Unauthorized Immigrant Parents and Their Children's Development

Hirokazu Yoshikawa
Jenya Kholoptseva
Migration Policy Institute
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

This report takes a detailed look at how a parent’s unauthorized status affects child development. Based on a review of existing research that increasingly points to negative developmental consequences of parental unauthorized status across all stages of childhood, the authors explore possible options for policies and programs that could mitigate these risks, and propose ways to achieve this goal within the framework of proposed comprehensive immigration reform provisions.

The report finds that a parent’s unauthorized status is associated with lower levels of cognitive development and educational progress for the child, and offers several mechanisms that may explain these negative effects. The most damaging effects seem to stem from parental detention or removal, which impacts the economic and psychological well-being of the child. The resulting parent-child separation is linked to disruption in attachment and interruptions in schooling, which in turn harms learning and emotional development. The psychological distress experienced by unauthorized parents is also associated with negative developmental effects for their children. Furthermore, children of unauthorized parents appear less likely to be enrolled in public benefit programs for which they are eligible.

The most basic step toward addressing the well-being of these children would be to create a pathway to citizenship for their parents, the report contends. Toward this end, it argues in favor of broadening the scope of legalization, as the age limit and education criteria of the proposed DREAMAct, as well as the agricultural focus of the blue card program, will likely exclude many unauthorized parents from eligibility. Additional proposals are addressed regarding developing outreach and application support structures to improve access to means-tested benefits and offering a universal prekindergarten program through the public schooling system, among others.


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