access for their mixed-status immigrant families, but so much to lose. Over seven million children have at least one undocumented family member. Parents’ concerns, including whether they have a job, are able to pay their bills, fear being evicted from their home because of wage theft, or arrested by the police for driving without a license, affect and shape children’s experiences in and out of school and their life outcomes.
Ultimately, parents need, and currently lack, pathways to lawful permanent residency in order to best support and secure their children’s well-being. These paths should be based on a set of clear and equitable rules that do not discriminate based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, or country of origin. The creation of these pathways can only be achieved through national action: federal comprehensive immigration reform that is people-centered, non-punitive, and economically and linguistically accessible could immediately address the barriers that exist for noncitizens. However, even a pathway to residency is limited in its ability to protect immigrants, especially Black immigrants, from discrimination and racism.
While states cannot create this pathway and fully meet the needs of immigrants and mixed-status families, they nonetheless have substantial power to create more inclusive and welcoming environments for all immigrants. In the process, they will strengthen the protective buffers and systems of support that enable children of immigrants to be resilient and thrive. As state elected officials consider affirmatively instituting laws and revising existing policies to create a more inclusive, equitable, and just environment for all regardless of their immigration status, they should prioritize the following principles: bold leadership, racial justice, and an equitable and welcoming environment. In the following sections, an approach to policy that upholds these principles is outlined and discussed.
Facilitate Effective, Coordinated, and Representative Leadership and Policy Implementation
A decades-long lull in any form of permanent relief for millions of undocumented immigrants and a broken immigration system that prefers to criminalize immigrants as opposed to embrace their strengths has generated an emergency of epic proportions. States must respond quickly to course-correct and protect the potential and resilience of children of immigrants and their families.
Develop a clear, central process for policy implementation. Even when laws meant to include or protect immigrants exist, they may not make a difference if there is no capacity for policy implementation. Further, when implementation goes uncoordinated at the state level, patchwork measures that vary across regions can result in a messy, complicated, and ineffective policy implementation. A prime example are laws meant to counter and address discrimination. Understanding the experience of mixed-status immigrant families means recognizing the discrimination these families face as a result of their implied or actual immigration status, and how experiences of discrimination are likely to differ based on their skin color. While several states have incorporated anti-discrimination language as they have expanded benefits to immigrants, these policies are missing measures for supporting immigrants seeking to report or address instances of discrimination without fear of retaliation. States should create a process to address this void and support immigrants who believe they have been victims of discrimination in any instance. Similarly, states should assume the responsibility of establishing the infrastructure for a universal policy implementation process, particularly when the state has set up a program that requires an application process, and a centralized location with clear information for possible beneficiaries within the state.
Build state capacity to coordinate, align and scale efforts, and track progress. Within every state, there is some existing capacity dedicated to elevating the rights of and better supporting immigrant communities, most often through nonprofit organizations. However, evidence suggests that solutions to complex problems will not come from isolated interventions—large-scale social change requires a collective approach. State governments are well-situated to provide the capacity to coordinate and scale efforts, and ensure collaboration. Every state would benefit from having that backbone of support to reduce inefficiency and maximize impact. Having this capacity would support existing initiatives and organizations to come together and establish common goals, agree on indicators for success, learn best practices from each other, address duplicative efforts to reinforce instead of compete with each other, and foster trusting relationships through continuous communication. State infrastructure to do this work can take different forms depending on the state: This could include establishing state immigrant affairs or immigrant inclusion task forces, liaisons, or offices tasked with building and supporting a stronger network of support for immigrants; and/or partnering with the philanthropic and business world to leverage their expertise and resources. One thing is clear though—the change required for true impact will mean intentionally investing in building capacity.
Equip the diverse voices of impacted community members to lead. When government and grasstops efforts do not include the voices of those impacted, urgency is lost, issues may be misprioritized or misunderstood, and concessions are made because the individuals making the decisions do not have to live with or fully understand the impact. State-coordinated efforts must seek active involvement from individuals that reflect the community, including the racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity of the immigrant community. Ongoing advisory boards and processes should be put in place to ensure impacted individuals are included, consulted, and given decision-making power.
Invest in existing local organizations, both CBOs and governmental. As state leaders consider the challenging work of reaching and expanding access to opportunity for undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families, they must invest in trusted local organizations as ambassadors. Local nonprofit organizations deeply understand the local context and have built vast social networks that can help quickly mobilize the spread of accurate information regarding state policy, or gather input to shape further policy development. However, these organizations often have limited budget and capacity, and often focus on critical direct services work; expecting them to layer policy work on top without support is neither realistic nor fair. States could acknowledge the role these organizations play in both providing services and connecting impacted individuals with the policy process through financial support. States should also do a better job of leveraging existing public institutions to provide services to immigrant families. Libraries are already places where immigrants access important services in many cases, including support with filing taxes, learning English, and preparing for citizenship exams when a path exists. Universities can also be important places to systemically provide support. Some institutions offer college access sessions and mentorship for undocumented students and host immigration clinics where immigrants can access pro-bono legal counsel while students law students develop important skills. They could also provide free English classes to foster relationships between colleges and the broader community while increasing navigational capital as parents support children in aspiring and transitioning to college. States should ensure successful existing programs are supported and expanded.
Center Racial Justice
To say that racism is systemic means recognizing every government institution is affected by this plague. That means the anti-Blackness witnessed within the carceral system, education system, and housing system is also present within immigration enforcement. Despite immigrant justice and racial justice often occupying different portions of our minds and our policy debates, and existing within siloed movements and advocacy organizations, they are not separate. Extending access to opportunity and protections for all immigrants and their children means addressing how the overlays of a racist system disproportionately result in more serious consequences for Black immigrants, who are more likely to interact with police and end up in immigration detention centers. Policies must interrupt this unjust and disproportionate criminalization. In this area, state policy makers must invest in the wellbeing and public safety of all communities; review existing policy and data on policy impact and implementation to examine for disparate consequences, especially those that concern Black immigrants; and revise laws accordingly. Where data is not collected on Black immigrants, they must begin to collect data to examine for disparate impact.
Invest in community-based public safety solutions. Local law enforcement has not demonstrated a history of being accountable to, protecting, or promoting fairness and justice in Black and Brown communities. Racially biased law enforcement practices have instead criminalized, brutalized, and disproportionately incarcerated people from these communities. This contributes to contentious relationships and an environment of fear and distrust in communities of color. State-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown communities must be addressed and will require alternatives to law enforcement that effectively include and promote public safety for Black and Brown communities. Alternatives can include state funding for community crisis intervention units to address mental health needs and violence prevention programs that connect community members to resources to address intersecting crises. Alternatives will require state investment in communities of color to ensure they have access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. While alternative practices will vary by locality, every state must, through legislation, recognize their role in ensuring communities build the capacity to transform punitive and ineffective policing, crisis responders are trained to respond to situations in ways that prioritize human life, and public safety includes all of us.
Disentangle criminal law enforcement from civil immigration law enforcement. When local law enforcement partners with immigration enforcement to detain immigrants, police officers are actively allowed to question immigrants on the basis of prejudice to determine immigration status. This asks and encourages law enforcement to racially profile against Black and Brown people, particularly when an accent is detected. It also results in increased policing of predominantly Black, Brown, and immigrant neighborhoods. When arrested, Black immigrants are then more likely to be transferred to immigration detention centers, be detained for longer periods of time, face higher bonds, and ultimately end up deported. Whether through an executive order from the state governor, a directive from the state’s attorney general, or through enacted legislation, states must protect their immigrant populations from illegal racial profiling by prohibiting their law enforcement agencies from contributing to the work of federal immigration agents.
Ensure criminal sentencing does not intersect with grounds for deportability. When individuals are arrested for a misdemeanor, if the court sentences the individual to a year or more for the crime based on state criminal law, the sentence is automatically considered an aggravated felony under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). This triggers inadmissibility, which can result in mandatory detention and deportation once the individual is released from criminal custody. Several states have amended their state criminal law to ensure misdemeanor convictions come with a maximum sentencing of 364 days or less. While this is a necessary step that states are empowered to make, states must go further to account for evidence outlining that Black people are more likely to be charged with felonies and systemically face harsher sentencing. State reporting that requires disaggregated misdemeanor and felony sentencing by race, country of origin, and form of legal representation may provide a clearer picture on institutional issues disproportionately affecting Black immigrants that must be addressed.
Foster an Equitable and Welcoming Environment
Misinformation abounds when it comes to the immigrant population, and it has been amplified in the last four years under a federal administration that has unfairly targeted and characterized millions of immigrants and their families as criminals, pushing them further into the shadows. There must be a common understanding between elected officials to reach any level of consensus that immigrants deserve to be treated with respect, especially when considering the contention that often erupts from including immigrant communities. Moving forward, every state should affirmatively embrace their immigrant population, regardless of immigration status.
Recognize contributions and impact. Every policy meant to affect and directly impact the immigrant community should be grounded in facts, including the contributions and importance of immigrant communities to the state and contextualized within a national policy landscape that continues to exclude and limit pathways to opportunity for millions. Beyond that, rationale introducing legislation should also include the ways in which immigrant communities are already integrated into the broader community, and how increased access to benefits is expected to expand beyond the undocumented population and benefit all.
Account for outreach, including to under-resourced areas. When a community has been marginalized, discriminated against, and actively excluded from policy, the passage of more inclusive policy alone will not mean that individuals meant to benefit will know of their new protections or access to benefits. State legislation should account for outreach measures to inform hard to reach communities of any new resources, particularly within the first couple of years following the enactment of new legislation. Outreach should also be done in an equitable manner to account for varying capacity across state geography so that immigrants in rural or undersesourced areas are not left behind. These outreach efforts should be sufficiently funded to consider the linguistic, cultural, and educational diversity of the state.
Enable language access. Certain immigrant communities are more limited in their access to information because their languages are not considered when multilingual resources are developed. States must make multilingual resources available in each of the languages represented in the state. They should also consider making an interpretation hotline available to residents so that language barriers do not result in perceptions of discrimination. Further, the lack of access to language learning creates barriers for immigrant adults who aspire to learn English. State-run programs should consider innovative ways to reach immigrant parents, including by going to where parents are, like public schools; inviting them to institutions they should become familiar with, like universities; and surveying them for what they need.
Parents do not leave their homeland and everything they know behind without believing the risk is worth it. For the participants in this study, their unwavering belief that this country would provide their children with access to a better future than they were afforded, despite the challenges they may encounter, was a huge motivator. Parents consistently expressed a belief in the value of education and a desire to support their children in achieving their highest potential. States must leverage those aspirations, those values, and that courage by listening to immigrant parents and addressing the systemic barriers that stand in their and their children’s way. There is so much for states to gain from embracing their immigrant students and families—by protecting and upholding their dignity and human rights through inclusive policy, they benefit every one of their residents, immediately and into the future. State elected officials, just like these parents, have the agency to push for more welcoming environments for all immigrants. This would strengthen the protective buffers and systems of support that enable children of immigrants to be resilient and succeed. In turn, states will thrive.
Glossary of Terms
Asylum-seeker: A person who has fled their country of origin looking for protection from persecution and human rights violations in another country, but has not been recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim; seeking asylum is a human right.
Citizens: Any person born anywhere in the United States or its territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or American Samoa and Swain’s Island (for benefits purposes); or an individual born in another country who has gone through the naturalization process.
Crimmigration: The intersection between criminal and immigration law; until the 1980s, citizens and non-citizens were punished similarly for crimes, regardless of citizenship status but when criminal and immigration law began to overlap, non-citizens with criminal charges also began facing immigration penalties.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): A U.S. immigration policy that allows eligible undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive work authorization and a stay of deportation in two-year increments.
Deferred Enforced Departure (DED): A discretionary decision made by the President to protect individuals from designated countries and regions facing political or civic conflict or natural disaster to stay in the United States; this benefit includes work authorization and prosecutorial discretion.
Grounds of deportability (Section 237 of the INA): These apply to a person already legally living within the United States, perhaps with a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa or a green card; they specify that people in the U.S. without legal permission (also referred to as “undocumented” or “illegal”) shall be deported.
Grounds of inadmissibility (Section 212(a) of the INA): These apply to a person seeking admission to the United States, including those seeking entry at the border and those seeking the right to stay legally, such as with a green card application (lawful permanent residence); those who do not meet the criteria in the INA for admission could be denied a green card, visa, or admission into the United States and placed in removal proceedings.
Immigration enforcement: The three agencies tasked with enforcing federal immigration law fall under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and include: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) which manages lawful immigration to the United States including visa and naturalization processes; the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which enforces customs and immigration law at and near the border; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which enforces customs and immigration laws at the border as well as in the interior of the United States.
Immigration and Nationality Act (INA): Contains many of the most important provisions of federal immigration law, including provisions relating to temporary admission, naturalization, and removals/deportations.
Lawful permanent resident: Any person who has been granted lawful permanent residence in the United States; commonly referred to as “green card” recipients.
Mixed-Status Immigrant Families: Families where at least one member in the immediate household is an undocumented immigrant while others may be citizens or have some other form of immigration status.
Non-citizen: Any person who was born outside the U.S., Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories, and has not become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Regardless of immigration status: This phrase is used to refer to expanding policies to encompass any individual within the United States, whether they are undocumented, have some form of temporary relief and permission to be in the United States, have permanent residence, or are U.S. citizens.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS): A temporary immigration status granted by the Secretary of Homeland Security to eligible nationals of certain countries who are already in the United States and cannot safely return to their country of origin because of unstable circumstances; this temporary benefit grants individuals work authorization and a stay of deportation.
Undocumented: An individual within the United States who does not have a social security number and is subject to deportation.
- The most recent relief package addressed this exclusion for some mixed-status immigrant families wherein at least one head of household filed taxes with their social security number (SSN). Individuals within the family with a SSN were eligible for the $600 payment and retroactively eligible for the $1,200 per adult and $500 per child in the CARES Act. Undocumented individuals within these families were still ineligible for relief. For families where children are citizens but all adults are undocumented, they continue to be excluded, even if the heads of households have filed taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number.