The hardships of immigration: Dreby shares stories of undocumented children

(Joanna Dreby specializes in the sociological aspects of immigration. Photo by Andrew Willoughby)

Illegal immigration has a detrimental effect on young undocumented Mexicans in the U.S., according to Joanna Dreby, associate professor of sociology at the University of Albany-SUNY.

Dreby has been giving a talk similar to the one she gave to a full Ecumenical Center on Dec. 1 “for the past two or three years,” she said, “but part of me feels like the world shifted in the past two weeks. We’ve had the election of a major candidate whose platform was based on a no-tolerance stance toward undocumented migration.”

She said there is widespread desire from both Republicans and Democrats for immigration reform. As an immigration researcher, she conceded that “immigration policy doesn’t necessarily follow research findings. … It’s more influenced by public opinion.”

She is hopeful for immigration reform, but before the current policy can change, the public opinion of undocumented immigrants needs to flip, said Dreby.

She is not a legal scholar. She doesn’t study the specifics of immigration. Instead she focuses on “family life and children’s perspectives and experiences. … What is it like being a kid growing up in these places?”

Dreby said, “Across the country today, more than one in four children under the age of 5 are the children of immigrants.”

She studied two communities of undocumented immigrants – one in New Jersey with a “very concentrated Mexican population, and one in Ohio, which has a somewhat invisible population.” Both are popular destinations for new immigrants, she said.

Dreby interviewed “parents, mostly mothers and children ages 5 to 15” in both homes and schools in these areas.

She recounted the story of a 10-year-old boy who moved with his mother to New Jersey when he was 4 “to be reunited with his father who had already been living and working [there] for a few years.”

When Dreby had asked if his fellow students at school knew his family was from Mexico, he replied, “Only one.” He didn’t want them to know, because he was afraid they would know his family didn’t have their papers and “send us to Mexico and I won’t see my friends,” she said.

Dreby had similar conversations with other immigrants in New Jersey. Many expressed concerns of being caught by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. “That sounds like a lot of worries for a ten year old,” she said.

Junior Tori Gibbs thought the fear of deportation must be a “huge stress” on child immigrants and wondered, “How is [that] going to affect the rest of their education?”

In Ohio, Dreby focused on the peer group relationships of immigrants.

She told the story of an undocumented boy she interviewed who claimed to have no friends. “I laughed. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have.” She asked again, thinking he was joking. He wasn’t.

The following day, Dreby went to school with him to observe his classes – at both lunch and recess, he sat alone.

“He didn’t pick up on those cues that it was better to be quiet about” his illegal status, she said. Even other immigrants didn’t associate with the boy because they knew he was undocumented.

Junior Irene Dompreh said, “I loved the fact that she took time to explore two different places. The differences were so broad.”

Dreby urged people to educate themselves and others about the hardships that undocumented immigrants go through because “in places like [New Jersey and Ohio] where there’s a lot of immigrant kids, legal status distinctions are becoming a very important way that kids decide who’s in and who’s out.