Urban Wire Immigrant families: Characteristics and contexts
Julia Gelatt, Heather Koball, H. Elizabeth Peters
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Immigration has become a contentious issue on the presidential campaign trail, between parties, and also within the crowded GOP field. While the candidates debate the future of federal immigration policy, on the ground, families and communities are working to support the growing numbers of children of immigrants in the country.

Efforts to support parents and their children’s healthy growth and development must recognize the tremendous diversity in immigrant families and the different environments in which they live.

The majority of US immigrant families are from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, but immigration from Mexico has slowed while immigration from various parts of Asia has increased, meaning that US immigrant families are increasingly diverse. And that diversity is reaching new parts of the country that have very different policies, demographics, and public attitudes about immigration.

Varied characteristics

Our recent analysis of the preschool wave of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort—a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of US families with children born in 2001—provides one glimpse of the characteristics of immigrant families from different world regions.

For example, mothers from Mexico and Latin America have much lower education than US-born mothers: only 44 percent of Mexican-born mothers in the survey have at least a high school diploma, as do 69 percent of mothers from other Latin American countries. Asian-born mothers, on the other hand, have much more education than US-born mothers: 72 percent of mothers born in China and 48 percent of mothers from other Asian countries in the survey have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In comparison, about 28 percent of US-born mothers have a bachelor’s degree.

Similar differences are found in indicators such as food insecurity. Roughly 16 percent of Mexican-born mothers report household food insecurity, compared with 9 percent of US-born mothers and only 2 percent of Chinese-born mothers in the sample. About 12 percent of Mexican-born mothers, 11 percent of mothers born in other Latin America countries, 6 percent of US-born mothers, and just 2 percent of Chinese-born mothers in the sample reported that they lived in a neighborhood that was fairly or very unsafe.

Varied contexts

Immigrant families also live in widely varying community and state contexts. As others have noted, while the federal government has stalled in attempts to revise federal immigration policy, states and localities have been busy passing immigration-related laws and implementing programs and services to support the integration of immigrant families.

Some immigrant families live in states that offer driver’s licenses, public health insurance, and/or in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. Some states and cities have set up offices of immigrant affairs or have passed language access policies to support immigrant families’ integration. Others states have sought to mandate use of a federal employment verification system by all employers, increase cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, and/or restrict the rights of undocumented immigrants as far as they are able within rulings by federal courts.

And shifts in where immigrant families settle mean that some immigrant families can rely on large immigrant communities from the same country or even the same hometown as they learn to navigate US systems and institutions, while others live mainly among US-born neighbors, which may mean greater social integration challenges and higher language barriers. These varying demographics have also been linked to varying public attitudes toward immigrants.

What this means for immigrant families

These varied family characteristics and contexts all have implications for family functioning, well-being, and mobility.

Research has shown, for example, how the availability of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants affects undocumented youth’s educational attainment, and how local deportation rates affect immigrant mothers’ willingness to access public insurance for their children.

Other research shows how family characteristics and neighborhood settings alike affect family functioning and child well-being. For example, our analysis  shows that different socioeconomic characteristics between immigrant and US-born parents explain some observed differences in parenting practices, such as emotional supportiveness; cognitive stimulation; and household routines and rules around dinnertime, bedtime, foods, chores, and television.

Knowing more about immigrant families and their diverse backgrounds, needs, and environments will help inform efforts to support their well-being and integration.

Research Areas Families Immigrants and immigration
Tags Immigrant children, families, and communities