In Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families, Joanna Dreby depicts in an eloquent and sharp narrative how immigration policy reaches deep into the daily lives of the undocumented and acutely impacts the structure, organization, and experience of family life. According to Dreby, “illegality,” or “the awareness of needing a legal status and the negotiations around lacking a legal status” (p. 1), has become a defining social status for Mexican immigrants in the United States. Yet, this may be equally true for both documented and undocumented immigrants from all nations and their children, because, as Dreby explains, approximately 16.6 million individuals in the United States live in mixed-status families of varying permutations. Thus, illegality is just as salient for children born in the United States to unauthorized immigrant parents who fear that their parents will be deported as it is for children without a Social Security number who recognize that they can’t obtain health insurance, though their US-born siblings can. Hence, Dreby contends, the significance of legal status is not implicated only in the interactions between the family and the state, but it frames relationships and experiences within families as well.

Interviews with 91 parents and 110 children and participant observation with focal families in homes, schools, and community settings in two states, Ohio and New Jersey, are the foundation of Dreby’s account. She acknowledges that these sites may, at first glance, seem unorthodox for her research focus, since the states bordering Mexico are more often at the center of debate, policy making, and enforcement around issues of unauthorized immigration. Yet, she notes that she intentionally selected these locales as research sites because they have experienced expansive growth in the Mexican immigrant population since the 1990s. Her concentration on states far from the border region draws attention to the ways in which changing demographics intersect with restrictive policy making and make grappling with illegality a pervasive concern beyond traditional Mexican immigrant destinations in the southern and western United States.

Dreby divides the text into six chapters, the first of which is an introduction that establishes Everyday Illegal as a progression from her earlier work, Divided by Borders (2010), in which she examines the experiences of Mexican families where parents decided to migrate to the United States without their children. She frames Everyday Illegal as continuing her exploration of family division with a new focus on “what happens when an unforgiving immigration system divides families internally while they are living together” (p. 5). In the four chapters that follow the introduction, Dreby presents her findings thematically. She foregrounds the experience of women by focusing on illegality as negotiated by wives and mothers in chapters 2 and 3. Then, in chapters 4 and 5, she elucidates how children are affected by the implications of illegality in both at-home experiences and with peers at school. Dreby’s conclusion reviews the impact of illegality on constructing social inequalities that affect the day-to-day experiences of her participants and offers suggestions for policy reforms.

In “Nervios” and “Stuck,” the first two thematic chapters, Dreby draws on rich qualitative data to support her finding that the experience of illegality is distinctly gendered. For example, she identifies that under current enforcementbased immigration policies that construct undocumented immigrants as criminals, fears around deportation are a consistent baseline experience. This pattern of deportation that primarily targets men means that women struggle with the apprehension of becoming “suddenly single mothers” (p. 31). For these women, the possibility of becoming a head of household and sole wage earner at a moment’s notice induces a deep anxiety. Dreby insightfully notes that it is not deportation alone that leads to a feeling of precariousness but, rather, the very notion of deportability. She asserts that the ever-present potential of being subject to deportation is a new phenomenon and a distinctive consequence of contemporary immigration policies that emphasize removal of undocumented immigrants as an enforcement priority.

Additionally, Dreby reveals that if a consequence of negotiating legal status is vulnerability in the household vis-à-vis the threat of separation, a converse situation also exerts pressure on women in mixed-status families. Women may feel compelled to stay in abusive or unhappy marriages with husbands who have legal status for fear of being reported. Or, in cases where wives have legal status and husbands do not, women may have more economic power outside the home yet feel compelled to take on more domestic labor within the family as a way to mitigate a spouse’s feeling of inadequacy exacerbated by the lack of legal status. In either circumstance, Dreby concludes, “when illegality compounds gender disadvantages in families, women may feel stuck and especially burdened” (p. 176).

Beyond examining the effects of illegality on spousal relations, Dreby illuminates in the fourth chapter, “It’s Not Fair,” how illegality can impact relationships among mixed-status siblings as she offers vivid accounts that reveal how legal status distinctions become insinuated into the everyday rhythms of family life. First, she notes that although children resisted judging the relative advantages or disadvantages of their siblings’ legal status when it differed from their own, they clearly recognized differences existed. In one instance, an undocumented eleven-year-old explained that she and her siblings did not see the same doctors because “they have those little cards” and “were born here” (p. 125). Further, she found that an implicit “pecking order” emerged within families. Based on an innovative analysis of contributions to household chores, Dreby finds that, on average, undocumented children assist with domestic tasks, such as cleaning and laundry, more often than children born in the United States. Furthermore, in mixed-status families, undocumented children assist in housework at higher rates than their US-born siblings. She argues that such findings suggest a relative, and largely unintentional, positioning of children by status within families.

While the first several chapters emphasize findings regarding the impact of immigration policy on family life that are consistent across Ohio and New Jersey, in chapter 5, “Stigma,” Dreby presents data illustrating instances when the meaning of illegality varies across community contexts. Specifically, she explores children’s narratives of their experiences with teasing and bullying among their peer groups to understand constructions of difference in their communities. While in both sites many children expressed that they did not want their peers to know that they or their parents were immigrants, this desire was more common among children in New Jersey than those in Ohio. Dreby highlights the surprising nature of this finding, given that New Jersey is a well-established destination for Mexican immigrants and that youth in New Jersey had many immigrant peers. Digging deeper into her data, she also discovers that children in New Jersey expressed comfort acknowledging a Mexican or Mexican American identity but did not want to discuss a specifically immigrant heritage. The author makes sense of this paradox by surmising that in New Jersey, “immigrant” has become unequivocally conflated with “illegal,” such that disclosing an immigrant history is seen as a source of stigma. In contrast, participants in Ohio, often one of a few or even the only Mexican child in a school or neighborhood, experience what she interprets as a racialized form of bullying centered on Mexican identity as the target rather than legal status. Illegality, thus, may not be experienced exactly the same across contexts, with implications for how children might understand difference and pursue “disclosure management” (p. 169) to their peers and in schools.

Throughout the book, Dreby’s keen ethnographic eye and fluid writing takes readers into prosaic spaces—a renovated kitchen, the pharmacy line at Walmart, a metal park bench—and reveals how the singular experience of illegality forms the backdrop to otherwise ordinary life. By focusing on these everyday details, Dreby is largely successful in her “domestic ethnography” (p. 13) approach. Yet men’s voices are missing throughout the book. Wives discuss their spouses and ex-husbands, but men’s perspectives, when included, are usually captured by others rather than presented firsthand. As a consequence, some of the conclusions on how fathers and husbands experience illegality or differences in legal status within households feel more like conjecture, especially in contrast to the analysis of women’s experiences that are substantiated with rich data. Given that Dreby aspires in this volume to demonstrate the impact of immigration policy on interactions among family members and the dynamics of daily life, the inclusion of men’s voices would have presented a more holistic picture.

Everyday Illegal is an important contribution to the literature on undocumented populations as an account of how undocumented and mixed-status families go about the day-to-day in full view. This perspective is in sharp contrast to the tendency of many researchers and popular media to discuss people who are undocumented as “living in the shadows.” Thus, Dreby shows how the new normal of immigration policy—which centers on restricting opportunity and criminalizing individuals by describing them as “illegal”—has undeniably transformed relationships within families. The resulting inequalities among mixed-status spouses, children, and siblings have unknown long-term repercussions. However, if the bedrock of American values includes upholding the strength of the family, Everyday Illegal casts great doubt on the expression of these ideals in current immigration policy.

Divided by borders: Mexican migrants and their children
University of California Press