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University of California Press
Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families / Edition 1

Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families / Edition 1

by Joanna Dreby
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What does it mean to be an illegal immigrant, or the child of immigrants, in this era of restrictive immigration laws in the United States? As lawmakers and others struggle to respond to the changing landscape of immigration, the effects of policies on people's daily lives are all too often overlooked.

In Everyday Illegal, award-winning author Joanna Dreby recounts the stories of children and parents in eighty-one families to show what happens when a restrictive immigration system emphasizes deportation over legalization. Interweaving her own experiences, Dreby illustrates how bitter strains can arise in relationships when spouses have different legal status. She introduces us to “suddenly single mothers” who struggle to place food on the table and pay rent after their husbands have been deported. Taking us into the homes and schools of children living in increasingly vulnerable circumstances, she presents families that are divided internally, with some children having legal status while their siblings are undocumented. Even children who are U.S. citizens regularly associate immigration with illegality.

With vivid ethnographic details and a striking narrative, Everyday Illegal forces us to confront the devastating impacts of our immigration policies as seen through the eyes of children and their families. As legal status influences identity formation, alters the division of power within families, and affects the opportunities children have outside the home, it becomes a growing source of inequality that ultimately touches us all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283404
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/07/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 584,296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Joanna Dreby is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY, and the author of Divided by Borders.

Read an Excerpt

Everyday Illegal

When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families

By Joanna Dreby


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95927-9




Surmounting legal barriers, for many of the forty million foreign-born individuals who live in the United States, marks the first step on the yellow brick road toward the American dream. To achieve legal status, immigrants have typically had to meet certain requisites. Today, however, we face an emerging social problem: the complete elimination of pathways to legalization for many US immigrants. This book focuses on the fallout, exploring what it means to have or not have a legal status under restrictive policy conditions. Accounts from children and parents in Mexican immigrant households show that illegality—the term I use for the awareness of needing a legal status and the negotiations around lacking a legal status—generates social inequality in the contemporary United States. Mexicans certainly are not the only immigrant population facing the impacts of illegality, but US immigration policy has made legalization especially onerous for Mexicans. Demographers estimate that of the 11.7 million unauthorized persons in the United States in 2012, approximately 58 percent were Mexican. Mexican families' experiences demonstrate the divisive impact of stagnant public policy on the everyday lives of families.

This book is also a sequel.

Fifteen years ago, I lived and worked in one of the new and flourishing Mexican immigrant communities in central New Jersey. Many parents I knew had left their children in the care of others to come work in the United States, so I began a study of the meaning separation had for parents and children (and their caregivers) living apart. The militarization of the US-Mexican border and the tightening of the US immigration system, efforts that began in earnest during the 1980s, created the conditions under which families' prolonged separations unfolded a decade later. Prior to this period, Mexican men commonly migrated north as labor migrants, periodically returning to visit their families—wives and children—who typically remained in Mexico. Family separation involved men's temporary absences from the family unit. Yet as circular migration became ever more difficult for men to accomplish, many young married couples rejected the stress of long-term spousal separation. Employment north of the border attracted women, many of whom, discontent with long-distance marriages, reunited with their husbands. It also lured unmarried mothers who saw migration as their only means out of poverty. With a marked increase in deaths on the border families regarded women's migration north, crossing the increasingly militarized border, as risky. But they viewed it as even riskier for children.

So women set forth without their children. They considered these heart-wrenching separations to be difficult but temporary—as the absences of husbands had previously been. They deemed them worthwhile since they represented a step toward either family reunification or survival, a necessary sacrifice for the family to get ahead. A decade after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the last major immigration policy reform that combined legalization with increased penalties for unauthorized migration, temporary separations of parents and children for Mexican families made sense. Men could not return to Mexico as frequently as in times past. So women too came to the United States to work alongside men. Children waited with grandparents until parents had carved out enough of a foothold to send for their children. Families hoped that either with or without legalization programs they would eventually be able to reunite.

This logical strategy generated many a tragic experience. Unintended consequences ensued. Parents, especially mothers, grappled with guilt. The children I met felt resentful. Expectations parents had for their children, and children of their parents, often went unmet. Separation transformed power dynamics within families. I wrote Divided by Borders about how mothers, fathers, children, and caregivers made sense of these separations.


Over the course of the next fifteen years, US immigration and enforcement laws further solidified and restrictions increased. The Department of Homeland Security subsumed all operations of what had previously been the INS, or Immigration and Naturalization Services, and parceled out operatives to two agencies, one to deal with processing immigration applications (US Citizen and Immigration Services, USCIS) and one to enforce immigration laws (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE). On both ends, families found themselves stuck. Post-IRCA, small changes to immigration policy rendered most of the unauthorized living in the United States ineligible to regularize their status through the USCIS if they had entered the country without inspection, as most Mexicans do when crossing the southern border. Even those who were married to US citizens and parents to US citizen children faced these restrictions. So unauthorized family members became vulnerable to the enforcement practices of ICE, which considerably intensified efforts to identify and remove unauthorized foreign-born residents often cooperating with local law enforcement agencies located thousands of miles from the US-Mexican border.

During the 1990s, the tightening of our US immigration system meant that families considered undergoing temporary separations and living divided by borders. But by the start of the twenty-first century, the system had crystallized and become so strict and far-reaching that legal status had begun to divide even families residing together in the United States.

Such an unforgiving system paralyzes families as well as the debates over immigration reform. Formerly, immigration policy debates often remained outside the realm of partisan politics, uniting coalitions of strange bedfellows: business owners and humanitarians for more lenience; environmentalists, unions, and xenophobes for more restrictions. When the right combinations of groups came together, amendments to the laws, however small, passed. But in the early 2000s partisan politics engulfed the issue, blocking both comprehensive immigration reform and the passing of more modest measures, like the DREAM Act, which would provide conditional permanent residency for undocumented youth educated in US primary and secondary schools. Bipartisan consensus exists over only one issue: enforcement. Funding for border control has dramatically increased, from $1.2 billion in 1986 to $17.9 billion in 2012 (adjusted to 2012 dollars). And the Obama administration (2009–present) has stepped up deportations, conducting them more frequently than at any other point in US history, surpassing estimates of the massive repatriation of Mexicans in the 1920s and 1930s. Congressional discussions over immigration reform propose to maintain and increase existing border security measures as a precondition to any pathway toward legal permanent residence.

Under this policy climate, Mexican migrant families have hunkered down. Border crossings for Mexicans, more costly than in times past, have become especially perilous as violent Mexican drug cartels expanded into smuggling operations. Seasonal returns to Mexico have become ever more difficult to arrange and thus less common. The net inflow of Mexicans to the United States had risen significantly between 1995 and 2000, right before I began research on Divided by Borders. Between 2000 and 2005, some estimates suggested that the inflow had come to a complete standstill. Now more and more Mexican immigrants have their children in the United States and raise them here, afraid that if they leave they will never be able to come back.

Pathways to legalization for the estimated 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States do not exist. No person is or can be illegal, but today's policies cast the everyday, commonplace activities of many people as "illegal." In the 1980s, Leo Chavez described the undocumented as living "shadowed lives" on the fringes of American society. In the twenty-first century, those without "papers"—sin papeles—live among us as the parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and children of US legal permanent residents and citizens. They may be our family members, friends, neighbors, fellow students, coworkers, or acquaintances. In 2010, 16.6 million people lived in a mixed-status family, that is, a family in which at least one member was unauthorized. To put this into perspective, 4.5 million US citizen children had at least one undocumented parent. Compare this to 4.1 million children living with a biological mother and a stepfather. Numerically speaking, today you are about as likely to know a child living with a stepfather as you are to know a child living with an unauthorized parent.

This book takes up the story where Divided by Borders left off. It charts what happens when an unforgiving immigration system divides families internally while they are living together. The stories derive from four years of ethnographic research with Mexican families in two communities, one in Ohio and one in New Jersey. I conducted formal interviews with 201 family members: 91 parents and 110 children. I also visited twelve families periodically at their homes, sharing family meals and weekday afternoon routines and at times attending weekend family excursions. I followed twelve first, second, and third graders in these families into their school classrooms to better understand how children and their families navigated settings outside the home. I draw on both formal and informal conversations and observations; some were with the teachers, administrators, and social workers whom Mexican immigrant families interface with regularly. Most were with Mexican community members, whether study participants, acquaintances, or, in many cases, those I consider to be my friends. Everyday Illegal documents how, under restrictive immigration policy, illegality is more than a legal status: it is a social one.


In the true spirit of a sequel, this book—like Divided by Borders—reflects some of my personal journey. In 2007, I got a job, so I uprooted my family—me and my sons Temo and Dylan—from the bilingual, bicultural community where we had lived in New Jersey and moved across Pennsylvania to northeastern Ohio. Four hundred miles is not much compared to the thousands of miles families I have interviewed have migrated, but the cultural gulf felt tremendous. Temo had stood out as one of the whitest kids in his bilingual preschool classroom in New Jersey. Suddenly he became a student of color, with his tan skin and dark features, in a kindergarten class of children with blond hair and hazel or blue eyes. The new job demanded much of my time. I could not rely on the support of friends and family who had helped me through graduate school in New Jersey; single motherhood hit me head on. Every day I juggled the routes between work, school, and the Turkish babysitter who watched eighteen-month-old Dylan. Latino families did not live in my neighborhood. We stopped speaking Spanish at home, and Dylan began asking for karpuz instead of sandia or watermelon.

Something had gone missing from our lives. I learned of a nearby church that ran a youth program to support Latino children's Spanish-language skills and culture in a place where little else did. I signed up.

Over the next three years, members of a vibrant and diverse, though rather invisible, Latino community rescued me. One of the few groups helping new immigrants in the area, they were used to newcomers. Not all I met warmly welcomed me; I felt an outsider, with my newly obtained professor status differentiating me from working families in the community. But new friends helped me recover a sense of home and belonging. Invited to dinners and parties, I ate the foods I had learned to love in New Jersey and in Mexico. I met former farmworkers, migrants from some of the places I had been to in Mexico, as well as professional immigrants who had come on work visas to some of the area's largest employers. Quite a few—mostly men, but also some women—had intermarried. Particularly drawn to these families, I imagined their experiences to most approximate mine. I had lived with my now ex, Raúl, a Mexican immigrant, for five years. As I learned about others' lives, I gained perspective on my own.

For me and my family, though, the simple contours of daily life in Ohio had the largest impact. In the New Jersey city where we had previously lived, the Mexican community had a visible presence; walk down any street in the city and you could see dozens of handmade signs in Spanish alongside those of more formal restaurants, bodegas, and bakeries. In 2010, half of the city residents identified as Hispanic or Latino, and a quarter as Mexicans. We regularly ate Mexican cheese and sweet bread, which I purchased at the Dominican bodega down the block. We listened to music on the multiple Spanish-language radio stations based out of New York City. We danced salsa, cumbia, and bachata at parties with friends. We lived within walking distance of many people I interviewed for Divided by Borders.

In Ohio, the only Spanish-language radio was an hourlong program broadcast on Sunday mornings. Stores selling Spanish food products peppered seemingly random strip malls rather than being concentrated in any one area of the city. I found no bakeries; Mexican bread came shipped in from Chicago, and families bought Mexican food products at Walmart. The families I met lived in diverse neighborhoods, typically far from each other, and from me. I drove everywhere. Less than 2 percent of the population in the city where I met most families identified as Latino or Hispanic, and less than 1 percent identified as Mexican. A few Mexican families rented and owned homes in the university town where I lived; I eventually met them all. In Ohio, distance made the Latino community much more intentional.

When I started formal research I hoped to compare the experiences of children growing up in these two vastly different local communities. After two years of fieldwork in Ohio (2009–10), I returned in 2011 to New Jersey, where I had previously lived and worked, to match the interviews and observations I had done with families in Ohio. I intentionally included those of many different legal statuses, reflecting the diversity in the types of immigrants I had met in Ohio. How much had illegality affected families in which one parent was foreign born and the other a US-born citizen? What about families in which parents and children—or siblings—did not share a legal status? In what ways did children with different legal statuses navigate their lives in these two very different types of communities?

I expected to write a book about the variations at the local level that altered children's experiences. But a different story emerged. Mexican parents and children in Ohio and New Jersey described surprisingly similar experiences with illegality. Being unauthorized—even in the relatively protective community in New Jersey—was very different from what it had been like in 2003 when I had begun research for Divided by Borders, and earlier when I had first met Raúl. Living "hyperaware" of the law children were cognizant of either their own legal status or that of their parents even before social structures made legal status prohibitive, before they sought jobs, filled out applications for educational loans or college scholarships, or applied for drivers' licenses. Illegality powerfully shaped children's lives and those of their family members, and their relationships with each other, even when no one in the family had actually been deported. It affected families regardless of where they lived. In a restrictive policy environment, illegality matters regardless of each individual family member's legal status. It begins to affect us all.

My family's experiences inspired this research, but Everyday Illegal is not our story. I include myself and my children in some of what follows because it feels impossible not to. My own experiences frame the relationships I had with many families. Often those I interviewed asked for details on my own life; my disclosures seemed only fair to those who divulged what, at times, seemed so private. So I decided that the only way to respectfully tell others' stories was to do so along with my own; this type of quid pro quo developed in my conversations with families, and often I felt it was expected. Parents I interviewed asked me about how I had met Raúl and about what it had been like for me to be married to a once unauthorized Mexican. They wondered about my boys' relationship with their father, a topic that I at times found discomfiting, much as some of my questions surely disquieted them. Of course, legal status produced absolute differences between me and most of the study participants. My children and I are US-born citizens. We have the rights that come with this status, the ability to travel, drive, work, and go to college that so many I interviewed did not.


Excerpted from Everyday Illegal by Joanna Dreby. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Legal Status in Family Contexts
2. Nervios: On the Threat of Deportation
3. Stuck: Dependence in Intimate Relationships
4. It’s Not Fair: The Pecking Order in Immigrant
5. Stigma: Illegality in Different Immigrant
6. Conclusion: Reframing Illegality

Appendix: Talking to Kids: Methodological Issues

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