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Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004

Children of Immigrant Families: Analysis and Recommendations
Margie K. Shields Richard E. Behrman

Introduction

As the 21st century progresses, our nation will become increasingly dependent on the current generation of children, a generation that is dramatically more diverse than previous generations.1 Racial/ethnic minorities, in aggregate, are destined to become the numerical majority in the United States within the next few decades.2 This dramatic shift in demographics is being driven by immigration and fertility trends with the number of children in immigrant families growing rapidly in nearly every state across the country. According to the 2000 Census, 1 of every 5 children in the United States was a child of immigrants--that is, either a child who is an immigrant or who has at least one immigrant parent.

Regardless of how one might feel about our nation's immigration policies, there is no turning back the clock on the children of immigrants already living here, most of whom are U.S. citizens. Who these children grow up to be will have a significant impact on our nation's social and economic future. Will we have a cohesive society--or one rife with intergenerational and intercultural conflict? Will we have a prosperous economy--or one struggling with a labor force dominated by low-wage earners? Will we have a strong safety net for the elderly, poor, and disabled--or will the taxes to support historic entitlement programs become prohibitive?

In this journal issue, the strengths and challenges that set children of immigrant families apart from the mainstream population are explored. For example, compared with children of U.S.-born parents, children of immigrants are more likely to be born healthier and to live with both parents. They also are more likely to be living in poverty and to be without health insurance. Although indicators of child well-being vary widely based on the family's country of origin, the overall trends are dominated by the large number of immigrants from Mexico, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean. (See Figure 1.) Parents with limited English skills emigrating from these regions tend to be poorly educated and have limited job prospects. Some are legal immigrants, some are refugees, and some are undocumented. Thus, while the children in these families often share the same hardships experienced by other children from low-income families, what is needed to help them overcome these hardships requires a greater understanding of each group's unique circumstances.

Investing in the healthy development of all our nation's children, including children of immigrants, is to invest in a brighter future--not just for these children themselves, but for our entire nation. All society benefits by providing this segment of our population with the education and supports they need today to become America's productive, engaged citizens of tomorrow.