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How parents' immigration status affects their children's education

Researchers say that parents' immigration status can affect their children's educational attainment and economic prospects, even if the children are U.S.-born citizens.
Researchers say that parents' immigration status can affect their children's educational attainment and economic prospects, even if the children are U.S.-born citizens.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

A recent post on this blog explored how parents' immigration status affects their children's prospects later in life, especially how well their offspring do economically.

A new report boils it down to education: The children of unauthorized immigrant parents — particularly those whose mothers are in the country illegally — tend to wind up with fewer years of education than kids whose parents are here legally or are U.S. citizens. To a lesser degree, the effect can even trickle down to the next generation of children.

The report is a combination of new and older research from UC Irvine and Pennsylvania State University scholars, who studied Mexican-American children as part of a broader project tracking how Mexican immigrants and their families integrate into U.S. society. Even among immigrants in general, the parents' status makes a difference. From the report:

The unauthorized status of mothers alone appears to reduce children’s schooling by about a one-and-a-quarter years, all else equal. The children of legal Mexican immigrants averaged 13 years of education, so a reduction of 1.25 years marks the difference between attending some college and not finishing high school.

Without a high school diploma, Americans earn about half a million dollars less over their lifetimes and die about seven years earlier than those with some college... The disadvantage to the third generation would presumably be proportionately less, but nonetheless non-trivial.

On to the the third generation: The researchers also estimated that a schooling gap of about 1.1 years between male third-generation Mexican Americans and their non-Latino white peers could be partly attributable to grandparents having lacked legal status.

Why, when the majority of unauthorized immigrants' children are U.S.-born citizens? It's because when families live "on the margins of society," as the report explains, it impedes how the entire family integrates across generations:

Even though U.S.-born children of immigrants presumably enjoy access to the same education and jobs as any other citizen, their parents’ migration-status histories reflect their first membership experiences in their families of socialization with the host society... Such experiences may have lasting effects on second- and third-generation children.

While targeted policies like the Dream Act may address the situations of children who are themselves unauthorized, policies directed at the unauthorized population as a whole can affect both immigrants and their native-born children.

Living and working on the margins also affects the family's pocketbook: The first generation's immigration status dramatically affects how much a family earns and saves, and how much gets passed along to future generations in property, education and other investments. This also trickles down, since adult children of parents who are here illegally may have to contribute more toward supporting their parents later in life.

The report is part of a larger project funded by Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation, which funds social science research. Read the entire report here.