The blog of the Urban Institute
January 7, 2015

Evaluating immigration reform with a two-generation lens

January 7, 2015

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 /


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


NOTE & WARNING: The links provided below contain direct quotes from Obama and his officials. The Left-Leaning LA Times posted an article that shows that the Obama administration, the Illegal Alien lobby, and the major media outlets have been in collusion to depict the "high" deportation numbers. The exact opposite is true since the beginning of the current President's policy. Interior deportation has and will be lower than 1973 rates. This is leading towards more people overstaying their visas and currently, more Illegal Alien minors crossing the border. Obama has just recently instructed border patrol to not turn back those Illegal Aliens on record as having entered illegally as priors, but to let them pass IF they don't have a major criminal record. After the first Illegal Entry, it is a felony each time thereafter. Even Obama in 2011, called the deportation numbers deceptive when talking to Hispanic voters. President Obama said statistics that show his administration is on track to deport more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration are misleading. “The statistics are a little deceptive,” he said Wednesday in an online discussion aimed at Hispanic voters." "If you are a run-of-the-mill immigrant here illegally, your odds of getting deported are close to zero — it's just highly unlikely to happen," John Sandweg, until recently the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement,0,545192...
ttp:// "Civil Rights Commissioner Warns Obama Executive Amnesty Will Hurt Black, STEM Workers" "I write to express my concern regarding reports that you plan on issuing an executive order that purports to grant legal status and work authorization to millions of illegal immigrants after the November elections. My concerns center around the effect such grant of legal status will have on two subsets of American workers: low-skilled workers: particularly low-skilled black workers, and high-skilled STEM workers."