A Pathway to Citizenship Plays a Positive Role in Children's Development

Jul 25, 2013

By Emily Firgens

Estimates show that 5.5 million U.S. children live with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent-4.5 million of these are U.S.-born citizen children. While many have written about the experiences of children in immigrant families, little research to date has looked at how parents' unauthorized status affects their children's development. A new report from Migration Policy Institute (MPI) suggests that having an unauthorized immigrant parent is associated with negative developmental outcomes, including include lower cognitive skills and emotional well-being in early childhood and higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms in adolescence.

This negative association results from the many challenges and stresses that unauthorized immigrant families experience.  Poor work conditions, psychological distress, and economic hardship often experienced by unauthorized immigrant parents working in low-wage jobs (usually due to their status) takes its toll on children, hampering cognitive and socio-emotional development in early childhood.

Children of unauthorized parents often qualify for public programs that would benefit their development. Unfortunately, however, fewer children than are eligible access these public programs due to language barriers, a lack of information and fear among their parents - also negatively impacting children.

In order to alleviate these detrimental effects on child development, there needs to be better outreach to unauthorized immigrant families around applying for public benefits.  In addition, nongovernmental and advocacy organizations can act as intermediaries between immigrant communities and the government to help with increasing knowledge and awareness of these programs.

In the early childhood arena, state policies related to access and quality influence whether immigrant families participate in early childhood programs and services, as well as how successful programs are in meeting their needs through culturally and linguistically appropriate practices. Universal, public pre-kindergarten, would also help reach children with unauthorized parents and can help narrow the gaps in child development and school readiness.

Ultimately, a pathway to citizenship for parents would help address these issues. While it remains unlikely that Congress will have the fortitude to pass comprehensive immigration reform, we must still work towards meeting the needs of all young children living in this country. It is a fact that the majority of children of authorized parents are U.S. citizens. The future of all immigrant children is our future -and our country's success depends on their healthy development. 

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