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Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

The Living Arrangements of Children of Immigrants
Nancy S. Landale Kevin J. A. Thomas Jennifer Van Hook


Children of immigrants—defined as children with at least one foreign-born parent —are a large and growing segment of the child population of the United States. Today more than one in five U.S. children has one or more foreign-born parents. Furthermore, since 1990 the children of immigrants have accounted for more than three-quarters of the growth in the size of the U.S. child population.1 Children of immigrants need not be immigrants themselves: most, in fact, are U.S. citizens by virtue of being born in the United States. In 2007, 87 percent of the children of immigrants were citizens; among the youngest of such children (those up to age five) fully 96 percent were citizens.2 Because of its size and growth, this new group of U.S. citizens warrants the attention of policy makers, researchers, and advocates who are seeking to improve the well-being of children in the United States.

Immigrant families face unique challenges as they adapt to their new country, yet they also bring with them many strengths, most notably high levels of marriage. U.S. immigration policy shapes immigrants' family circumstances by selecting the types of immigrants permitted to come into and to remain in the United States, often on the basis of marriage and family relationships. But immigration policy does not consistently nurture these relationships: in some ways it can weaken them. Furthermore, the nation's acknowledged lack of a well-developed integration policy may exacerbate immigrants' challenges and put their children's outcomes at risk.

Children of immigrants have much in common as a result of their parents' experiences with immigration and their status as relative newcomers. But their individual situations vary widely because of differences in their parents' human and financial capital, legal status, social resources, and degree of assimilation, all of which are tied closely to their country or region of origin.

The majority of children of immigrants in the United States today are of Latin American origin, and more than 40 percent have parents from a single country—Mexico. Mexican immigrant families face challenges with respect to assimilation because of low parental education, poverty, and language barriers, and because a relatively high share of parents are unauthorized. In his article in this volume, Jeffrey Passel estimates that about one-third of Mexican children of immigrants are either unauthorized themselves or have unauthorized parents. The next largest group, about 20 percent of all children of immigrants, is those children whose parents have migrated from Asia, most commonly from the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, and Korea.3 Asian immigrant families vary widely by parental education and skills. Parents from China, India, Korea, and the Philippines tend to be highly educated, skilled professionals, while those from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia and Laos, generally have low education and skills.4 Although they are less dominant numerically, the children of black immigrants face special challenges because of their skin color. Most are of Caribbean origin, with parents coming from Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago. Poverty and the dynamics of race in the United States combine to make some of these children especially vulnerable to negative outcomes.

In this article, we describe and discuss the implications of the living arrangements of children of immigrants, with an emphasis on three highly vulnerable groups: Mexican-origin children; Southeast Asian children (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian); and black Caribbean-origin children. As noted, children in these groups face risk factors related to their parents' low human capital, mode of entry into the United States (for example, as a refugee or unauthorized migrant), or status as a racial minority. We highlight family circumstances that may either counter or exacerbate the negative impacts of these risk factors. Although most children of immigrants live with their parents, the share varies by immigrant group and by generation. We also consider the living arrangements of youths—often foreign-born labor migrants who enter the United States alone as adolescents—who live in households with no parents. We conclude by discussing specific ways that U.S. immigration and integration policies shape immigrants' family circumstances, and we suggest ways to alter policies to strengthen immigrant families.