Political Effects of Having Undocumented Parents

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 818 –832
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917717351
The United States is home to around eleven million
undocumented immigrants. Even though they are legal
outsiders, most have close ties to the country. Many have
US-citizen relatives, including partners and children. A
great deal of research has addressed the causes and con-
sequences of anti-immigrant attitudes in this era of large-
scale “illegal” migration (e.g., Hainmueller and Hopkins
2014; Wright, Levy, and Citrin 2016). And yet, we still
know very little about the politics of undocumented
immigrants themselves, or the political implications of
this regime of mass illegality for the millions of American
citizens with undocumented family members (McCann
and Jones-Correa 2016).
Until scholars address these topics, we will not under-
stand the contemporary immigrant experience. While most
of the country’s immigrants are set on a path to permanent
residence and citizenship, about one in four are marked as
“illegals.” Because so many undocumented migrants are
Latinos, without research on the politics of mass illegality,
we will struggle to understand Latino politics, or indeed
the factors that—under some circumstances—make
“Latino” a salient political identity (Lee 2008).
Research in this area also promises to provide new
ways to test and build upon theories of political learning
and activism. How do young US citizens whose parents
have few (political) rights think about and engage with
the state? In this paper, we provide some of the first evi-
dence on the political effects of having undocumented
parents. As undocumented migrants are wary of attention,
and they and their children only make up a small share of
all US residents, it is hard to gather representative data on
this population. We use an original survey of young
US-born Latinos, some of whose parents are undocu-
mented, to start to fill the gap in our knowledge of these
To frame the political effects of mass undocumented
migration on the US-born second generation, we draw
together theories and findings from several literatures.
One prediction, following from research on parental
political socialization and on immigrant incorporation, is
that having undocumented parents has chilling effects on
civic and political engagement. However, other research
on social movements and on how people respond to polit-
ical threats implies that those with undocumented parents
might be pushed toward activism on immigration issues.
In fact, our data provide scant evidence of chilling effects,
but more support for the idea that family exposure to the
risk of deportation serves to mobilize the US-born
717351PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917717351Political Research QuarterlyStreet et al.
1Carroll College, Helena, MT, USA
2University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
3University of California, Berkeley, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alex Street, Department of Political Science and International
Relations, Carroll College, 1601 N. Benton, Helena, MT 59625, USA.
Email: astreet@carroll.edu
Political Effects of Having
Undocumented Parents
Alex Street1, Michael Jones-Correa2, and Chris Zepeda-Millán3
The current US undocumented population is large and settled. As a result, millions of US-born citizens are growing
up with undocumented parents or siblings. In this paper, we use original survey data to study the politics of the
US-citizen offspring of undocumented migrants. We test theories of parental political socialization, which imply
that having undocumented parents may have chilling effects on political engagement. We also test theories of social
activism, which predict that the offspring of the undocumented may be motivated to make use of their rights as US
citizens by protesting on behalf of their parents. We find no evidence of lower political engagement among those
with undocumented parents. Instead, we find that the offspring of the undocumented are more likely to protest on
immigration issues, and more optimistic that popular protest can induce political change. We use an instrumental
variables design to test whether these differences warrant a causal interpretation, and find tentative evidence that
having undocumented parents does indeed have mobilizing political effects.
undocumented immigration, citizenship, political participation, activism

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