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Immigrant Children
America’s Future

Authors: Nancy K. Cauthen and Kinsey Alden Dinan
Publication Date: March 2006

Reprinted with permission from TomPaine.com.

We have heard from the president and the House of Representatives on immigration reform. Now, the Senate Judiciary Committee is debating the issue, with the full Senate expecting a bill by the end of the month. Despite the reality that more than 20 percent of this nation’s children live in immigrant families, the debate has largely ignored these children. We need national leadership that understands and cares about the needs of immigrant workers and their families.

Immigrant children, and the much larger group of children born in the U.S. of immigrant parents, are at great risk for living in poverty, which compromises their health, safety and futures. Living on the edge even as their parents work extremely hard, these children are less likely than other children to receive help from government programs that protect low-wage workers and their families.

This is a paradox we cannot continue to ignore. Assisting the children of immigrants is central to promoting the economic security of America’s families.

Until recently, our country’s immigrant population had been concentrated in six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas. However, the 19 states that saw their foreign-born population more than double between 1990 and 2000 did not include any of these six “traditional” immigration states. Altogether, children of immigrants comprise more than 26 percent of all low-income children in the United States.

Yet virtually all immigrant families are working families. According to a report by the National Center for Children in Poverty, 97 percent of children with foreign-born parents have a parent who works and 72 percent have a parent who works full-time, year round. Despite high rates of employment, many immigrant parents struggle to provide for their children.

Addressing their needs means carefully considering the interplay of policies regarding immigration and the working poor. The bulk of immigrant families are considered “mixed status,” with the majority of parents noncitizens while more than 70 percent of their children are full legal citizens. These same children are often held hostage by federal restrictions that limit their or family members’ eligibility for important safety nets, such as food stamps and public health insurance.

Until about 10 years ago, most legal residents were eligible for public benefits just like American citizens. This changed with the overhaul of welfare in 1996, which imposed restrictions on certain legal noncitizens’ access to government services designed to assist low-wage workers and their families. The upshot has been reduced benefit participation even among legal immigrants—citizens and residents alike—who remained eligible for assistance.

Confusion over changed eligibility rules partly explains the drop, but fear of interacting with government officials is a big factor. Heightened penalties and stories of deportation in a more hostile climate post-9/11 have exacerbated immigrants’ reluctance to seek assistance, compounding the impact of other cultural and linguistic barriers. This country benefits immeasurably from the contributions of immigrants. We can and should do better.

First, the federal government should eliminate eligibility restrictions based on citizenship status. These restrictions penalize hard-working families and jeopardize the futures of millions of children. Policymakers should increase the opportunities for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and grant their children access to public health insurance and other benefits.

To meet immediate human needs, some states address the gap in supports by offering their own programs for legal noncitizens who are barred from federal benefits. State policies that promote family economic security more generally are also essential for assisting immigrant families.

In industrialized countries across Europe, governments are concerned that as their populations age, the ultimate resource—human capital—becomes scarce. But America has the promise of a still growing country of young people, and we need to recognize that they are our greatest potential asset. The vast majority of the children of immigrants will remain here for life. Opportunities for our future will depend on the opportunities we afford them.