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All Under One Roof: Mixed-Status Families in an Era of Reform

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Document date: October 06, 1999
Released online: October 06, 1999

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors, and should not be attributed to The Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

The authors would like to thank Scott Anderson and Alyse Freilich for their excellent research assistance; Rebecca Clark for her expert analytic advice; and Jenny Genser, Susan Martin, David Nielsen, Jeffrey S. Passel, Lisa Roney, and Karen Tumlin for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts.

Support for this paper has been provided by the Ford, William and Flora Hewlett, and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations and by a consortium of federal agencies that includes the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Health Care Financing Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This paper was initially presented at the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


The casual observer—and policymaker—might readily believe that the country is neatly divided into two kinds of families: those composed of citizens who have strong claims to legal rights and social benefits, and those composed of noncitizens, whose claims to both are more contingent. American families, however, are far more complex: the number of families that contain a mix of both citizens and noncitizens is surprisingly large. Nearly 1 in 10 U.S. families with children is a mixed-status family, that is to say, a family in which one or more parents is a noncitizen and one or more children is a citizen. Further, mixed-status families are themselves complex: they may be made up of any combination of legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and naturalized citizens. Their composition also changes frequently, as undocumented family members legalize their status and legal immigrants naturalize. The number, complexity, and fluidity of these mixed immigration status families complicate the design and implementation of the already complicated arenas of immigration and immigrant policy.(1)

In this paper, we document the prevalence of mixed immigration status families and discuss some of the immigration and citizenship policies that drive their formation. We identify a number of the challenges that mixed-status families pose for achieving the goals of recent welfare and illegal immigration reform laws. More specifically, we explore how recent curbs on noncitizens' use of public benefits may have the unintended effects of "chilling" citizen children's use of benefits. We note how efforts to single out immigrant children for the restoration of benefits such as food stamps may fall short of the intended objectives because most children of immigrants are already citizens who never lost their eligibility for benefits in the first place. These benefit restorations may also fall wide of the mark because the citizen children may still suffer the effects of their parents' reduced eligibility. Both of these results are, in a sense, the by-products of mixed-status families and social policies that treat citizens and noncitizens differently.

We also examine how recent laws limiting undocumented immigrants' ability to adjust from illegal to legal status could effectively perpetuate certain mixed-status families. They do so by freezing a growing number of parents and children into differing statuses: parents as undocumented immigrants or "outsiders" (to use Peter Schuck's phrase), children as citizens or "insiders."(2) At the same time, policies that make it easier to remove or deport illegal and legal immigrants could have the impact of dividing more mixed-status families. While these policies might serve the goal of reducing illegal immigration, they do so at the expense of family unity. Finally, we note that a new policy denying legal immigrant status to aliens whose sponsors do not have incomes over 125 percent of poverty could have the unintended effects of either keeping families apart or transforming what might have been a legal immigration flow into an illegal one. The result, again, could be to increase the number of mixed-status families whose members could face divided fates as the parents are locked into illegal status while their children are born as citizens. The citizen children in these families may not receive the same opportunities as other citizen children due to their parents' legal status.

From the outset, we should make clear that we do not believe the "solution" to the challenges raised by mixed-status families is to transform the policies that give rise to them—most notably, the strong family reunification thrust of our immigration policies and the grant of birthright citizenship. Our aim, rather, is to call attention to the unintended effects of social policies—such as welfare reform—that do not appear to take into account the mixed legal statuses of immigrant families and the prevalence of citizen children within them when public benefits and rights are partitioned.


1. Immigration policy determines who enters the United States and in what numbers. Immigrant policy can be viewed as the cluster of policies that govern how immigrants are integrated into the U.S. economy and society, including those that determine participation in the social welfare state. See Michael Fix and Wendy Zimmermann, "After Arrival: An Overview of Federal Immigrant Policy in the United States," in B. Edmonston and J. Passel, eds., Immigration and Ethnicity, The Integration of America's Newest Arrivals, The Urban Institute Press, 1994.

2. Peter H. Schuck, Citizens, Strangers and In-Betweens: Essays on Immigration and Citizenship, Westview Press, 1998.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Families and Parenting | Immigrants

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