The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 16, 2018

Immigrant parents shouldn’t have to choose between their dream of permanent residency and meeting their children’s basic needs

February 16, 2018

Vox reported last week that the administration was drafting regulations that could force immigrant parents to choose between pursuing their dream of permanent residency and meeting their children’s basic needs.

Not only would these draft regulations place millions of immigrant parents in a dire predicament, they could also affect the healthy development of many of the 18 million children of immigrants in the US (9 in 10 of whom are citizens) and thus undermine our nation’s economic future.

Under these draft regulations, if an immigrant parent enrolls their child in a social program that helps them get a strong start in life—such as Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), and others—they will be marked as someone who has used public resources. This label could be held against the parent when their application for permanent residency comes up for consideration and could lead to their application being denied. This would apply to parents of citizen and noncitizen children.

This plan is short sighted. Our social safety net programs for children were created because our country recognized that we have a moral imperative and an economic imperative to support children’s healthy development. This proposal undercuts both.

Supporting children’s healthy development has far-reaching benefits

Evidence shows that high-quality early education programs such as Head Start, nutrition programs such as WIC, and health insurance programs such as CHIP help meet children’s basic needs for healthy development and lay the foundation for them to become contributing members of society. If these regulations go into effect, many immigrant parents might choose not to enroll their children in these programs.

These investments in children have both short- and long-term benefits. In the short term, they support children’s healthy physical, socioemotional, and cognitive development, as well as school readiness and success. They also lead to long-term benefits, such as higher rates of high school graduation and higher earnings.  

These benefits extend beyond the children themselves. Nobel laureate and economist Jim Heckman has shown that investing in children’s healthy development in the early years is one of the most effective strategies for economic growth. He argues that “short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-benefits” through a range of mechanisms, including “through reduction in special education and remediation, better health outcomes…and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families.”  

The proposed regulations have serious implications for our nation’s future economic health and well-being. One in four children are children of immigrants. When these children grow up, they will make up a significant proportion of our nation’s workforce and will be essential to the healthy functioning of our economy and democracy. While these proposed regulations would not affect all these children, we shouldn’t undermine the healthy development, success, and productivity of such a large part of our future workforce.

Beyond these proposed regulations’ possible short- and long-term economic impacts, on a basic human level, I am disturbed by this suggested policy change. Even indirectly restricting young children’s access to basic human needs—such as food, health care, and early education—because of the status of their parents is problematic. Furthermore, it forces immigrant parents to choose between their parental drive to meet their children’s basic needs and their efforts to ensure their children’s long-term safety and security by seeking legal residency. 

These proposed regulations could harm children and present immigrant parents with heartbreaking trade-offs. They are also concerning on a larger social and economic scale, as they are costly in the short and long term and could deny our nation the healthy, educated, and productive future workforce we will need to thrive.

Ingrid Encalada, an undocumented immigrant from Peru and mother of two, holds her son Anibal Jurado, 17 months, at their home in Thornton, Colorado. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.


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