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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

Immigration and Immigrant Integration Policy and Child Well-Being

Immigration policy shapes the laws and practices that affect the national origins, numbers, and characteristics of those who come to live in the United States. It includes admissions, refugee, and border policies. Immigrant integration policy involves the laws and practices concerning the settlement and incorporation of immigrants and their children. Despite the wide diversity of the challenges that face immigrants and their families because of their unique patterns of immigration and integration, it is possible to identify some ways to alter U.S. immigration and integration policies to help sustain the pre-existing strengths of a broad range of immigrant families.

Immigration Policy
Since 1965 U.S. immigration policy has been guided by principles that promote the reunification of immigrants with their children and other relatives living abroad. In practice, however, policy often violates these principles. Sometimes, it serves to separate rather than support immigrant families. One issue requiring policy makers' attention is that legal immigrants to the United States must often wait several years before their spouses and children may legally join them. Relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (LPRs) are permitted to immigrate to the United States under the "family reunification" provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. However, long backlogs for some family reunification admission categories, including the spouse and minor children of legal permanent residents, contribute to extended periods of family separation. Backlogs are partially a consequence of inadequate staffing. Doris Meissner and Donald Kerwin argue that the office of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) is understaffed and ill prepared for the inevitable periodic surges in applications.77 They acknowledge that serious efforts have been made during the past decade to reduce backlogs, but contend that some of the apparent successes have come about by redefining the backlog rather than reducing the waiting time for applicants. According to Meissner and Kerwin, reductions in the backlog (made possible by surges in funding and staffing) tend to be offset by increases in the number of applications as word gets out that wait times have become shorter.

Backlogs are also attributable to the mismatch between admission policy and the demand for visas. Under the family reunification criteria, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants are eligible for admission to the United States. Current admission criteria grant unlimited numbers of visas to minor children and spouses of U.S. citizens, meaning that they may be admitted as soon as their case has been approved. But the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents must usually wait several years after their application is approved before they are issued an immigration visa, because the number of visas available to minor children and spouses of LPRs is limited by numerical annual caps that are applied equally to all countries regardless of demand for immigrant visas. The caps, devised to prevent single countries from dominating immigration flows, place unrealistic restrictions on countries with large numbers of potential immigrants to the United States, such as Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines. In 2006 a spouse or a minor child sponsored by an LPR had to wait about six years between applying and being admitted, and the wait has been estimated to be much longer for Mexicans, who apply in such large numbers.78 Immigrants qualifying for other visa categories, such as unmarried adult children, often have an even longer wait (for example, fifteen years for Mexicans).

During the waiting period between application and admission, prospective immigrants must remain outside the United States. If authorities discover that they have lived in the United States illegally for more than one year, admission is denied and they are not allowed to immigrate for ten more years.79 Meanwhile, young children living outside the United States spend critical childhood years separated from their immigrant parent(s) and sometimes even "age out" of the admission category for which they were initially eligible (because they are no longer minor children). Thus, children who turn twenty-two while waiting for admission must find alternative legal pathways—and may endure even longer waiting periods—if they wish to join their parents in the United States. If children are finally reunited with their parents, interpersonal problems may arise as these families negotiate their new lives together and older children born outside the United States must contend with new U.S.-born siblings.

Long waits for legal admission may also encourage illegal immigration. As the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future argues, "The system's multiple shortcomings have led to a loss of integrity in legal immigration processes. These shortcomings contribute to unauthorized migration when families choose illegal immigration rather than waiting unreasonable periods for legal entry."80 Guillermina Jasso and her colleagues find that about half of LPRs are not new arrivals but had been living (most illegally) in the United States.81 In 2005 (the last year estimates were made available), the backlog included 3.1 million approved LPR applications. If half of these cases were living illegally in the United States in 2005, that would imply that about 14 percent of the estimated 10.5 million unauthorized residents at that time had been approved for legal admission but remained unauthorized because of the long waiting lists.82

Reducing immigration backlogs could improve children's lives. At the very least, adequate staffing could reduce waiting times within existing immigration law. Some observers argue further that minor children and spouses of LPRs should be treated like the minor children and spouses of citizens and be admitted immediately without a wait. Still others have proposed legislation to reduce the backlog by allowing LPRs, like citizens, to bring in their spouses and children, but not their parents.83 All these measures are likely to shorten the time that legal immigrants are separated from their spouses and children living abroad and could also reduce the size of the unauthorized population.

Another immigration policy issue with important implications for immigrant families is the deportation of unauthorized immigrants. About 5 million children in the United States have at least one unauthorized parent. Nearly one in three children of immigrant parents (and half of all foreign-born children) has at least one unauthorized parent.84 In the past decade, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stepped up workforce raids and deportations of unauthorized workers. The number of unauthorized immigrants arrested at workplaces increased from 500 in 2002 to 3,600 in 2006. Often the unintended victims of these raids and arrests are the children of the immigrants. Indeed, U.S. courts have ruled that having a citizen child is not sufficient cause to prevent deportation of parents who are not authorized to reside and work in the United States. In several case studies on the impact of workforce raids on children, Randy Capps and his colleagues found that the arrest and deportation of unauthorized workers often resulted in family separation and financial hardship for children of immigrants. 85 For every 100 unauthorized workers arrested, about 50 children were in their care. Following a workforce raid, unauthorized immigrant parents were often held overnight while their children were placed in the care of neighbors, babysitters, and relatives. Single parents or parents who were the sole caregiver of children were often released on the same day. Frequently, however, one of the parents was held (some for several months) while the other was released on bond to care for children but not permitted to work. Despite assistance from family members, community organizations, and churches, these families experienced great financial hardship and emotional stress. Although the number of children directly affected by workforce raids now appears to be low compared with the overall number of children of immigrants, the effects could spread if deportation efforts are increased.

Immigrant Integration Policy
The successful economic and social integration of today's immigrant families is key to the future well-being of the nation's children. Of particular concern is the increase in the share of immigrant children living with single parents across generations. But developing policies that reduce the levels of marital dissolution and nonmarital childbearing for this population is extremely difficult. Researchers and policy makers do not know how to reduce these behaviors in the broader U.S. population, let alone among the children and grandchildren of immigrants. To some degree, declines in marriage rates and increases in single parenthood may be inevitable among immigrant families as they acculturate, because divorce and single parenthood have become increasingly commonplace in U.S. society. Nonetheless, it is clear that both marital dissolution and nonmarital childbearing are strongly associated with economic hardship— both because economic disadvantage leads to fewer marriages and greater marital instability and because single parenthood reduces the number of earners in children's households. The successful economic integration of immigrant families is therefore critical to efforts to reduce the prevalence of single-parent families among second- and third-generation children and to reduce the negative consequences of living in a single-parent household. Measures to reduce poverty among all children of immigrants, regardless of their living arrangements, are of central importance.

Unlike many other countries with large immigrant populations, the United States has no explicit immigrant integration policy or programs. If anything, the U.S. government has weakened its support for immigrant families over the past three decades, as is evident in the steady withdrawal of social welfare benefits for noncitizens since the early 1980s and in the welfare reforms of 1996 that tied eligibility for federal welfare benefits to citizenship. 86 Welfare reform led to substantial reductions in receipt of welfare among noncitizens and was also associated with increases in food insecurity among immigrant families and their children.87 Nor were the effects of welfare reform limited to noncitizens. Even though U.S.-born children of immigrants remained eligible for welfare benefits, their rates of participation in welfare programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the food stamp program), decreased faster than did those of children of citizens. Some accounts suggest that the decrease in participation was attributable to immigrants' confusion about eligibility, their worry that applying for benefits would jeopardize their ability to naturalize or sponsor relatives for immigration, or their fear of bringing attention to other unauthorized immigrants living in the household.88 Although some observers believe that immigrants should not receive economic support, accumulating evidence suggests that immigrants are unlikely to be drawn to the United States because of its welfare benefits. Nor are they especially "welfare-prone" or deterred from working because of the availability of welfare benefits.89 On the basis of that evidence, we suggest that more attention and resources should be directed toward immigrant settlement. Legal immigrants and their children should be granted greater access to the social safety net regardless of citizenship status. At the very least, immigrant parents need accurate information about social welfare benefits for which they and their children are eligible.