With contributions from Randy Capps.

Key facts:

  • About one quarter of all children in the US have an immigrant parent. That’s 18 million children. Of these children, 5.1 million have at least one parent who is unauthorized.
  • Younger children in immigrant families are almost all born in the US and therefore are citizens. Overall, about 80 percent of children with immigrant parents are US citizens.
  • Younger, citizen children need different sets of supports than older children in immigrant families who are more likely to be foreign born.
  • States in the Southeast, led by North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, have had the fastest growth in immigrant populations over the past 25 years, due primarily to increased economic opportunities.
  • Traditional destination states such as California, New York, Texas, and Florida have large immigrant populations and more experience supporting the integration of immigrant families, but the pace of immigration to these states is slowing.
  • Backlashes against immigrants tend to happen in locations with rapid rates of growth in their foreign-born populations and less experience with immigration.

About one quarter of children in the U.S. have an immigrant parent – almost 18 million children. The population of children in immigrant families is continuing to grow, even though the total number of immigrants may stabilize or even fall slightly due to lower immigration numbers and effects from Trump Administration policies.

Approximately one quarter of all immigrants are unauthorized. The number of unauthorized immigrants has declined slightly over the past decade, from just over 12 million in 2007 to slightly more than 11 million in 2016. This decline is partially due to a drop in Mexican unauthorized migration as economic and educational opportunities in Mexico have improved. However, since 2014, there has been a substantial increase in children and families coming from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, many of whom are seeking humanitarian protection. During April 2018, over half of border apprehensions were from these countries, and about 40 percent were families traveling together or children traveling alone. For the most part, families and children turn themselves into Border Patrol agents, instead of than seeking to evade them, so they can apply for asylum or other protection.

A large majority of unauthorized immigrants have been here for more than ten years and now have children. 79% of their children are US citizens. When we think about support networks and what people are eligible for, this has important implications. The age distribution of children of unauthorized immigrants is similar to all children, although just slightly younger and a little less likely to be adolescent. There are 5.1 million children of unauthorized immigrants. The Pew Research Center counts about 3.6 million school-aged (grades K-12) children of unauthorized immigrants.

The youngest kids in immigrant families are almost all US-born citizens (over 90% of preschoolers). Unauthorized immigrant kids tend to be 12 or older. There’s a significant high school and young adult population that is facing different issues from the youngest kids of immigrants because they frequently lack legal status, have limited English skills, and had interruptions in their schooling before coming to the US. A subset of these adolescent immigrant children are unaccompanied minors who arrived at the US-Mexico border alone, coming primarily from El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. They tend to go to big cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York, DC, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, etc. (where there are larger Central American populations and where parents or other family members who’ve sponsored them tend to live), whereas the broader unauthorized population is more dispersed.

In California, 17% of all children have an unauthorized parent. Other states with high percentages are Texas (13%), Nevada (11%), and Arizona (10%). The high shares of unauthorized immigrants in these states may impact the way that policymakers and the public view the overall immigrant population there.

Southwestern states of California and Texas have the highest numbers of unauthorized immigrants, while fast-growing states in the Southeast have relatively high unauthorized proportions among all immigrants. Seven of the ten states with the fastest growth in immigrant populations from 1990 to 2015 are located in the Southeast, and unauthorized immigrants were at least one third of all immigrants in all Southeastern states except for Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida. The highest proportions of unauthorized immigrants were in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama. Growth in California has slowed because living costs are greater there. Meanwhile, the Southeast has agriculture, manufacturing, retail, and service jobs that have driven people towards these states and living costs were lower in that region that in other parts of the country, particularly California and the Northeast. Rapid growth in immigrant populations means growth in the need for support to help immigrant families integrate. While there are also large immigrant hubs in New York and Chicago, there is relatively slow growth in immigrant populations there.

Immigrant families with unauthorized parents have lower-paying jobs and poorer working conditions. Unauthorized immigrant parents tend to be less well educated than other parents, although their levels of education have been rising recently. They often have limited English skills, which influences their ability to get higher-paying jobs and to advocate for their children at schools and social services. There are lags in child development for children with unauthorized immigrant parents versus those whose parents have legal status. This is attributed to the fact that unauthorized immigrant parents are more likely to work in jobs with irregular schedules, which makes it harder to arrange childcare. Unauthorized workers suffer from wage theft, poorer working conditions, and lower autonomy on the job. Research shows that children whose parents are unauthorized complete less schooling than other children by the time they become young adults.

Unaccompanied minors face some additional integration challenges. Often, they weren’t able to go to school consistently in their home countries because of lack of access, high costs, violence, or a need to work to support their families. When they arrive in the US, they need to complete high school quickly, but they often don’t know English and they don’t have the educational background needed to graduate. What do schools do? There are networks of newcomer schools in New York City, California, and in some other places with large immigrant populations that are focused on late-entering immigrant kids. In addition to English-language and content instruction, these newcomer schools often provide counseling and other services to unaccompanied minors who witnessed or experienced trauma in their home countries or during their migration to the US.

This is a useful framework for right now because of the fear that pervades immigrant communities at the moment. With the travel ban, anti-Muslim sentiment, potential rule changes over who constitutes a public charge, and more, there has been a broad-based shift in the rhetoric and federal policies regarding both legal and unauthorized immigrants. At the base of the pyramid, most children in immigrant communities, regardless of status, are indirectly affected by this atmosphere of fear and are worried about enforcement or, due to the travel ban and proposed public charge limitations on admissions, not getting their family members into the country. At the second level of the pyramid are children in unauthorized immigrant families. These children are worried about deportation of their parents, other family members, and sometimes themselves. These worries may affect their behavior, school engagement, and physical health.

Further up the pyramid, when parents get deported, families lose income and may experience difficulties in housing, health, mental health, and food security. Usually the father is deported but the mother stays with the children, as 90% of deportations are men. At the very top of the pyramid, in the worst-case scenario, both parents or a single parent get deported and the family gets broken apart. In these rare cases, the child may wind up in the child welfare system. One study estimated that in 2011, approximately 5,000 children in the child welfare system had a detained or deported parent, with some placed in the system directly and others indirectly due to immigration enforcement. Total immigration arrests and deportations are currently running at about half their peaks in 2011, meaning the numbers in child welfare systems with detained or deported parents is likely much lower now than when this study was fielded.

During the Obama Administration, the general policy was that families might be detained for a short period but then released into the community pending their deportation hearings—which typically were scheduled years in the future due to backlogs in immigration courts. Unaccompanied minors were often sponsored by parents or other relatives, and allowed to live in the US with their families pending their immigration court dates. The Trump Administration has changed policies regarding families and children apprehended at the border. ICE and the Border Patrol recently announced that they will separate families—including mothers—from their children when they are caught at the border. They will prosecute the parent for illegal entry—which can result in months in federal prison, and then deport him or her, while referring the child to the refugee resettlement system (which handles unaccompanied children currently), and potentially into foster care. Second, ICE has been arresting some of the parents and other relatives who have sponsored unaccompanied children, with the Border Patrol or Office of Refugee Resettlement providing address information on the parents. This second policy, which has been publicized for some time now, may have led to a sustained drop in unaccompanied kids attempting to enter the country at the U.S.-Mexico border. The family-separation policy, just announced, may be intended to deter attempted entries of families at the border, which have spiked during the first few months of 2018. The long-term deterrent effect of these new stricter policies regarding families and children apprehended at the border, and their effects on children’s well-being, have yet to be seen or researched.

Unauthorized immigrants aren’t eligible for most public benefits, though their US-citizen children are not restricted from eligibility. For some benefits, like food stamps, where the unauthorized parents are ineligible and the US-citizen children are eligible, families get lower benefits, prorated based on the number of eligible individuals. Due to eligibility limits on public benefits, immigrant families, particularly those headed by parents who are unauthorized, rely primarily on income from work, and immigrant adults have employment rates as high or higher than US-born adults. To build a web of support for immigrant families and make second-generation children productive future members of society, parents should be provided with services to train them and help them get and retain better jobs, such as adult education and English language instruction.

Many immigrant families, like all US families, cannot afford child care. Unauthorized immigrant moms have lower labor force participation, in part because they can’t afford child care. If the moms don’t stay home, immigrant families tend to use informal child-care arrangements such as trusted neighbors and friends. Unfortunately, these systems are not as good at child development and learning as more formal center-based programs. Quality and access to formal child care varies from state to state.

Unauthorized immigrants can’t get publicly funded healthcare, so they are more reliant on public health clinics and hospitals that serve the uninsured, so community health providers are critical to the web of support for immigrant families.

Schools and universal pre-K are open to all kids regardless of their status or their parents’ status. Schools can help families connect to other services, like nutrition (free lunches and breakfasts) and mental health. One concept that has worked is the “dual generation” model which uses early education providers or schools to serve both kids and parents, for instance through offering English classes or parenting skills training.

In most places, immigrants draw support from neighbors and families, especially initially. These community networks help new immigrants find jobs and navigate systems. There’s a down side to relying on neighbors and families, though. Extremely dense social networks can actually be limiting because it’s hard to move beyond them and integrate into the broader society, to move into different jobs, to learn English, etc. These dense ties to the neighborhood are more likely to happen in urban centers while immigrants in smaller towns and suburbs often suffer from a lack of social connections. Immigrants need strong ties, such as family members and co-ethnic communities, for meeting basic needs, but they also need broad ties to broader multi-ethnic US communities for job improvement, economic opportunities, and social integration.

With few exceptions, it’s up to states, localities, and nonprofits to serve immigrant populations. Access to federal benefit systems are sometimes restricted and sometimes aren’t. WIC and school lunch are not restricted, but TANF and Medicaid are. For several major public benefit programs (TANF, SSI, food stamps, and Medicaid), even legal immigrant adults are not eligible for five years after they receive qualified status (though children are eligible for food stamps and, in some states, Medicaid). States such as California, New York, and Illinois, however, have stepped in to provide state-funded benefits for all legal permanent residents. These three states also provide health insurance coverage to all unauthorized immigrant kids. If the children are US-born, they can access all benefits in every state on the same terms as other US citizens.

Even in the best of times, many unauthorized immigrants and some legal immigrants are fearful of accessing benefit programs because they fear deportation or that doing so will affect their future ability to become legal. This is a legitimate fear because of the public charge regulatory changes being debated in the Trump Administration, with the possibility of a new rule being released this summer. Leaked public-charge rule documents, an expansion of immigration enforcement, and the current administration’s rhetoric are, according to anecdotal reports, driving down attendance at health clinics, use of nutrition programs, and reporting of abuse or crimes to the police. Most likely, there will be a major withdrawal from public benefits if the public charge changes go through.

Early in the Obama Administration (before 2012), there were very high numbers of immigration arrests (over 300,000 per year) and deportations from inside the United States (over 200,000 per year). Later in that administration, there was a narrowing of people who could be deported (those who have been convicted of serious crimes or who have been in the country for a very short time) and restrictions on groups of people who could not be deported (pregnant women and parents of citizen children for example) if they did not fit the priorities. These restrictions caused a two-thirds drop in arrests (to about 100,000 annually) and deportations (about 60,000 annually) by 2015.

The Trump Administration removed the late Obama-era rules, opening up the entire unauthorized population to arrest and deportation and generating a quick jump in arrests. Arrests and deportations are up about 40% versus 2016, the last year of the Obama Administration. There have been a number of high-profile cases of pregnant women, refugees, business owners, parents of young children, etc. being arrested. The new administration’s policies, statements by senior DHS officials, and the jump in arrests have made all unauthorized immigrants fearful they could be arrested and deported. Yet, the numbers of arrests and deportations are still only half of what they were at the peak of the Obama administration (2008-2011). Many large states such as California and Illinois and major cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, do not cooperate with ICE, which keeps the numbers of ICE arrests low because most people who get deported are first arrested by the local police.

ICE deports about 100,000 people annually. About a quarter to a third of deportations are of parents claiming to have citizen children. That’s about 25,000 to 30,000 parents per year (well below the number of 90,000 per year when total deportations peaked). Many deportations are of people who don’t have families and more than half occur at the border.

There’s some overlap among recent immigration enforcement activities, the travel ban executive order, and a decline in refugee admissions (which may reach the lowest levels since 1980 this year). Some of those detained entered as refugees or asylum seekers, leading to substantial anxiety in many refugee communities. Nonetheless, 85% of deportations and arrests are Mexicans and Central Americans, and so the new enforcement agenda most heavily affects Latino immigrants, who are less likely to be considered refugees or asylees than immigrants coming from Africa and Asia. Arrests of African and Asian immigrants have increased and attracted media attention but are still a very small share of the total.

Most (90%) of the people who are deported are men. Very often, the mothers do not work, so families experience a dramatic drop in income: about three quarters of the family’s income in some small samples and models using national survey data. The first impact is a reduction in income, which can be followed by housing instability, poverty, increased demands for benefits (especially for kids), psychological stress, and trauma. When parents are in custody for a long period, that can affect bonds between parents and children, especially younger ones.

Sometimes, parents take their children out of the US when they are deported, but older children who are unauthorized are unlikely to leave because it will be difficult for them to return. Sometimes, older siblings stay and take on child care and supervision for the younger ones. They may need to work, so their education takes lower priority. In rare cases, the mother is unable to take care of the children (because of drug abuse, mental illness, etc.), and the children are taken into the child welfare system. We don’t yet know much about the long-term economic, psychological, and social impacts of parental deportation. A significant number of families are affected, with tens of thousands of parents being deported every year.

Support health clinics and food banks. Communities and funders should pay attention to proposed changes to the public charge rule. Food banks, health clinics, and other sources of community support may experience more demand if immigrant families withdraw from public benefits. Federal funding for clinics that serve the uninsured may be strong, but this isn’t true at the state and local levels. Many states and local governments have cut their healthcare safety nets, so it will be important to have a clear voice making the case for sustaining the healthcare and nutrition safety nets.

Give schools more resources. Working with schools is absolutely critical, as the well-being and future ability of so many children to reach their full potential is at stake. Schools are an important gateway to parent engagement and the identification of service needs and their provision. Schools need help with late-entering students. This is all happening at a time when many states have reduced their public education funding.

Organize immigrant families. Many families are isolating themselves from society due to fears of enforcement, public charge, discrimination, and other factors. Isolation of parents can lead to isolation of children and result in negative economic, social, and psychological impacts. Some level of organization to help families overcome this isolation and help their children integrate and become more productive members of society may be warranted.

Provide mental health services. Mental health counseling needs may expand. Mental health has always been difficult to provide to immigrant communities, for many reasons, including lack of provider capacity and linguistic and cultural barriers. Particularly concerning are the mental health needs of older kids, many of whom feel the burdens of providing for their families, and some of whom are unauthorized immigrants and therefore vulnerable to enforcement.

Develop pathways to job training. It’s helpful not just to immigrant communities but to employers, local revenue bases, and the broader society to link immigrants with jobs and job training. Many immigrants and refugees are well-educated, and their education levels are improving, but it can be difficult for them to find jobs that allow them to fully use their skills. Well-educated immigrants sometimes need assistance updating their skills and matching their skills to obtain well-paying, stable positions.

Provide a broad range of legal services. Demand for legal services, especially among immigrants in detention, has grown rapidly with the new enforcement policies. More generally, immigrant families need help planning, navigating the criminal justice system, and avoiding unscrupulous lawyers, financial advisers, and others who would take advantage of their increasingly vulnerable position. As immigrants are forced underground, they become more likely to be exploited by their employers and landlords. They need information and training about financial literacy and their rights in the US criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems.

Support research and basic counts. Immigrants may become wary of participating in government surveys such as the Census and American Community Survey (ACS) that are used to determine Congressional representation and allocate resources. The last ACS we have is from 2016. More recent data from the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) show some declines in the immigrant population during 2017. We don’t know if the population drops we’ve seen in the preliminary CPS data are real, if people are not completing surveys, or if there are methodological issues in the CPS that are leading to these apparent declines.

The administration’s proposal to add questions about citizenship to the 2020 Census could further depress the immigrant count in high-immigrant states and localities. Demographers are beginning to worry that the 2020 census will vastly undercount immigrants. In response, funders can provide research on immigrants’ survey response (i.e., through large-sample, localized surveys) to help benchmark the official numbers. Many things that the federal government does are based on the Census count, making that count critical for equitable treatment of all US residents, including not only immigrants but also US-born citizens.

Strengthen refugee organizations. There’s been a big reduction in refugee flows, to the lowest level potentially in three decades. The drop in flows presents both an opportunity and a challenge. Many organizations are funded based on how many refugees they resettle, so that puts them at risk of closing or laying off staff. On the other hand, with fewer refugees coming in, the caseload is lower and the quality of services can improve. It could be an opportunity to experiment with different types of service delivery in small refugee populations.

Talk to and inform immigrant communities. It’s important for funders to stay educated and to have discussions with their communities about what’s happening. There’s a need for people to understand what’s going on, especially the details of the many rapidly changing federal policies and how they are being implemented. There’s a role for foundations to get the word out and help the broader public understand these changes with better accuracy. It’s important to track the policy changes themselves, but also their effects on immigrant families and children, along with the schools, health and social service providers, and other organizations that serve them.

Tell stories and change the narrative. The new policies, their implementation, and the general rhetoric around immigration are generating fear in immigrant communities and division among policymakers, law enforcement officials, and other leaders across US communities. Investment in efforts to bring together communities to discuss immigration and related issues can help bridge some of these divides and put immigrant communities at ease. This type of work is occurring at the state and local levels across the country. The immigrant integration story is different everywhere with different populations and economies and increasingly uneven state and local policy responses.