Skip to main content

Living the Undocumented Life: A Personal Plea for Immigration Reform

In both personal and professional roles, Susan Hamilton has seen directly how the stress of living undocumented in America can take a toll on families.
Immigration stamp. (Photo: LuapVision/Shutterstock)

Immigration stamp. (Photo: LuapVision/Shutterstock)

My partner and I are planning a vacation for this summer to the Gulf Coast of Texas with some close friends. But we will have to drivecarefully, avoiding checkpoints and going no farther than Corpus Christi, because our friends are undocumented.

Though they were college educated in Mexico, our friends have lived in the United States for 17 years, pay taxes, and are raising four children here. Still, they are not free to travel in the country to which they have given so much. “We can’t even see our own country,” their son, a close friend of my daughter, once said to me when he saw a relative’s photographs of a trip to Rome.

This invisible trap constricts the family’s freedom—the freedom to launch a business, to travel to Mexico for a grandparent’s funeral, to drive and work without fear of deportation. We met through our children 12 years ago and as our friendship has grown, I’ve witnessed the toll.

The gains offered by good early childhood education are offset by the unrelenting stresses of the threat of deportation, mandates requiring businesses to fire undocumented workers, and stalling on immigration reform.

Compared to many others, my friends are lucky—they have at least been able to build a stable environment for their family, though a constrained one. But put yourself in their shoes: How could you tell your children that they would grow up to have a better life? What does it do to them to have to constantly look over their shoulders, to never feel at ease? What does it do to them to see that you can’t fight for fair treatment on your job or rise to a position you might deserve? Consider hearing the arguments between your parents, the fear, perhaps even seeing loved ones deported. Wouldn’t that affect your schooling, your ability to learn, your fundamental sense of self? Wouldn’t that have a negative impact on how you grow up and the kind of citizen you become? More than likely. And yet we allow it to continue.

The effect of these ongoing stresses on both adults and their children are simply not considered fully enough. But they are among the many factors that make comprehensive immigration reform necessary. A major step toward this reform began last June when the Senate passed sweeping legislation that would unite families and boost the economy by bringing millions into the legal immigration system. The vote was 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining the Democrats. Without immigration reform this year, our youngest citizens will be the ones to carry the burden—for decades. Unfortunately, the bill that passed the Senate has languished in the House of Representatives ever since.

With the shocking defeat of House Majority leader Eric Cantor by Tea Party stalwart David Brat, the hopes for this bill becoming law before the November elections are further diminished. But because most Americans support immigration reform of some kind, hope for it is not dead yet. It may just be up to the White House if Congress will not act.

In my role as a leader at Lumin Bachman Lake Community School, a home-visiting parent education program in Dallas, I work with a relatively impoverished immigrant community that will benefit tremendously from changes to the system. These families face not only psychological stress but often are in highly unstable employment situations, sometimes not even able to afford enough food to eat or meet other practical needs.

These youngest citizens are stressed by their parents’ economic and legal plight. Current policy denies undocumented immigrants guaranteed pay and safety and security on the job. The stories I hear are constant. I know parents who suffered wage theft and another who was injured on the job. Many do not get simple rest breaks, but to speak out is to lose the job.

Despite the fact that workplace problems strain parental involvement, these families are committed to early childhood education. There is a group of fathers that meets each week to trade tips and learn how to better themselves for their young children; the mothers make some of their own educational materials at home. Some parents attend leadership training and review school policies to ensure quality services. “I want my child to know that education is very important and that’s why I volunteer at the school,” says one Policy Council leader.

The situation is rife with irony. Lumin Bachman Lake is primarily funded by federal monies through Early Head Start, a program designed to provide education services to low-income families with children. Our annual budget is $1.8 million. But to some extent, the gains offered by good early childhood education are offset by the unrelenting stresses of the threat of deportation, mandates requiring businesses to fire undocumented workers, and stalling on immigration reform. This is the context of the child’s learning environment. This cuts into the investment for school readiness. It makes the thousands of dollars spent per child much less effective. It just doesn’t make sense. And that’s why the fight for immigration reform must continue. Young U.S. citizens—children like my friend’s son—are depending on it.