Back when the Declaration of Independence was written, there was no such category as "illegal immigrant." Most founders of "the colonies" came to the New World without documents of any kind. Fleeing persecution, and seeking economic opportunity, they left their countries of origin for life in a new land, without papers. In writing the Declaration of Independence, they created their own documentation, outside the laws of the British colonies.
For the next 122 years, the growth of the United States occurred without a single resident defined as illegal or undocumented, a category that first emerged with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This new distinction was created to single out just one ethnic group -- and then it spread.
Since then, the label of "illegal" or "excluded" has been applied to groups that at the time were considered marginal -- from Italians and Irishmen to Jews from Eastern Europe. Today, yesterday’s undesirables are considered solidly mainstream. Now this category is applied most often to immigrants from Latin America, Asia or Africa who come here seeking economic opportunity and a shot at the American Dream.
In our study of citizen children of undocumented parents, we found toddlers as young as two years old lacked access to opportunities that are critical to their early school success and later productivity. Their parents faced a cruel choice no parent in America should encounter: if they came forward to enroll their child in enrichment programs, like good-quality child care centers, they risked being deported by revealing their earnings and their employers, both of which are required for getting child care subsidies and other services for citizen children.
This cruel barrier puts access to learning and enrichment far out of reach for too many U.S. citizen children. The result? Lower language skills and more limited vocabularies at ages two, three, four and five.
Such limitations cause untold harm to these children. But they also hurt the rest of us, our future prospects and our nation’s as well. As our society rapidly ages, we cannot afford to cut off millions of children from the chance to be all that they can be. We need them to be able to succeed in school and hold jobs that pay them well enough to contribute to their wellbeing and to all of our families.
These families may seem very distant to us. But far more of us know one of the millions of parents without papers, and their children, than we imagine.
We can make a difference in the lives of these youngest, most vulnerable U.S. citizens. We can provide their parents with information about learning opportunities -- the locations of public libraries, preschool programs, good schools and after-school programs in our communities that are open to their children. We can support organizations -- churches, social service organizations and schools -- that welcome these families and can provide them support. And we can call for policies to bring these families out of the shadows with a pathway to citizenship.
As we gather to celebrate our freedom this July 4th, we can rededicate ourselves to the Declaration of Independence, so that all our children are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To honor the spirit and intent of our undocumented founding fathers, we can begin to right these wrongs and fulfill our nation’s promise, starting today.
Hirokazu Yoshikawa is Professor of Education and Academic Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children, published this spring by the Russell Sage Foundation.