Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How a parent's immigration status shapes the economic lives of their US-born children

Researchers say parents' immigration status plays a significant role in shaping their U.S.-born childrens' lives well into the future, and even those of their grandchildren.
Researchers say parents' immigration status plays a significant role in shaping their U.S.-born childrens' lives well into the future, and even those of their grandchildren.
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The University of Southern California released a report Tuesday that provides a snapshot of the state's unauthorized immigrants, an estimated 2.6 million people who might be eligible to apply for legal status if Congress approves a sweeping immigration reform bill.

The report focuses not only on foreign-born immigrants, but on their U.S.-born children. It's estimated that more than 1.5 million California children have at least one parent who is in the United States illegally. More than 80 percent of these kids are U.S. citizens

But citizenship at birth doesn't guarantee these kids a prosperous future.

Economically, psychologically and otherwise, the immigration status of parents is critical in shaping their U.S.-born children's lives, says Jody Agius Vallejo, a USC sociologist. She was not involved in the study, but she recently wrote a book about middle-class Mexican Americans. The parents' immigration status tends to affect their children long after they grow up and have families of their own. Here's Vallejo's take on why:

M-A: So you take two U.S.-born children of immigrants, one whose parents are here legally, one whose parents are not. What immediate gaps stand out?

Vallejo: One of the gaps simply pertains to the parents’ economic status. The children who have parents with legal status are in a much better economic position simply because the parents are in a much better economic position. Parents who have legal status make higher income, many are able to move into better neighborhoods with better schools, and all of these benefits, these economic benefits, trickle down to children.

Children who grow up in homes where their parents are unauthorized grow up in homes where parents work in exploitative low-paying jobs. Their parents often have to work numerous jobs just to make ends meet. And then, children who grow up in homes where their parents are unauthorized also face additional psychological burdens, where they are worried about the parents being deported, and where they face psychological burdens because of the social stigma that is placed on unauthorized status. So the burdens are certainly multiplied for children who have unauthorized parents

M-A: The report from your colleagues at USC mentions how U.S. citizen children of unauthorized immigrants often don't take advantage of social or school programs that they're eligible for. What happens? 

Vallejo: There is a lot of fear when you yourself are unauthorized, or if you are the native-born child of unauthorized parents. Kids are often afraid to partake in services where they might have to reveal their parents’ status. They are afraid that their parents are going to be deported, or that their parents are going to be sent to prison because they are unauthorized. You have this stereotype that immigrants and unauthorized immigrants disproportionately take advantage of public services, which we know isn’t actually the case, and this is one reason why.

You see children of immigrants often not taking advantage of certain types of programs that are available to them because they are very, very afraid their parents will be outed. These would be programs such as food stamps, programs related to school, any type of program where they might have to reveal their parents’ social security number, or reveal that their parents do not have status.

M-A: What are the chances of U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants going to college, compared with children of immigrants who are here legally?

Vallejo: We don’t necessarily have concrete numbers on that, but there is some data demonstrating that children whose parents legalized in the last amnesty under IRCA, (the 1986) Immigration Reform and Control Act, have much higher education levels. They also have higher income levels, they have higher levels of occupational status, and they have much better English language proficiency. So you can see that parental (legal) status is not just something that benefits parents. It enhances the socioeconomic integration of the children of immigrants.

M-A: We’ve focused so far on the second-generation children of immigrant parents. Does the legal status of these immigrants have any bearing on successive generations, such as their grandchildren? 

Vallejo: The benefits of (legal status) don’t just stop with the second generation. They certainly accrue to the third generation, and are passed down to grandchildren. You’re likely to see more people entering the middle class, more people living in stable households, over the generations and into the third generation if the grandparents were able to adjust their status. A second-generation child of immigrants who grows up living with unauthorized parents, they certainly might experience a slower pattern of socioeconomic incorporation, and their children might be in the same place as a second-generation child of parents with legal status.

M-A: You interviewed adult children of immigrants for your book, some of whom had a tough climb to the middle class. You wrote about how their parents' immigration status made a big difference. Any specific examples?

Vallejo: My research shows that parental legal status is one of the most important mechanisms that promotes mobility into the middle class. Parental legal status used to be tied to having a native-born child in the United States, so parents were able to legalize or adjust their status once they had a child who was born on American soil. Of course, we don’t do this any more, but one of my respondents, for example, her dad attained legal status when she was born.

He landed a much better job, and he was able to put money into a retirement fund and into profit sharing. He worked at this job for over a decade and when he retired, he had a significant sum of money that he was able to draw on to start his own business. And over this period of time, because he had benefits, and he had retirement, he was able to move his daughters into a white middle-class neighborhood, where they grew up, and they ended up going to college.

They all have advanced degrees and work in very prestigious occupations, daughters of once unauthorized migrants, and their father now owns a very successful construction company.

You compare that to my respondents who grew up with parents who do not have legal status. One of my respondents, for example, Brenda, was raised in a garage. Her family lived in a garage over a significant amount of time in a poor inner-city urban community. She attained a college education, and she ended up becoming a lawyer. But now, instead of focusing on her own mobility, she has to give back extensive amounts of money to her family members, her parents, who continue to toil in very low-wage jobs where they do not have any type of retirement benefits or health insurance.

This has constricted her own ability to accumulate wealth, compared to my other respondents whose parents had legal status and were able to attain economic security. And so this is something that affects wealth accumulation. It affects the stability of the next generation.

M-A: California has the nation's largest population of immigrants who are living and working here illegally. They make up 7 percent of the state's population and 9 percent of its workforce. What effect on the state's economy might legalizing those who are parents of U.S.-born children have?

Vallejo: Getting these families into the economic mainstream contributes greatly to the overall state’s economic health, because first and foremost, immigrants who adjust their status make significantly more money in wages. This means immigrants will go and spend more money. They will spend more money, which we will reap in the benefits of taxes. They will pay more in federal income tax, they will pay sales tax, they will pay property tax, and so this has immediate economic benefits that way.

But the other benefits are seen when you invest in the children of immigrants. Children of immigrants are California’s and America’s future. The state is almost 50 percent Latino, for example, and really it’s the children of immigrants who are going to be moving into the jobs that whites are going to be leaving in droves, especially as baby boomers retire. 

And so if you put the mechanisms in place that promote mobility, you are going to have not just benefits in terms of taxes, those types of economic benefits. You are going to have a productive workforce that is educated, that is at the forefront of technological advances, and that can help move the state forward, and also the larger United States.

See more highlights from Vallejo's research on middle-class immigrant families here, and the complete USC report on California's unauthorized immigrants below:

Whats at Stake for the State