Evaluating immigration reform with a two-generation lens
This new year will be big for immigration reform. Absent congressional legislation to override Obama’s recent executive action, nearly 3.5 million undocumented parents who have lived in the country for at least five years and have citizen children will qualify for relief from deportation.
Rarely do we have natural experiments of this magnitude to assess the real impact of immigration policy changes. The last time this happened was in 1986 when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), allowing nearly 2.7 million undocumented workers to normalize their immigration status.
But this administrative action is substantively different. It explicitly recognizes the importance of families. IRCA did not—it simply granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants who met residence and other basic requirements. As a result, most evaluations of IRCA’s effects on legalized immigrants themselves focused on individuals, either individually or in aggregate, and examined changes in labor market participation, employment rates, wages, and income.
So how should this time be different?
Looking beyond parents to their children and families
A good start would be to acknowledge that policies that affect parents also affect children. A lot of recent research at the Urban Institute and other institutions has documented the difficulties of living in a household with an undocumented parent—family separation and instability, added stress and anxiety, poor school performance, etc. Any evaluation of the benefits on newly protected immigrants should examine not only outcomes for formerly undocumented parents, but also for their children.
In addition, researchers should examine how family outcomes might change as a result of immigration policy changes. This includes not only income but measures of material hardship like food insecurity, housing instability, rent burden, and the ability to save and build credit.
Understanding family dynamics
But that’s not enough. We also need to better understand the mechanisms within families that lead to better outcomes.
On one hand, there are changes in the frequency and type of trade-offs immigrant families might need to make to get by—hard choices among necessities like food, transportation, rent, utilities, health care, and education.
On the other hand is the way family members make decisions about their roles in meeting immediate needs and investing in the future. Different people play different roles depending on the strengths and limitations of other family members.
Immigrant families with undocumented adults often have difficulty making ends meet. Their employment is notoriously unstable and badly paid, and many parents are reluctant to access assistance from the federal safety net for their citizen children because of misinformation and fear. As a result, many youth and young adults—including citizens—work at an early age to help pay the bills, sometimes dropping out of school early.
In the wake of Obama’s administrative order, we might reasonably expect this family dynamic to change.
With access to a legal work visa, adults who are already working are likely to earn better wages and hold more stable employment. Some previously undocumented adults who stayed home may actually have incentives to enter the labor force. Parents may feel more comfortable accessing reliable benefits like SNAP for their citizen children. These more stable economic circumstances may allow youths’ roles within households to change and alleviate pressures to enter the labor force too early.
Taking a longer view
Dedicating more time and energy to finishing high school and pursuing higher education may yield big benefits not only for the children of immigrants in the short term but also for subsequent immigrant generations, and ultimately the larger US economy.
The truth is, figuring out how to better support these youth is critical. Children of immigrants are the fastest growing demographic group and research shows that progress often stalls out after the second generation.
Maybe the key to bending this curve is to better support their parents and families during critical transitions in their children’s lives. Or maybe not.
But a nuanced two-generation evaluation of Obama’s latest administrative action would go long way toward better understanding how well immigration policies build ladders of opportunity for the next generation of Americans.
Let’s not miss this opportunity.
Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com