The Effects of Legal Status on Children

“Kids in the immigrant community have named a bogeyman and that bogeyman is Trump. It is really important to think about that,” says Dr. Joann Dreby, author of Everyday Illegal and Divided by Borders. Dreby, recently gave a lecture titled: Growing Up in the Age of Enforcement: Impacts of “Illegality” on Children, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She says that the current social and political climate is scary and depressing for kids.

Dr. Derby



During her field research she says she came across many immigrant children that were facing major bullying in school, despite the fact that some of them were documented. “A second grader says that they tell him he is stupid because his mom’s from Mexico,” she says, adding “another boy gets jumped because he gets told on the school bus that Mexicans are ignorant. His mom thinks that is why he is always saying that he is not Mexican.”

According to Dreby by the time kids hit middle school these racial and ethnic markers become much more salient and the teasing among peers becomes much more severe and hostile. The immigration expert says that she encountered a young girl that belonged to a family with legal status while she was conducting research in a school. “This girl Fabiola came home from school because she was pushed down the stairs and her arm was broken. When her parents went to complain to the principal, he didn’t really do anything about it,” says Dreby. In fact, Dreby says that Fabiola’s parents ended up moving back to Mexico so their daughter could finish her education there. The author says that the official school statistics don’t list any Latinos on the school roster, despite the fact that there are Hispanics at the school. In essence, to administrators these students are invisible and the bullying incidents are not race-based because “there aren’t any Mexicans in the school.”

When kids are teasing or bullying each other in some communities, they are focusing on legal status, says Dreby. This shows that that illegality is having a huge impact in changing the way we view social distinction in the United States. There is a big misunderstanding of immigration in the United States, even among young children.

“This ten-year old, Andrea, told me that it was hard to be an immigrant because she could get caught by the police,” says Dreby. Not all immigrants are undocumented and the police and ICE are different law enforcement agencies clarifies Dreby, but to this student there is no distinction.

“In this age of enforcement we can see that legal status matters to children’s peer group culture, just like scholars have shown that gender, class and race distinctions are negotiated at very early ages,” says Dreby.

The author points out that a lot of scholars have a singular focus on the adaptation of immigrants to American culture, however, she says that this singular focus disregards the fact that in interaction with peers, children appropriate, reinvent and contest features of adult society.

“From this perspective, we see that children enter into a social nexus and then they interact and negotiate with each other, establishing understanding of social knowledge,” says Dreby. She adds “we should analyze children’s interactions with each other, when kids start employing legal status differences in their peer group interactions, because it is very important.”

“Legal status distinctions are an important part of social differentiation, legal status matters,” says Dreby. She points out that their fears are being personified in people like Trump, however, she points out there is hope. ”There is a lot of opportunity to listen to them,” says Dreby. In fact, she points out that during the Million Woman March earlier this year a little Hispanic girl by the name of Sophie Cruz talked to the huge crowd. According to Dreby the young girl delivered a strong message in both English and Spanish stating “I want all the children not to be afraid!”

“That is what we can hope for, the resistance, even from the youngest voices,” concluded Dreby.
Liz Codina

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