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Immigrant Mothers as Education Policy Actors

Updated: Jan 31, 2023


Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar, University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Blogger: Sarah Bruhn, PhD, Harvard Graduate School of Education


January 30 2023


In this week’s blog, we are excited to highlight the work of Sarah Bruhn, postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Visiting Fellow at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Bruhn examines how school closures and the COVID-19 pandemic prompted immigrant mothers to renegotiate their relationship to schooling while navigating the sudden possibility of job loss, illness and increased familial responsibilities. Dr. Bruhn demonstrates how despite the multiple layers of struggle, immigrant mothers continued to support their children’s education and socio-emotional well-being, presenting these mothers as important policy actors. Through the words of two immigrant mothers in Somerville, Massachusetts, Dr. Bruhn repositions the image of immigrant mothers in research and media from one of need and barriers to one of savvy policy navigators with agency.


We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: srodrig4@umd.edu or through the Immigrant Ed Next website.



By Sarah Bruhn


"Me cuesta mucho." It is a refrain I heard often as I interviewed Latina immigrant mothers throughout the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Somerville, Massachusetts, a densely populated city just outside of Boston. Roughly translated, the phrase means, “It is hard for me” or “It’s a lot for me.” For the women in my research, all of whom migrated as adults from countries in Latin America to the U.S., the pandemic exacerbated the weight of carework and economic labor that was already difficult to maintain because of anti-immigrant policies and profound economic inequality. I was in the midst of conducting a larger research project about immigrant motherhood, sanctuary cities, and gentrification, when the novel coronavirus arrived at our doorsteps, shuttering schools and re-ordering every aspect of our daily lives and caregiving. Over the course of the next two years, I spoke with the women in my study about their coping strategies and concerns. Especially in the beginning, as mothers suddenly managed remote schooling, job loss, and the fear of a dangerous virus, often in crowded apartments shared with other immigrant families,it was, to say the least, very, very hard.


Much of the research and journalism that has explored immigrant students’ and parents’ experiences during the pandemic has focused on the profound inequities these families faced and continue to face. Some of these relate to racialized structural inequalities, including inadequate housing, limited access to regular healthcare, and a stratified economic system where immigrants of color, especially Latinx immigrants, are often relegated to low-paid, precarious work. Other inequities are tied specifically to immigration status, such as the fact that most undocumented people are denied unemployment benefits or the fact that Trump’s initial pandemic relief measures intentionally excluded families where adults did not have a Social Security number. While intended to target undocumented adults, this decision also impacted immigrant children as well as many of their U.S. citizen counterparts who are embedded in mixed-status families.


These broader, and unjust, barriers are intertwined with schooling, and were amplified when school buildings closed. My research, like other work on immigrant families during the pandemic, pointed to multiple challenges that families had to navigate just to achieve basic access to remote school. These include lack of access to broadband internet, which, while an issue long before anyone heard the word “Covid” has garnered increased attention as a dimension of inequality in the wake of school closures. Other challenges were specific to immigrant families, such as educators who could not communicate in a family’s home language. Like women in other cities, the Latina immigrant mothers in my study negotiated these challenges to ensure their children had access to education. Many of them pointed to the district’s support staff – such as family liaisons and parent leaders – who provided exceptional care and worked tirelessly to ensure women had the material and informational resources they needed to sustain their children and families through the intertwined social, economic, and health crises.


But these challenges, and the extraordinary efforts of immigrant mothers and educators alike, are only part of the story of how immigrant families have interacted with schools over the past tumultuous years. Immigrant women are often framed, in the media and in education research, as marginalized participants in their children’s education or as in need of additional resources. While this may be true, it is also true that immigrant women are important education policy actors. What my research reveals is that as women confronted the hardships of the pandemic, they also made clear-eyed assessments of their policy options. Carolina, a mother from El Salvador who was a green card holder with three school-aged sons, reported, “Look, Sarah. If the schools had decided to start with hybrid, I can’t say, ‘[My sons] are not going to go to school,’ because they have to receive their classes. Because my children can’t miss their school. But if it’s here in the house, it’s much better for me in reality." She knew that she couldn’t control the district’s decision-making by herself. But she attended district meetings to inform herself of the options, assessed her family’s needs, and asserted what she saw as the right policy course of action.


In Somerville, as in other cities, it was a contentious fight to re-open schools. Among the most visible actors were Somerville Parents for Equitable and Safe Opening, a group of predominantly white, middle-class parents arguing vehemently for school reopening as soon as possible, and the Somerville Educators Union, the city’s robust union, which advocated that schools stay closed for as long as possible. As one family liaison described it to me, immigrant families were used like “a ping pong ball,” rhetorically tossed back and forth as a way for each group to contend that their position was the right one for the city’s high number of immigrant-origin Latinx students and their families. Yet in my research, immigrant mothers rarely situated themselves solely on one side of the argument or the other. More often, they articulated the complexities and trade-offs of these policy decisions. Karla, for instance, an undocumented Guatemalan mother of two, explained her perspective as we spoke on the phone one afternoon, just as schools were re-opening their doors in April 2021. “To me, it’s good, in one way, because [my son] is going to de-stress, because this has affected him so much, it has given him so much anxiety and all this. I think it is going to help him...of course, I’m worried, because you never know what will happen. I hope to God that everything will be alright.” Like Karla, as the months of remote learning went by, mothers bore witness to the deteriorating mental health of their children, and ultimately, all but three out of fifty immigrant mothers in my study sent their children back to school as soon as the option was available.


My research tells the story of Latina immigrant mothers negotiating caregiving and educational policy during a profound public health and social crisis. But it also points to a larger finding, one that will resonate after the memories of rapid tests and KN-95s begin to recede: immigrant mothers are educational policy actors who assess the decisions of policymakers that far too often, do not truly listen to and consider their perspectives and insights. Educational researchers, leaders, and policy experts alike frequently focus on the barriers immigrant families face in participating in schooling, and the need for resources like interpreters and food pantries. These supports are vital. But they are not enough. Karla and Carolina and the other immigrant mothers in my study shared clear-eyed assessments of the policy landscape throughout our conversations. If we want to take seriously equity for immigrant families, we must start by taking seriously their role as critical decision-makers and policy actors.


Note: This blog post was developed based on an article published in the Journal of Social Issues, titled, “Me Cuesta Mucho: Latina immigrant mothers navigating remote learning and caregiving during COVID-19.” See here: https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/josi.12546


Be sure to follow us or tweet about #ImmigrantEdNext

Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S. & Bruhn S., (2023, January 30). Immigrant Mothers as Education Policy Actors. Immigrant Ed Next.


Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved




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