Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Five personal stories of life in mixed-status families

Photo by nunodantas/Flickr (Creative Commons)

What is it like to live in a family in which you're a U.S. citizen, but your spouse, one of your parents, a sibling, an uncle or aunt, even one of your children is undocumented?

During the past week, Multi-American has presented a series of first-person stories from people in families like these. Families of mixed immigration status are surprisingly common. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there were 8.8 million people living in mixed-status families in the United States.

This makes for a conservative estimate, as Pew’s definition was limited to families with unauthorized immigrants and their U.S. citizen children. Even more common are mixed-status extended families, one example being the Kenyan-born family of President Obama, whose undocumented half-uncle was arrested in August, and whose aunt was up for deportation until being granted asylum.

Why are mixed-status families so prevalent in the U.S? The demand for family reunification through legal channels is much larger than the number of available immigrant visas, for one thing. And for those who are in the U.S. illegally, it is much more difficult to adjust one's immigration status than commonly thought, even through marriage. Those who entered with visas and overstayed stand a better chance, but tighter laws over the years have made it impossible for many people who entered without visas to ever adjust their status.

So what is life like for these families? As those who contributed to the series have explained, things as simple as taking a trip together are fraught with anxiety, or just not done. Those here legally don't add their spouses to insurance plans or add their names to loan documents. "It's as if she doesn't exist," one person wrote. Here are some highlights from the series.

People who don’t have undocumented family members don’t believe me when I tell them he can’t get papers. They don’t believe me when I tell them my brother-in-law can not enter this country legally to pick crops. They always tell me I’m mistaken. Or they’re callous and don’t understand how easy it was for their ancestors to enter, and how difficult it is now.

Many of my students have a lot of sad issues with their cultural identity, stemming from the kind of hateful things they hear all the time about them and their families. The undocumented population in Portland is pretty big, so there’s not as much fear or secrecy as there are kids growing up having to listen to their neighbors and the media speak about their parents as if they were sub-human. That causes lasting damage to kids, and it sucks.

It hurts to keep so many secrets. I can’t put her on an application for a loan and I have to say I’m the only person in the household. I can’t put her on my health or auto insurance and again – it’s as if she doesn’t exist.

We share a car because I don’t feel comfortable knowing she is driving at night (she works at two restaurants). She works weekends, so I know that there is plenty of police patrol on Friday and Saturday nights. I had to learn to drive stick shift (but that’s a positive)!

I have a professional career and I hate not being able to take her to company events where they may require valid drivers license/identification/etc. I hate that I can go to college and she (who is miles ahead of me), can’t. I hate that she is taken advantage of at work and she can’t just quit or file grievances like I could.

Fear. Fear that my siblings who are still undocumented will be picked up by ICE agents and deported. Fear that they’ll be deported and their children be picked up by Child Protective Services. Fear that they lose their employment due to their legal status.

Fear is something we live with. It’s our enemy because it’s always there reminding us of who we are but it’s also our friend since it has been with us for so long.

Fear is involved in everything we do and everywhere we go. Driving or paying with a credit card (no license or valid ID). Deportation is always a possibility as well. Our future as a family is uncertain.

Mixed citizenship status within a family causes frustration, uncertainty, secrecy, lies. It’s a burden at times and something that is thought about every single day.

The personal stories were submitted via KPCC's Public Insight Network, which solicits input from the public on specific topics. The mixed-status questionnaire can be seen here.