America's Future

Donald J. Hernandez, Ph.D.
July 5, 1999

Who are today's immigrant families? Donald J. Hernandez led a committee on Immigrant Children and Families for the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, from whose work these observations were taken.

The Largest "Minority Group" of Children

Twenty percent of children under age 18 and living in the U.S. in 1997 were children of immigrants, with one or both parents foreign born. That's one of every five children. Hence, children in immigrant families (with at least one immigrant parent) constitute the largest "minority group" among children.

Their Contribution to Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity

By 1990 about one-half of children in immigrant families lived in families that were of Hispanic origin and about one-fourth lived in families that were of Asian origin. Most future population growth in the U.S. is projected by the Census Bureau to occur through immigration and through births to immigrants and their descendants. Hence, Census Bureau projections indicate that by 2030, 50 percent of all children in the U.S. will be Hispanic, black, Asian or of some other racial minority.

Their Strong Families

Turning to specific long-standing risk factors�for children generally, negative outcomes have been found to result from living in families with only one parent. But children in immigrant families are actually more likely to benefit from strong, stable two-parent family situations than are children in U.S.-born families.

Their Father's Labor Force Participation

For children generally, negative outcomes have also been found to result from instability in parental employment and low parental educational attainments that lead to poverty-level family incomes. The overwhelming majority of children in immigrant families, like those in U.S.-born families, have fathers who are in the labor force.

Their Contribution to Supporting the Social Security System

Census Bureau projections also indicate that by 2040, about 75 percent of the elderly will be white, non-Hispanic, compared to only 59 percent for working-age adults, and 50 percent for children. As a result, as the growing elderly population of the predominantly white baby-boom generation reaches the retirement ages, it will increasingly depend for its economic support during retirement on the productive activities and the civic participation of working-age adults who are members of racial and ethnic minorities, many of whom lived in immigrant families as children.

Their Parents' Educational Attainments

Children in immigrant families also differ little from children in U.S.-born families in the proportion with parents who are highly educated. But children in immigrant families are much more likely than those in U.S.-born families to have a father (25 percent vs. three percent) or a mother (26 percent vs. three percent) who has completed no more than eight years of schooling.

Their Poverty Rates�Who is Most in Need?

Focusing on poverty, children in immigrant families are somewhat more likely than children in U.S.-born families to live in official poverty, at 22 percent versus 17 percent, in the 1990 census. The first generation was especially likely to live in official poverty, at 33 percent.

At one extreme, children with origins in about two dozen countries had poverty rates that were about equal to, or substantially less than, the rate of 11 percent for non-Hispanic white children in U.S.-born families. These two dozen countries are spread across Latin American, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

But at the other extreme, most of the poverty among children in immigrant families was concentrated among children with origins in only 12 countries, who experienced poverty rates, with a range of 26 to 51 percent, depending on the country of origin. Five of these countries are sources of many officially recognized refugees (the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam), and immigrants from four of these nations have fled countries experiencing war or political instability (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and (Haiti). Two are small countries sending many migrants who seek unskilled work (Honduras and the Dominican Republic). The 12th country is Mexico, which currently sends the largest number of both legal and illegal immigrants, and which has been an important source of unskilled labor for the U.S. economy throughout the twentieth century. The overall poverty rate for children in immigrant families from these 12 countries was 35 percent in the 1990 census, more than three times the rate for non-Hispanic white children in U.S.-born families. Media reports have not, to my knowledge, focused on the fact that many children in immigrant families who live in poverty arrived from countries experiencing political instability in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Although the overwhelming majority of children in immigrant families from these 12 countries, 90 percent, had a father who was in the labor force, 40 percent had fathers who did not work full-time year-round, 46 percent had fathers who had completed only 8 years of schooling or less, and 40 percent lived in linguistically isolated households where no one in the home age 14 or older speaks English exclusively or very well. Thus, the high poverty rate for children from these 12 countries is not strongly related to a lack of labor force participation among fathers, but instead it is strongly associated with a lack of full-time year-round work among fathers, with extremely low educational attainments among fathers, and with linguistic isolation from English-speaking society.

Lack Of U.S. Citizenship as a Potential Risk Factor

Because of welfare reform, lack of U.S. citizenship has recently become a potential risk factor for children and parents in immigrant families. Prior to welfare reform, legal immigrants were entitled to health and other public benefits on basically the same terms as citizens. In contrast, illegal immigrants were barred from most public services. Welfare reform shifted the line for determining eligibility for many major welfare programs. Now the line divides legal immigrants from citizens. About one-fifth (21 percent) of children in immigrant families were not U.S. citizens in 1990, but about two-thirds (65 percent) of children in immigrant families were either themselves not citizens or lived with at least one parent who was not a citizen.

Because parents who are not citizens may be unaware of their children's eligibility for important services or may fear contact with authorities on behalf of their children, a substantial portion of children in immigrant families may be at risk of not receiving important public services or benefits. This may especially be the case among children with origins in the 12 countries with very high poverty rates, because children from these countries not only have high proportions in poverty, they also tend to have especially high proportions who are not citizens or have parents who are not citizens.

Health Insurance Coverage, Welfare Recipiency, and Well-being

Overall, available evidence suggests that, compared to third- and later-generation children and adolescents, those in immigrant families have, on average, less access to health insurance and health care, particularly if they are Hispanic. In addition although children in immigrant families are somewhat more likely than others to live in families receiving welfare, controlling for poverty and SES, among those at greatest socioeconomic risk, these children are less likely to live in families receiving a range of welfare benefits and services than are children in U.S.-born families.

It is paradoxical, then, that children in immigrant families are doing at least as well, or better, than third- and later-generation children along a wide variety of indicators measuring physical health, mental health and school adjustment. However, the health and well being of children in immigrant families appears to deteriorate through time the longer that they live in the U.S., and across generations. This suggests that the protective benefits of immigrant families and immigrant culture become more dilute the longer they live in the U.S. It is important, therefore, that the recent welfare reform places many children in immigrant families at risk of losing potentially important resources.



Donald J. Hernandez, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany. He co-edited From Generation to Generation: The Health and Well-Being of Children in Immigrant Families.