Photo of children with linked arms

Part of Us: A Data-Driven Look at Children of Immigrants

Shedding light on the children of immigrants who are shaping this country’s future

March 14, 2019

One out of every four children in the US has at least one immigrant parent. Most are US citizens and the majority have at least one parent who is a US citizen. These children are America’s children; the nation’s future is inextricably linked to theirs. Their ability to learn, grow, and thrive is a measure of what this country will become.

The characteristics and realities of children of immigrants and their families are far more diverse and complex than suggested by stereotypes in public debate. These nine charts aim to tell a more complete story of who these children are, dispelling myths and shedding light on the diversity of their experiences, characteristics, and backgrounds.

One-Quarter of US Children Are Children of Immigrants

Over 18 million children in the US are children of immigrants, meaning they have at least one foreign-born parent. The share is even higher in some states—for example, in 2017, nearly half of children in California (48 percent) were children of immigrants. Additionally, more than 90 percent of children of immigrants in the US were US citizens.

The number of children with at least one immigrant parent has increased modestly over the past decade, rising from 16 million (22 percent of all kids in the US) in 2006 to 18.6 million (25 percent of all kids in the US) in 2017.

Pie chart of children by parental immigration status

Most Children of Immigrants Have US-Citizen Parents

Not only are most children of immigrants US citizens, but the majority (61 percent) also had at least one US-citizen parent in 2017.

Of the 11.4 million children of immigrants who had at least one US-citizen parent in 2017,

  • 6.4 million had only foreign-born parents, at least one of whom became a US citizen through naturalization.
  • 5 million had both a foreign-born parent and a parent who was born a US citizen.

The remaining 7.2 million children of immigrants had only noncitizen parents. Noncitizen immigrants include people with green cards or temporary visas and a minority who are unauthorized or have temporary protections.

Pie chart of children by parental citizenship status

Children of Immigrants’ Parents Are More Likely to Have Less Than a High School Education, but a Large Share Have a Four-Year College Degree

Just as there is no single immigrant story, there is no single story for children of immigrants. We see this in part when looking at education levels. Most children of immigrants have parents with a high school education or college degree (79 percent in 2017). More than a third have a parent with at least a four-year college degree—a rate only slightly lower than for children with only US-born parents.

However, about one in five children of immigrants have parents who have less than a high school education, a much higher share than children of only US-born parents. Having parents with less than a high school education is a significant risk factor for children’s development, is associated with lower incomes for children when they grow up, and is related to lower economic mobility.

Grouped bar chart of parental education levels

Children of Immigrants’ Families Work Hard, but They Are More Likely to Have Low Incomes

Children of immigrants’ families are more likely to have low incomes than families of children with only US-born parents, even though the adults in their families are slightly more likely to work a substantial number of hours.

Many live in families that work hard and support the economy but are still not able to get ahead. In 2017, more than 92 percent of children of immigrants lived in families where all the adults worked either 1,000 hours or more, on average, or 1,800 hours or more combined in the prior year. However, nearly half of children of immigrants lived in low-income families versus just over a third of children with only US-born parents.

Bar charts of work status and poverty status

Children of Immigrants’ Parental Country of Origin Varies by State and Region

Nationally, 38 percent (7 million) of children of immigrants in 2017 had a primary parenta from Mexico, 19 percent (3.5 million) from the rest of Central America and South America, and 43 percent (8 million) from other parts of the world.

The backgrounds of children of immigrants’ families vary by state and region. For example, children of immigrants with parents from Mexico are somewhat more likely to live in western states, but children of immigrants with Central or South American parents are more likely to live along the eastern seaboard.

Similarly, more than half of children of immigrants are Hispanic overall, but the share in different racial and ethnic groups varies by state and metropolitan area.

aIf parents come from different countries (which occurs 31 percent of the time in these data), we show only the country of the primary parent. Primary parent refers to the only parent in single-parent families, the mother in families with two opposite-sex parents, and the first parent listed in IPUMS USA data for families with two same-sex parents.

Maps of share of children of immigrants by region

Children of Immigrants’ Parental Country of Origin Varies by State and Region

Nationally, 38 percent (7 million) of children of immigrants in 2017 had a primary parenta from Mexico, 19 percent (3.5 million) from the rest of Central America and South America, and 43 percent (8 million) from other parts of the world.

The backgrounds of children of immigrants’ families vary by state and region. For example, children of immigrants with parents from Mexico are somewhat more likely to live in western states, but children of immigrants with Central or South American parents are more likely to live along the eastern seaboard.

Similarly, more than half of children of immigrants are Hispanic overall, but the share in different racial and ethnic groups varies by state and metropolitan area.

aIf parents come from different countries (which occurs 31 percent of the time in these data), we show only the country of the primary parent. Primary parent refers to the only parent in single-parent families, the mother in families with two opposite-sex parents, and the first parent listed in IPUMS USA data for families with two same-sex parents.

Maps of share of children of immigrants by region

Most Children of Immigrants Have One or More Immigrant Parents Who Have Been in the US for Many Years

While much of the focus in recent public debates has been on new immigrant arrivals, more than three-quarters of children of immigrants have parents who have all been in the US for a decade or more. Only a small share (11 percent in 2017) has even one immigrant parent who has been in the US for fewer than 5 years.

The share of children of immigrants whose immigrant parent(s) have been in the US for a decade or longer has increased in recent years from 68 percent in 2006 to 77 percent in 2017, while the share of those with recent immigrant parents has remained relatively stable at around 10 percent over the past decade.

Pie chart of children by parental length of stay in US

Greatest Increase in the Share of Children Who Are Children of Immigrants Has Occurred in Some Unexpected Parts of the Country

States with the greatest growth in the share of children who are children of immigrants are not always traditional immigrant destinations, but rather new destinations that had low immigrant populations before the turn of the century. These states include, for example, North Carolina and Nebraska, where the share increased from 12 to 19 percent and 11 to 16 percent between 2006 and 2017, respectively.

Conversely, the traditional immigrant destination of Texas, which has one of the highest shares of children who are children of immigrants, experienced a smaller increase (31 to 34 percent). The share in California, the state with the most children of immigrants and the highest share of children who are children of immigrants, actually fell from 49 to 48 percent.

This reality means that immigration policy developments are relevant in states and localities all across the country, not only in states that have large immigrant populations currently.

Map of change in share of children of immigrants by state

Children of Immigrants Are More Likely to Be Bilingual Than Other Children

Approximately 38 percent of children of immigrants in 2017 had parents with limited English proficiency, which can pose a challenge for parents in obtaining a good job, finding and enrolling in public programs, owning a home, and navigating their children’s early education and school systems. In addition, 14 percent of children of immigrants had limited English proficiency themselves.

Despite these challenges, having parents who speak a language other than English can give children of immigrants some important advantages. More than half are bilingual, a much higher percentage than children with only US-born parents (5 percent in 2017). And speaking more than one language is a potential advantage in an increasingly global economy.

Grouped bar chart of bilingual status among children of immigrants

Children of Immigrants Are More Likely to Live in Two-Parent Families

Children of immigrants are more likely to live in two-parent families than children of only US-born parents. Living in a two-parent family can be advantageous, as it is associated with greater stability and richer childhood environments, greater potential availability to provide child care, and higher family incomes given both parents are potential workers.

Grouped bar chart of share of children of immigrant by number of parents in household

Policies Affecting Children of Immigrants Should Be Rooted in Evidence

The children of immigrants will shape our country’s future. They are today’s students and playmates and tomorrow’s teachers, workers, and taxpayers. But current immigration policies may jeopardize their well-being, separate them from their families, and undermine their development. Understanding the reality of who these children and families are is critical to ensuring that ongoing debates are informed by evidence.