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Forced Family Breakdown

Authors: Kinsey Alden Dinan and Nancy K. Cauthen
Publication Date: June 2007

Reprinted from

As the Senate looks to broker a compromise with the president on immigration reform, our leaders should pay attention to the consequences for children in immigrant families. Their needs have gotten short shrift in the bill recently put forth by Senate negotiators. In a bill born of numerous compromises and trade-offs, the interests of families have lost out.

Millions of America’s children—more than one in five—live in immigrant families. Most of these children are U.S. citizens, and it is in the interests of all Americans that they grow up to become healthy and productive members of society. Strong, stable families can provide a crucial source of support to children in immigrant families as they face hardship.

Yet our policies and practices often pull immigrant families apart. A long backlog in family visas, among other factors, leads to separations between husbands and wives and between parents and children that can last several years and more. Being separated from a parent can be extremely hard on children. And family separations also put enormous stress on parents, making it more difficult for them to care for their children and keep their marriages intact.

Another risk for children in immigrant families is the likelihood of growing up with inadequate financial resources. Even though virtually all children of immigrants have parents who work, half of them live in low-income families. Their parents are disproportionately likely to work for low wages in jobs without health insurance or other employer benefits. Like millions of other low-wage workers in this country, they work hard but still struggle to afford even the most basic necessities.

Immigrant workers have limited access to the benefits that assist low-wage workers and their families. In contrast to stereotypes, immigrants receive fewer government benefits—and fewer health services—than native-born Americans. Policies and practices restrict immigrants’ eligibility for programs and increase their fear of interacting with government officials. Fear of authorities also makes immigrant workers more vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, as they are unlikely to organize or report abuses. And when employers can exploit immigrants without repercussion, it makes it much more difficult for all workers to defend their rights.

Perhaps most at risk are children with undocumented immigrant parents. There are close to five million children in this country with parents who lack legal status. Their parents prepare our food, clean our homes and take care of our children. They pay taxes—including payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and sales taxes. And recent research confirms that both documented and undocumented immigrants are overwhelmingly law abiding. Nonetheless, they are reluctant to access even the most basic government protections and services for themselves and their children.

Regrettably, many of the immigration provisions currently under discussion threaten to exacerbate the risks faced by children with foreign-born parents, rather than address them. Family separations will only increase, for example, if Congress approves sharp cuts in family immigration visas. A lengthy and expensive legalization process for undocumented immigrants—in which applicants must return to their countries of origin, forfeit all Social Security contributions they have made and pay hefty penalty fees, among other requirements—threatens both the stability and economic security of immigrant families.

The economic contributions of immigrants are becoming even more critical as the baby boomers retire. Without immigration, America would soon face a shrinking workforce, unable to support a rising number of retirees. If the children of today’s immigrants are to become productive workers in the future, we need to focus on their health and development now.

Any comprehensive immigration reform effort will have to address a wide range of concerns. Prominent among them should be promoting strong families who are able to support and provide for their children. Immigration reform should include measures to:

  • Provide undocumented immigrants with a realistic path to citizenship.
  • Promote timely family reunification and take other steps to avoid separations between family members.
  • Ensure low-income immigrant families access to public health insurance and other benefits designed to assist low-wage workers and their families.
  • Empower immigrant workers to report employment violations and other abuses without fear of deportation.

As the immigration debate continues, the impact of proposed policies on immigrant families and children should be a primary concern. Twenty percent of this country’s children—our leaders and workers of tomorrow—have foreign-born parents. Most of these children are American citizens, born and raised in this country. The future of our nation depends in part on the future we provide for them.