Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
Trends in the numbers of immigrant youth and their share of the youth population are a complex interplay of fertility trends among foreign-born and native women, as well as of current and historic levels of immigration. By the early 1900s the United States had already experienced relatively high levels of immigration for more than half a century. Immigrants represented 13–15 percent of the population from 1870 through 1920. Immigrant youth, the children of this immigrant wave, became a large and increasing share of all youth. The first and second generations represented more than one-quarter of all children by 1920 (figure 2). The advent of World War I and restrictive immigration legislation enacted in the late 1910s and early 1920s caused the flow of immigrants to drop dramatically. As a result the foreign-born share of the population began to drop by 1920, and the absolute size of the foreign-born population peaked in 1930.
With almost no immigration in the 1930s and relatively little in the decades immediately after World War II, the share of the foreign-born population fell to 4.7 percent in 1970—the lowest it had been since 1850 when the Census began collecting data on birthplace. The aging and shrinking foreign-born population, combined with a drop in the fertility rate induced by the Great Depression, meant that the second generation was not being replenished, so the number of immigrant youth decreased, as did their share of the youth population. By 1960 immigrant youth numbered only 4.1 million—the low point of the twentieth century—down substantially from the high of 10.1 million in 1920. They represented only slightly over 6 percent of all children, or about one-fourth of their share in the early 1900s (see figure 2).
With the passage of legislation in 1965 that expanded immigration, the foreign-born population began to grow again. The origins of immigrants shifted as new laws placed potential immigrants from Asia and Latin America on an equal footing with the traditional European and Canadian sources of immigrants. Combined with the emergence of large-scale unauthorized immigration in the 1970s, mainly from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, this new wave of immigration led to fundamental shifts in the composition of the American population. By the late 1990s annual inflows of unauthorized immigrants began to exceed inflows of legal immigrants and continued to do so for about a decade.12 Since 1980 more immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, have come from Mexico than from any other country. By 2007 more than 12.5 million Mexican immigrants were living in the United States; about 55 percent of them were unauthorized.13 Other leading sources of immigrants, by volume, were India, the Philippines, China, El Salvador, Cuba, Vietnam, and Korea. By 2009 almost 40 million residents, or 12.8 percent of a U.S. population of more than 300 million, were foreign-born. This share was only slightly below the twentieth-century peak of 14.8 percent attained in 1910, when 13.5 million residents, of a total population of 92 million, were foreign-born.
The immigrants of the late 1990s were young—the median age of the foreign-born population dropped from more than sixty in 1960 to just over forty after 2000. Immigrant women, especially those from Latin America, had higher fertility rates than U.S. natives. As the number of new immigrants in the country began to grow, so too did the number of immigrant youth. By 1990 children of immigrants accounted for 13 percent of all youth, or double the 1960 low. By 2000 the number of immigrant youth reached almost 15 million, greatly surpassing the previous high of 10.1 million in 1920. Their share of the under-eighteen population passed 20 percent. By 2009 the number of immigrant youth had risen to 17.3 million, or 23.2 percent of all children in the United States.
Even though immigration has slowed since 2005,14 the number and share of immigrant youth will continue to grow. The country is still receiving large numbers of immigrants, the foreign-born population is large and young, and immigrant fertility rates remain higher than native rates. In recent years about one-quarter of U.S. births were to foreign-born mothers.15 Generation-based projections show that the proportion of foreign-born youth in the country will continue to increase with even modest levels of immigration. By 2050 immigrant youth are likely to represent about one-third of all children (see figure 2).16
Generations in the Immigrant Youth Population
Children who are themselves immigrants, usually brought to the United States by their parents, account for a relatively small share of arriving immigrants—about 20 percent in recent years.17 In contrast, over half of all newly arriving immigrants are of childbearing age. Because of this demographic dynamic, about five-sixths of the children of immigrants are born in the United States (table 1).
The U.S.-born children of immigrants—the second generation—enter the population at birth, by definition, and are considered immigrant youth for eighteen years; in 2009 about 84 percent of immigrant children were born in the United States (table 1, last line). In contrast, first-generation immigrant youth are those born overseas who enter the U.S. population at any age up to eighteen. About two-fifths of these first-generation children are thirteen to seventeen years old and thus "age out" of the youth population within five years of arrival. As a result, first-generation youth as a group are older than second-generation youth; the median ages in 2009 were 12.5 and 7.6 years, respectively. Moreover, the younger the age group, the higher the percentage of immigrant youth who are U.S.-born. About 94 percent of immigrant children under age six, about 83 percent of those aged six to eleven, and 73 percent of those aged twelve to seventeen were born in the United States. The different age structures of the first and second generations affect socioeconomic characteristics of the groups and can have significant implications for education and social service programs.
Legal Status and Family Structure
The number of unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States grew by an average of roughly half a million a year, from 3.5 million in 1990 to about 12 million in 2007.18 The growth has since stopped. Inflows of unauthorized immigrants have dropped by two-thirds, largely because of a lack of jobs and increased enforcement (both at the southern border and in the interior). In addition, the number of unauthorized immigrants leaving the country has increased for those from countries other than Mexico but not for Mexican unauthorized immigrants. As a result of diminished inflows and increased outflows, the unauthorized immigrant population dropped to about 11 million by March 2009.19
This population is very young: about one-quarter of the total are young, unaccompanied men (6 percent are unaccompanied women); and more than 60 percent of undocumented adults are in couples. Not only did many of these couples bring children with them, but many have had children in the United States. By 2009 about 1.1 million unauthorized (foreign-born) children and 10.0 million unauthorized adults lived in the United States. In addition, these adults had 4 million children who were U.S. citizens by virtue of being born in the United States, almost three-quarters of all children of unauthorized immigrants (table 2).20 The number of U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants has been growing in recent years, with about 300,000–350,000 births a year to undocumented immigrant parents, representing about 8 percent of all U.S. births.21
Families that include one or more U.S.-citizen children and one or two unauthorized immigrant adults are known as "mixed-status" families. They include all U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, about 450,000 unauthorized children (foreign-born siblings of the U.S.-born), and 3.8 million unauthorized adults representing more than one-third (38 percent) of adult unauthorized immigrants. 22 There are about 2.3 million mixed-status families with an average of about 1.7 U.S.-born children and 0.2 unauthorized immigrant children.
Latinos dominate the unauthorized population (almost 60 percent of all undocumented immigrants are from Mexico alone, and another 20 percent are from other parts of Latin America), so most of the children of unauthorized immigrants are Latino.23 About three-quarters of unauthorized foreign-born children and more than 85 percent of the U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants are Latino. The Mexican unauthorized population stands at about 6.7 million, compared with about 500,000 for the next-largest source country (El Salvador), and as a group, unauthorized Mexicans have been in the country longer than others. Consequently, this group dominates the children of unauthorized immigrants. About two-thirds of unauthorized children are from Mexico, and about 3 million U.S.-born Mexican-origin children have at least one unauthorized parent, accounting for almost three-quarters of the U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants. The 450,000 U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants from Central and South America make up the next largest group.
Altogether, foreign-born and U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants represented about 6.9 percent of all children in 2009 (see table 2). However, they are about 30 percent of immigrant youth, with unauthorized foreign-born children accounting for about 6 percent of immigrant youth and the U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants making up about 24 percent (figure 3). The mixed-status families present a number of special challenges, especially for social programs and schools. Because the U.S.-born children in the mixed-status families are U.S. citizens, they, but not their undocumented foreign-born siblings, are eligible for welfare programs, various social services, and education programs (including scholarships). Despite their children's eligibility, unauthorized immigrant parents may be reluctant to take advantage of needed programs or services for fear that government program administrators might discover their status. At the extreme are cases where undocumented parents have been subject to deportation, leaving them with difficult decisions about taking their U.S.-born children with them or leaving them in the United States where their range of opportunities would presumably be better than in the home country.24
Where Immigrant Youth Live
Children of immigrants live in every state, but their numbers and shares differ dramatically from state to state. Three-fourths of immigrant children live in just ten states—Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington. Nearly half of all immigrant children live in just three states (California, Texas, and New York), and California alone is home to 28 percent of this group (figure 4). At the other extreme, the twenty-five states with the smallest number of immigrant youth account for less than 7 percent of all immigrant youth in the United States.
California has not only the largest number of immigrant youth but also the highest concentration; roughly half of the children in the state are children of immigrants, more than twice the national share of 23 percent (figure 5). In another five states (Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, and Texas), about one-third of the children are immigrant youth.25 In nineteen states immigrant youth make up less than 10 percent of the child population.
States have taken different approaches to social welfare programs for immigrants and their children. Some states extend benefits to legal resident noncitizens, others allow access to legal immigrants only after a period of U.S. residency; and none routinely gives benefits to unauthorized immigrants. Figure 4 shows the "generosity" of state support programs toward noncitizens based on four access rules pertaining to noncitizens' eligibility for state-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food assistance, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).26 California, the state with the largest number and concentration of immigrant youth, is among the three most generous states, offering access under all four rules; the other two states are Maine and Nebraska, which together are home to just half a percent of the nation's immigrant youth. Texas, the state with the second-largest number and concentration of immigrant youth, is among the six least generous states that offer no access for legal noncitizens; the other five—Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, and North Dakota—are among the states with the smallest numbers and concentrations of immigrant youth. The remaining eight states with the largest immigrant youth populations offer access under one or two of the rules. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia offer access to TANF only to immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years; about one in every six children in these states is the child of an immigrant. Overall, the relationship between generosity and either the number or share of immigrant youth is not very strong (with correlations of about 0.25 between immigrant youth size or concentration and noncitizen access).
Racial and Ethnic Composition
The youth of today are more diverse racially and ethnically than at any other time in the nation's history; they are also more diverse than any other age group today, and the principal source of this diversity is immigrant youth. In 2009 white, non-Hispanic children accounted for 56 percent of all children under eighteen; black children, 14 percent; Hispanic children, 22 percent; Asian, 4 percent; and mixed races, 2.8 percent.27 The proportion of white children has been falling rapidly since 1970 when four in five children (79 percent) were white; in the first half of the 1900s, more than 85 percent of children were white. The percentage of black children was about 11–13 percent between 1900 and 1960; since then their share has increased slowly to about 14–15 percent. These patterns mean that for the first half of the twentieth century the share of children who were neither white nor black was well under 4 percent. The pattern began to change in the 1950s, and since then the number of both Asian and Hispanic children has increased steadily and rapidly. The proportion neither white nor black increased from 6 percent in 1960 to 12 percent in 1980, 25 percent in 2000, and 30 percent in 2009. By 1990 black children represented less than half of minority children, and as of 2000 Latino children outnumbered black children.
The racial and ethnic composition of immigrant youth differs substantially from the overall population and from third-generation youth. Not surprisingly, immigrant youth (first and second generation) most closely resemble their parental generation, the adult first generation. In 2009 only 17 percent of immigrant youth and 21 percent of adult immigrants were white, non-Hispanic (the majority group in the overall population), compared with 67 percent of third-generation youth and 65 percent of the total U.S. population (see table 3). The representation of Hispanics and Asians is substantially greater among immigrant youth and adults than among U.S.-born children with native parents and the total population. Fifty-eight percent of immigrant youth are of Hispanic origin, or about five times the 11 percent found among third-generation youth. About 16 percent of immigrant youth are Asian, compared with less than 1 percent of third-generation youth. These two groups are prevalent because about 80 percent of immigrants over the past four decades have come from Asia and Latin America. Hispanic immigrant children are more prevalent (58 percent) than Hispanic immigrant adults (49 percent), whereas the reverse is true for Asians (16 percent among children and 23 percent among adults). This pattern reflects the fact that Latino fertility rates are substantially higher than Asian fertility rates.
Within each of the racial and ethnic groups, the generational composition of the youth population reflects fertility rates and the group's demographic history. Sixty percent of Hispanic children and 85 percent of Asian children in the United States are children of immigrants. The higher percentage among Asians can be attributed to the very low fertility rate of U.S.-born Asians, the higher fertility rate of U.S.-born Latinos, and the substantially larger Latino population already living in the United States before the latest immigration wave began in 1965 (see table 2.)
Among whites and blacks, the share of children who are foreign-born is very small (1.0 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively), and the second generations are only a little larger (5.9 percent and 10.7 percent). Most white and black children are U.S.-born with U.S.-born parents (see table 2). The share of foreign-born among white adults (20 percent) is much larger than among white children because a large proportion of the adults immigrated before the 1965 legislative reforms, so they are older and have not had children recently.28
Individuals who identify themselves as being of two or more major races illustrate an important feature of American society—that the terms, definitions, identities, concepts, and even the words used to specify racial groups can be very different from those used in other countries. Almost no mixed-race children are immigrants. Among those children of immigrants who do identify with multiple races, almost all (97 percent) are U.S.-born.29 Persons who identify with more than one race are usually children whose mother and father (or more distant ancestors) identified with different races. In most cases these ancestors were U.S. natives. Immigrants tend to marry other immigrants, usually from the same country, and are considerably less likely to marry persons from different racial or ethnic groups.30 Consequently, their children are less likely than children of natives to have ancestors from multiple racial groups.
Increasing diversity in the future is built into the country's current demographic structure. Regardless of levels of undocumented immigration, legal immigration will continue to bring mainly immigrants from minority backgrounds. Fertility rates are relatively high for Latinos, moderate for blacks and Asian immigrants, and low for whites and native-born Asians. Among the youth population, the majority race (white, non-Hispanic) will continue to drop, falling to 40 percent of all children by 2050. Black children will remain in the range of 14–16 percent of the total, and Latino children will increase to more than one-third. These projections assume that today's racial identities will persist and that children will be in the same racial or ethnic group as their parents. However, because the prevalence of racial and ethnic intermarriages is likely to continue increasing in the future, a higher proportion of the population will have ancestors in two or more groups, further blurring the lines separating racial and ethnic groups.
Type of Hispanic Origin
A substantial amount of diversity exists within the Hispanic population; the data permit researchers to differentiate among Mexican, Puerto Rican, Central and South American, and "other Hispanic" origins. Within each of these Hispanic-origin types, generational patterns among children depend primarily on the group's immigration history, fertility levels, and age structure. Immigrant youth account for about 60 percent of Mexican- and Cuban-origin children, only about 8 percent of Puerto Rican–origin children,31 almost 90 percent of Central and South American children, and about one-quarter of other Hispanic children (table 4).
Mexican immigrants have been coming to the United States for well over 100 years but the contemporary wave of large-scale immigration dates to the 1960s and 1970s. Cuban migration became significant in the early 1960s. For both of these groups, more than 40 percent of adults of childbearing age are U.S.-born. As a result, about one-third of Mexican- and Cuban-origin children are third generation. Because most Puerto Ricans are U.S. natives, well over 90 percent of Puerto Rican children are also third generation; about 8 percent of Puerto Rican–origin children have an immigrant parent and so are second generation. Significant migration from Central and South America began only in the 1980s, so the childbearing-age population of this group is still dominated by immigrants (about 80 percent), and only about one in eight children of Central and South American origin is third generation—the smallest share among the Hispanic-origin groups. Finally, few adults or children in the "other Hispanic" origin group are immigrants; only 20 percent of the adults are immigrants, while almost 75 percent of the children who identify themselves as "other Hispanic" are at least third generation.