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Immigrant Children: Introducing the Issue

From: The Future of Children
Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 3-18 | 10.1353/foc.2011.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Large numbers of immigrant children are experiencing serious problems with education, physical and mental health, poverty, and assimilation into American society. The purpose of this volume is to examine the well-being of these children and what might be done to improve their educational attainment, health status, social and cognitive development, and long-term prospects for economic mobility.

The well-being of immigrant children is especially important to the nation because they are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. In 2008, nearly one in four youth aged seventeen and under lived with an immigrant parent, up from 15 percent in 1990. Among children younger than nine, those with immigrant parents have accounted for virtually all of the net growth since 1990. What these demographic trends portend for the future of immigrant children, however, is highly uncertain for several reasons. First, whether they achieve social integration and economic mobility depends on the degree of access they have to quality education from preschool through college. Second, these young immigrants are coming of age in an aging society that will require unprecedented social expenditures for health and retirement benefits for seniors. Third, large numbers of these youth now live in communities where few foreign-born residents have previously settled. That more than 5 million youth now reside in households of mixed legal status, where one or both parents are unauthorized to live and work in the United States, heightens still further the uncertainty about the futures of immigrant children. Although nearly three-fourths of children who live with undocumented parents are citizens by birth, their status as dependents of unauthorized residents thwarts integration prospects during their crucial formative years. Even having certifiably legal status is not enough to guarantee children's access to social programs if parents lack information about child benefits and entitlements, as well as the savvy to navigate complex bureaucracies.

In this volume, we use the term immigrant youth to refer to children from birth to age seventeen who have at least one foreign-born parent. Because an immigrant child's birthplace—that is, whether inside or outside the United States—is associated with different rights and responsibilities and also determines eligibility for some social programs, to the extent possible contributors to the volume distinguish between youth who are foreign-born (designated the first generation) and those who were born in the United States to immigrant parents (the second generation). U.S.-born children whose parents also were born in the United States make up the third generation.

The Problem

Contemporary immigrant youth are far more diverse by national origin, socioeconomic status, and settlement patterns than earlier waves of immigrants, and their growing numbers coincide with a period of high socioeconomic inequality. Recent economic and social trends provide cause for concern. On most social indicators, children with immigrant parents fare worse than their native-born counterparts. For example, compared with their third-generation age counterparts, immigrant youth are more likely to live in poverty, forgo needed medical care, drop out of high school, and experience behavioral problems. At the same time, however, immigrant youth are more likely than natives to reside with two parents, a family arrangement generally associated with better outcomes for youth than is residing with a single parent. The benefits of this protective family arrangement, however, are weakened for immigrant youth whose parents are not proficient in English, are not authorized to live and work in the United States, and have only limited earnings capacity.

The academic progress of the large majority of immigrant youth residing in households whose members speak a language other than English lags behind that of children whose parents were born in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the share of children aged five to seventeen living in families that speak a language other than English rose from 9 percent in 1979 to 21 percent in 2008. Of these youth in non-English-language households, who represent 5 percent of all school-aged youth in the United States, nearly one in four speaks English with difficulty. Youth reared in homes where English is not spoken lag behind native youth in reading and math achievement, especially...



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