Immigration Law

Unauthorized Immigrant Parents and Their Children's Development: A Summary of the Evidence

"US policy debates about unauthorized immigrants have tended, until recently, to focus on adults and adolescents. Yet several million children, a majority of them born in the United States, would be affected by legalization and feel the effects of current immigration enforcement because they have an unauthorized immigrant parent. According to recent estimates, 5.5 million children in the United States — all but 1 million of them US-born — reside with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. 

Given that they constitute nearly one-third of all children with immigrant parents and about 8 percent of all US children, their well-being holds important implications for US society. Yet there has been little research on how a parent’s unauthorized status affects child development, in large measure because of the difficulty in identifying and surveying unauthorized parents.

In a new Migration Policy Institute report, Unauthorized Immigrant Parents and Their Children's Development: A Summary of the Evidencethe Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, and colleague Jenya Kholoptseva, examine the emerging research and discuss policies and programs that reduce or mitigate the developmental risks for children with parents who are unauthorized. 

As Yoshikawa and Kholoptseva explain, research suggests that having an unauthorized immigrant parent is associated with lower cognitive skills in early childhood, lower levels of general positive development in middle childhood, higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms during adolescence, and fewer years of schooling. 

Among the factors proposed to explain how parents’ unauthorized status might lower children’s learning and subsequent schooling outcomes: Parental detention and removal, lower access to public programs that benefit children’s development, economic hardship, and psychological distress. 

The report suggests a number of policies and programs to address these factors, including public prekindergarten programs, which have been shown to narrow gaps in child development and academic readiness between children with unauthorized parents and other children. Other steps to improve the well-being of these children, Yoshikawa and Kholoptseva argue, would be to create a pathway to citizenship for their parents." - MPI, March 2013.