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Mixed-Status Families Struggle with Tensions, Uncertainty
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Mixed-Status Families Struggle with Tensions, Uncertainty

At least 9 million people in the United States are part of mixed-status families, which include at least one U.S. born child and one adult without legal status, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. An estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrant children in these mixed status families have U.S.-born siblings.

In a two-part series for the Beacon News in suburban Chicago, Kalyn Belsha detailed how families deal with the inequality of their statuses and the fear of separation.

Part 1 profiled the relationship between a teenager who has temporary legal status and her mother, who is undocumented. Part 2 followed two sisters, one a U.S. citizen and the other undocumented, and the burdens and responsibilities felt by both.

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Kalyn’s Story Behind the Story

I wanted to write about the dynamics of mixed-status families ever since I heard a Radio Rookies story on WNYC called “Half My Family Is Illegal.” What fascinated me about the piece was the tense but loving sibling relationship that, in many ways, was influenced by immigration status.

For my series, I set out to find siblings in mixed-status families in Aurora, Ill. a city of about 200,000 one hour west of Chicago where one in three residents is Latino and one in four is an immigrant. My challenge was finding parents who were willing to speak about their undocumented status and finding pairs of siblings who were old enough to understand their immigration history and the ramifications for their family.

After searching for several months, I decided to profile a pair of twenty-something sisters and two teens with much younger siblings. Speaking Spanish was essential to complete this project; both mothers I interviewed did not speak English and I could tell they felt more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, such as how immigration status affected their parenting, in their native language. Unfortunately, the third teen was not able to have his family participate, so his story was less detailed than the other two.

I found two families I profiled at an immigration event hosted in Aurora by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who helped author the comprehensive immigration reform bill. Several DREAMers were sitting in the audience so I asked if they had siblings who were documented. I found the third set of siblings through Family Focus Aurora, a local social service agency that works with immigrant families.

Another major challenge was quantifying how many siblings live in mixed-status families in my local area. I found quickly that “mixed-status” is defined differently from organization to organization and because the figure depends on the population of undocumented immigrants — another difficult figure to pin down — it was nearly impossible to quantify the population on a smaller scale.

I was able to find some data from the Illinois Kids Count, but that looked at children in immigrant families with undocumented parents in Illinois and Chicago, not in Aurora and it did not specify if the siblings were mixed-status. After consulting with local experts, I decided to use the Pew Hispanic Center’s national estimate that 400,000 undocumented immigrant children live in a mixed-status family and have U.S.-born siblings, because that was most relevant to the families I was following. I also talked to the most prominent social service agency in Aurora to see how often they worked with mixed-status families.

I published three stories in print and online over two days in The Beacon-News, as well as took photos for two of the stories. My first story was a Sunday cover and featured prominently online and on social media. Comments from readers ranged from encouragement for the families profiled to the typical rhetoric you often hear about immigrants who entered the country illegally.

The social service agency I worked with said the article would help the public understand a reality for many families in Aurora and two of my colleagues emailed to say the series was powerful. Perhaps the most meaningful reaction came from Mireya herself, who told me after her mother showed the story to a co-worker that the woman’s 23-year-old son was moved to tears because he understood what it was like to grow up as the oldest and undocumented sibling. Mireya also was included in our end-of-year, follow-up stories about memorable “Faces of 2013.”

The IJJ fellowship helped frame which issues I kept in mind while I was interviewing mixed-status families, especially the talk from Joanna Dreby, who touched on the emotional and psychological repercussions for children who grow up with undocumented family members. The Annie E. Casey Foundation data session helped me find state-level data that I previously did not know existed; I have since used the Kids Count while reporting other stories. Having access to other fellows and the IJJ team via the Facebook group also was invaluable, as I was able to continue to read about issues that were relevant to my project and stay in touch with the reporters I met at the conference.

While I have reported stories about immigrant families in the past, being a part of the IJJ fellowship gave me the space to spend more time working on a project that I knew was important for our coverage area. Reporters at my paper are seldom given the opportunity to complete longer investigative projects, and this fellowship helped inspire me to look into the issues and spend more time with my sources than I normally could.

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