Spillover effects of U.S. immigration laws
- September 19, 2016
- Award-winning study explains how immigration policy punishes U.S.-born children, families of undocumented immigrants
A constant fear of deportation has major implications for the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., but the ripple effects are much more widespread. An estimated 16.6 million people in the U.S. are members of mixed-status families in which at least one member is undocumented and others are citizens or documented immigrants. Laura Enriquez, UCI Chicano/Latino studies assistant professor, argues that immigration laws negatively affect these family members – particularly children – and she calls this outcome “multigenerational punishment.”
“The threat of detention and deportation, an inability to obtain a driver’s license, limited opportunity to travel and lack of employment authorization – these sanctions don’t just hurt the undocumented, they affect their children, many of whom are U.S. born citizens,” she says. “When sanctions intended for a specific population negatively affect individuals who are not targeted by the law, these constitute legal violence, promoting structural and symbolic inequality,” she explains.
In a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in August 2015, Enriquez interviewed 32 undocumented young adults aged 21-34 in the Los Angeles area. Of those interviewed, all came to the U.S. as children, and at the time of the interviews, were current or expectant mothers and fathers of children who were/would be U.S. citizens. The study earned the 2016 American Sociological Association’s Section on Latino/a Sociology article award for Distinguished Contribution to Research.
Through her in-depth interviews, Enriquez shows that everyday parent-child interactions and decisions lead citizen children to share in the limitations created by their parent’s immigration status.
“Parents and children share in the risk of deportation and family separation,” Enriquez says. “Some parents openly discuss the threat of deportation with their children to manage their own and their children’s anxiety about this potentiality and to plan in case something does happen. In turn, the citizen children come to share their parents’ fears.”
Driving without a license similarly posed a negative effect on children of undocumented parents; parents who get caught can have their cars taken away in front of children, incur large fines, and run the risk of being deported. To minimize the risk, parents adopt police-watching strategies that can be often adopted by their U.S.-born citizen children.
Enriquez says that U.S. citizen children’s dependent status also leads them to develop a de facto undocumented status where they share in their parents’ inability to travel and experience economic instability. This effectively limits their opportunities for upward mobility if they are unable to afford or take part in extracurricular opportunities or cannot have the same experiences as their friends who have citizen parents.
These shared consequences likely also exist among other family members, including citizen siblings, romantic partners, and extended family members. Moving in this direction, she is currently working on a book manuscript that examines how immigration status shapes the dating, marriage, and parenting experiences of undocumented young adults and their romantic partners. “By conceptualizing these outcomes as distinct forms of legal violence rather than attributing these spillover effects to chance, we can better see, understand and begin to change the ways in which laws produce broad consequences,” she says.
View the study online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jomf.12196/abstract.