US-born children of unauthorized immigrants fall behind

US-born children of unauthorized immigrants fall behind academically, but accessing social services can help

By Kalina Brabeck and , | January 2016 

Reading, spelling and comprehension would improve if unauthorized parents felt able to enrol their US citizen children in programs such as Head Start, finds research.

Millions of US children whose parents are unauthorized immigrants are falling behind academically. Our research shows that these children are performing less well than the children of immigrants who are legally resident. We could reduce the gap if US born children of unauthorized parents received the social services, such as healthcare, education and nutritional support, that are their right as citizens. These services would provide at least as much benefit to their learning as having a parent who was educated or increasing the level of the family’s monthly income by $500.

Up to 4.5 million US citizen children are growing up with at least one parent who is not a legal resident. The vast majority of these young people will remain in the US when they become adults. They will become a sizeable part of the workforce – comparable to the number of people employed, for example, in the healthcare sector. Building their skills is vital to US competitiveness. However, their prospects are blighted when they and their parents miss out on programs for which they are eligible and which they would probably access if their parents were living here legally.

“Good childhood access to healthcare, nutritional programs and pre-school education helped protect them from the negative effects of their parents’ unauthorized status. The impact on learning was equivalent to having an educated parent or increasing the family’s monthly income by $500.”

Despite their disadvantages, these children have important strengths. For example, many are bilingual, which can strengthen their cognitive development. They also have high academic aspirations and expectations. However, because of the disadvantages that their families face, we aren’t tapping into their full potential.

How can we increase access for this category of US children? How can we help their parents ensure that these children enjoy the same benefits as their peers? Understanding that children need healthy and stable parents to thrive, one step might be to provide adult social services to unauthorized parents if they have children born in the US. Since 1996, unauthorized immigrants have been excluded from federal means-tested programs, making them ineligible for Medicare or Medicaid and Social Security insurance. Changing the rules would encourage unauthorized parents to feel confident about claiming vital services for themselves and, therefore, for their children.

Another part of the solution could be to give immigrants better information, in their own languages, making it easier for them to claim services for their children. Schools, as well as other places where unauthorized immigrants feel safe, could be central locations where these families could connect to services that are so important to their family wellbeing and children’s achievement.

Our study built on previous research documenting the patterns of disadvantage that characterize the lives of immigrants who are in the US illegally. Unauthorized adults are more likely than legal immigrants with similar backgrounds to experience racism, discrimination, and stress and exploitation at work. They face more barriers to learning English and higher levels of psychological stress. “Mixed status” families –unauthorized parents with children who are US born – experience higher levels of poverty and food insecurity than families with a similar profile where the parents are legally resident.

Our study of 178 families from Latino backgrounds focused on these mixed status families. Children born in the US should, in theory, enjoy the same rights as other US citizens, despite their parents’ unauthorized status. We looked at middle childhood – children between 7 and 10 years old. This is an important period for consolidating reading, writing and math, which are foundational skills for a child’s academic career and working life.

In common with previous studies of younger children, we found that this group of US citizen children typically falls behind in reading, comprehension, spelling and math, compared with peers from otherwise similar backgrounds. However, we also found that when families could access social services, such as healthcare, nutritional programs and pre-school education, it helped protect them from the negative effects of their parents’ unauthorized status. The impact of this access on reading, comprehension and spelling scores was at least equivalent to – or more important than — having an educated parent or increasing the amount of the family’s monthly income by $500.

We also looked at how much these US born children miss out on crucial benefits, including pre-kindergarten education and the Head Start program, which provides comprehensive early childhood education as well as health, nutrition and other social services to low-income children and their families. For example, we found that only 40 percent of unauthorized parents enrolled their children in Head Start or preschool, compared to 72 per cent of authorized parents from otherwise similar backgrounds.

Our research shows that the use of social services by US-born children of unauthorized parents can be a protective buffer, lessening the negative impact of parents’ immigration status on their children’s academic achievement. Our findings challenge policy makers to think imaginatively about how to increase access to such services to ensure that millions of these children grow up with the skills and capacities that they need and that their society requires.


 Brabeck KM, Sibley E, Taubin P & Murcia A (2016), The influence of immigrant parent legal status on U.S.-born children’s academic abilities: the moderating effects of social service use, Applied Developmental Science, 20.4

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