Who Are Children in Immigrant Families?

Posted October 21, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Five kids with their arms around one another. They are standing outdoors, smiling, and represent a range of races and ethnicities.

In recent years, chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies reg­u­lar­ly have been at the cen­ter of major pub­lic pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions, such as those regard­ing the south­ern bor­der of the Unit­ed States and the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals pol­i­cy, among oth­ers. To pro­mote an accu­rate under­stand­ing of this pop­u­la­tion and con­struc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about how to sup­port these chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, it is impor­tant to under­stand basic ter­mi­nol­o­gy and key facts about this group in the Unit­ed States.

Def­i­n­i­tions About Chil­dren in Immi­grant Families

Immi­grant or Foreign-born

The terms immi­grant and for­eign-born are inter­change­able and refer to indi­vid­u­als who were not U.S. cit­i­zens at birth but may have become cit­i­zens through nat­u­ral­iza­tion. Those who are not cit­i­zens may include law­ful per­ma­nent res­i­dents, those with tem­po­rary visas, refugees and asy­lum seek­ers or unau­tho­rized immi­grants.

U.S. Cit­i­zens

Cit­i­zen­ship usu­al­ly is acquired when a child is born in the Unit­ed States, Puer­to Rico, Guam, the U.S. Vir­gin Islands or the North­ern Mar­i­anas or born abroad to Amer­i­can par­ents. Cit­i­zen­ship also can be obtained through the nat­u­ral­iza­tion process.

Nat­u­ral­iza­tion

The process in which a law­ful per­ma­nent res­i­dent becomes a U.S. cit­i­zen after meet­ing require­ments in the Immi­gra­tion and Nation­al­i­ty Act.

Law­ful per­ma­nent res­i­dents (also known as green card” holders)

This per­ma­nent sta­tus may be obtained through mul­ti­ple meth­ods, includ­ing fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, employ­ment spon­sor­ships, human­i­tar­i­an pro­tec­tion (for refugees and asy­lum seek­ers) or the Diver­si­ty Visa Pro­gram lottery.

Asy­lum Seek­ers and Refugees

These are indi­vid­u­als who need pro­tec­tion due to per­se­cu­tion or fear of per­se­cu­tion on account of race, reli­gion, nation­al­i­ty and/​or mem­ber­ship in a par­tic­u­lar social group or polit­i­cal opin­ion.” Asy­lum seek­ers sub­mit appli­ca­tions at a port of entry to the Unit­ed States or when they are already in the coun­try, while refugees are out­side of the Unit­ed States when they are con­sid­ered for resettlement. 

Unau­tho­rized (Undoc­u­ment­ed) Immigrants

This term refers to for­eign-born indi­vid­u­als who are not cit­i­zens and not legal res­i­dents. This includes peo­ple who entered the Unit­ed States with­out inspec­tion and those who were legal­ly admit­ted on a tem­po­rary basis but stayed beyond their required depar­ture date.

Migrants

Gen­er­al­ly, a migrant refers to some­one who changed his or her coun­try of usu­al res­i­dence regard­less of the rea­son. It may be vol­un­tary or forced migra­tion, and it may be tem­po­rary or permanent.

Nativ­i­ty

Nativ­i­ty refers to whether indi­vid­u­als are native-born ver­sus for­eign-born. Native-born is defined as born in the Unit­ed States, Puer­to Rico, Guam, the U.S. Vir­gin Islands or the North­ern Mar­i­anas or born abroad to Amer­i­can parents. 

First-gen­er­a­tion Immi­grant Children

This term typ­i­cal­ly refers to for­eign-born chil­dren with at least one for­eign-born parent. 

Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Immi­grant Children

This term typ­i­cal­ly refers to native-born chil­dren with at least one for­eign-born parent. 

Chil­dren in Immi­grant Families

Gen­er­al­ly, this term includes both first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grant children. 

Key Facts About Chil­dren in Immi­grant Families

How many chil­dren are in immi­grant fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States? 

One in four — or 18.2 mil­lion chil­dren are in immi­grant fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States — in 2019, up from one in five in the ear­ly 2000s.

What states have the largest share of chil­dren in immi­grant families?

Cal­i­for­nia (46%), New Jer­sey (40%), Neva­da (36%), New York (35%) and Texas and Flori­da (both 33%). See the data on chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies from all states.

How many chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies are U.S. citizens? 

In 2019, 90% — an increase from 84% in 2005

How many chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies do not have par­ents who are U.S. cit­i­zens (i.e., nei­ther par­ent at home is a citizen)? 

In 2019, 37% — a fig­ure that has been declin­ing for a decade. 

How many U.S. chil­dren are foreign-born? 

In 2019, 3%, or 2.5 million.

Percentage of Foreign-Born Children by State (2019)

Immi­grant Youth and Youth in Immi­grant Families

How many young peo­ple are immi­grants or live in immi­grant fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States? 

Near­ly 10.4 mil­lion or 22% of young peo­ple ages 14 to 24 were for­eign-born or lived with at least one for­eign-born par­ent in 20152019.

What states have the largest share of these youth?

Cal­i­for­nia (44%), Neva­da (34%), New Jer­sey (33%), New York (32%) and Texas and Flori­da (both 31%). See data for all states.

What is the racial and eth­nic make­up of this population? 

More than three-quar­ters (77%) of Asian and Pacif­ic Islander youth and young adults were immi­grants or lived in immi­grant fam­i­lies in 20152019. The same was true for 51% of Lati­no, 21% of two or more race, 14% of Black, 11% of Amer­i­can Indi­an and 6% of non-His­pan­ic white youth.

What share of young peo­ple in immi­grant fam­i­lies live in low-income households? 

Near­ly half (44%) in 20152019, with state lev­els rang­ing from 26% in Hawaii to 56% in New Mex­i­co, among states with avail­able data.

What per­cent­age of youth in immi­grant fam­i­lies live in high-pover­ty areas? 

In 20152019, 12%, down from 20% in 20112015. At the state lev­el, fig­ures were as low as 1% in Alas­ka and as high as 27% in New Mex­i­co in 20152019.

How like­ly are fourth-grade Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers to score below pro­fi­cient in reading? 

Nation­wide, 91% of fourth graders who were also Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers scored below pro­fi­cient in read­ing in 2019. By com­par­i­son: Just 62% of their Eng­lish-speak­ing class­mates failed to achieve read­ing proficiency.

Socioe­co­nom­ic and Hous­ing Sta­tis­tics for Chil­dren in Immi­grant Families

How like­ly are chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies to live in low-income work­ing households? 

One in three in 2019, com­pared to one in five chil­dren in U.S.-born fam­i­lies, a gap that has nar­rowed only slight­ly over the last decade. 

What is the medi­an income for immi­grant and non-immi­grant fam­i­lies with children?

In 2019, the medi­an income for house­holds with chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies was $67,900, com­pared to $78,000 for house­holds with chil­dren in U.S.-born fam­i­lies. House­holds with chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies con­sis­tent­ly have had low­er medi­an incomes in recent decades, although incomes sub­stan­tial­ly increased for both house­hold types since 2010.

How does the abil­i­ty to afford hous­ing compare? 

In 2019, 38% of chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies lived in house­holds with a high hous­ing cost bur­den (i.e., more than 30% of month­ly income spent on hous­ing), ver­sus 27% of chil­dren in U.S.-born fam­i­lies. While hous­ing cost bur­dens have declined for both groups since 2010, this dis­par­i­ty has per­sist­ed since 20002002, the first year of data availability.

Percentage of Children in Households With a High Housing Cost Burden by Family Nativity

How does home own­er­ship com­pare for immi­grant and non-immi­grant fam­i­lies with children?

Chil­dren in U.S.-born fam­i­lies are more like­ly to live in house­holds that own their homes (65% in 2019) than chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies (54%), a gap that has held rel­a­tive­ly steady for two decades.

What share of chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies live in crowd­ed hous­ing com­pared to chil­dren in non-immi­grant families?

In 2019, chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies were close to three times more like­ly to live in crowd­ed hous­ing (defined as more than one per­son per room). While this is an improve­ment from 36% in 20002002, it com­pares to just 10% of chil­dren in U.S.-born fam­i­lies in the same years. 

How like­ly are chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies to have no par­ent at home with a high school diplo­ma or equivalent?

In 2019, 20% of chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies had no par­ent with a high school diplo­ma, a decrease from 29% in 20002002. Among chil­dren in U.S.-born fam­i­lies, the per­cent­age is much low­er and declined from 9% to 5% dur­ing this 20-year period.

What share of chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies live in lin­guis­ti­cal­ly iso­lat­ed households? 

In 2019, 18% of chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies lived in a lin­guis­ti­cal­ly iso­lat­ed house­hold. States with the great­est share were Louisiana (25%), Alaba­ma (24%), Ken­tucky (24%) and Iowa (24%), among those with avail­able data. (Note: A lin­guis­ti­cal­ly iso­lat­ed house­hold is one in which no per­son age 14 or old­er speaks only Eng­lish, and no per­son age 14 or old­er who speaks Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage speaks it very well.)

Learn More About Immi­grant Children

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion offers a range of reports and resources to pro­mote the health and well-being of chil­dren and fam­i­lies, includ­ing the immi­grant pop­u­la­tion. Explore the resources below and sign up for our newslet­ters to con­tin­ue learning. 

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