• socioeconomic status;
  • immigrants;
  • children of immigrants;
  • legal immigrants;
  • poverty


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References

The absolute size of the foreign-born U.S. population is at a historical high, but neither the share of the population that is foreign born nor the share of children in immigrant families is high compared with the beginning of the 20th century. While poverty rates for immigrants and children in immigrant families are substantial, poverty is concentrated among certain groups, particularly Hispanics and blacks, non-citizens, and recent arrivals. The general economic well-being of immigrants improves with the move to the United States and as time in the United States increases. However, immigrants remain disadvantaged in terms of health insurance coverage. The economic situation of children in immigrant families has declined since the late 1960s, despite the high labor force participation of immigrant men and the lower prevalence of single-parent households among immigrant families. Still, children in immigrant families are at least as healthy as children in native families and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. With socioeconomic factors taken into account, children in immigrant families do as well as other children in school. Analyses of the socioeconomic well-being of immigrants have been hampered by lack of information in major data sets about legal status and about the visa status of legally present immigrants, as well as by limited availability of longitudinal data.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References

The foreign-born population in the United States is at an all-time high. In March 2007, there were 37.3 million U.S. residents who were born outside the United States.1 This translates into a large number of U.S. children growing up in immigrant families, either foreign born themselves or U.S.-born with at least one foreign-born parent, 23.9% in 2007. For Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asian children, the proportions in immigrant families are even higher, 63.9% and 89.2% respectively. Overall, immigrants are more likely to be in poverty than nonimmigrants, 15.3% versus 12.0%, and children in immigrant families are more likely to be in poverty than other U.S. children, 21.7% versus 16.6%.

In this chapter, we provide a snapshot of the foreign-born population and discuss some issues that make research on immigrant well-being difficult. We also discuss what is known about the socioeconomic well-being of immigrants and their families. We summarize recent research on factors that can be expected to affect the long-term well-being of immigrants and children in immigrant families, including educational attainment and the ability to speak English. We conclude with a description of the most promising new data sources for studying immigrants.

It is useful to put the current immigration situation in historical perspective. As noted, the number of immigrants residing in the United States is at an all-time high. Nonetheless, while the share of the U.S. resident population that is foreign born is high compared to the recent past—12.6% in 2007 compared with 9.7% in 1997 and 6.2% in 1980—it is in line with historical standards. In the decennial censuses between 1860 and 1920, the share of the population that was foreign born ranged from 13.2 to 14.8%1–6 (see Fig. 1). Furthermore, while the share of U.S. children who are in immigrant families is high relative to the recent past—24% in 2007 compared with only 6% in 1960 and 13% in 1990—it is still lower than it was a century ago, when the share was 28% in 19101,7–9 (see Table 1).


Figure 1. U.S. foreign-born population. Blue line, % of total U.S. population foreign born; Pink line, total foreign-born population (millions).

Source: Schmidley and Gibson, 1999; Schmidley 2003; U.S. Census Bureau 2005a, 2005b, 2006, 2007. (In color in Annals online.)

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Table 1.  Percentage of U.S. children in immigrant families
Year% children in immigrant families
  1. Source: 1910–1990: Hernandez and Darke, 1999; 1997–2007: U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, Current Population Survey March 1997, 2002, 2007.

1960 6%

While immigrants are overall more likely to be in poverty than are U.S. natives, immigrants are an extremely heterogeneous group and poverty rates differ substantially across subpopulations. Some immigrant groups are less likely to be in poverty than U.S. natives. For instance, naturalized citizens (immigrants who have earned U.S. citizenship), foreign-born individuals who entered before the 1980s, and Asian non-Hispanic immigrants and white non-Hispanic immigrants actually have lower poverty rates than U.S. natives. Recent immigrants, especially those who entered in 2000 or later, and Hispanic and black non-Hispanic immigrants all have higher poverty rates than U.S. natives1 (see Table 2).

Table 2.  Poverty rates of U.S. population by detailed characteristics
 Percentage below federal poverty line
  1. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, Current Population Survey, March 2007.

U.S. natives12%
Foreign born15%
Naturalized citizens 9%
Year of entry
 Before 197011%
Race/ethnicity among foreign born
 Hispanic (all races)20%
 Black non-Hispanics18%
 Asian non-Hispanics11%
 White non-Hispanics 8%

We make a brief note on terminology before we turn to research findings on immigrants. In this chapter, we use the term “immigrant” in its broadest sense, to include all foreign-born individuals currently residing in the United States. We also include naturalized citizens, refugees and asylees, long-term legal nonimmigrant residents, and unauthorized aliens. We do not consider the following groups to be immigrants: individuals born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or other U.S. island areas or individuals born outside the United States but who are considered native U.S. citizens because their parents were U.S. citizens, such as children born to U.S. soldiers or diplomats stationed outside the United States. Table 3 provides an overview of the foreign-born population.

Table 3.  Foreign-born individuals residing in the United States: Major categories
Legally present
  Naturalized citizens
Legal immigrants (green card holders)
  Family reunification (spouse, parents, or siblings of U.S. citizen)
Other legal aliens (examples)
  Intracompany transfers
  Short-term workers
  Temporary protected status (TPS)
Not legally present (“unauthorized aliens,”“illegal aliens”)

Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References

Unfortunately for immigration researchers, most major data-collection efforts do not collect key information about the foreign born that is related to socioeconomic status and well-being. The most important omitted variable is legal status, that is, whether an immigrant is legally present in the United States.10 Two studies have compared the characteristics of foreign-born individuals in large, national data-collection efforts with the characteristics of legal immigrants—Jasso, Rosenzweig, and Smith's comparison of immigrants in decennial censuses with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service administrative data and Jasso, Massey, Rosenzweig, and colleagues' comparison of immigrants in the Current Population Survey (CPS) with the New Immigrant Survey-Pilot (NIS-P), which included a representative sample of nearly 2000 immigrants granted green cards between July and August of 1996. The studies demonstrated that indicators of socioeconomic status, such as education, for the entire foreign-born population are substantially lower than for legal immigrants, which the authors have concluded is due to the presence of unauthorized aliens in the CPS and decennial censuses.11,12 Among legal immigrants, there are also differentials across visa status groups that are related to economic well-being. Analysis of the NIS-P shows that, among legal immigrants, immigrants receiving employment-related visas have substantially higher education levels and earnings than immigrants receiving family-related visas.12

Immigrant well-being also varies by country of origin. As we have shown, poverty levels differ substantially by broad racial/ethnic groups, but these broad categories mask a great deal of variation for specific origin groups. For instance, Harachi's analysis of children in a single school district of either Vietnamese or Cambodian origin—two groups that might be analyzed as a single Southeast Asian group—shows marked differences in family characteristics and outcomes.13 The Vietnamese sample has higher maternal education levels, lower proportions in single-parent families, lower levels of maternal depression, and lower levels of problem behaviors and school failure. Similarly, Glick and Hohmann-Marriott's analysis of the kindergarten cohort of the Childhood Longitudinal Study shows that the diversity in academic performance achievement by national origin groups is masked when only racial/panethnic groups are used.14

Longer-term immigrants are substantially less likely to be in poverty than more recent arrivals, as the 2007 CPS data shows.1 However, making inferences about how immigrants' circumstances change over time from cross-sectional data is extremely problematic. Long-term immigrants differ substantially from short-term immigrants on a number of factors besides length of time in the United States, including of current legal status, initial visa status, country of origin, and the economic context they faced upon arriving in the United States. In addition, the earlier cohorts have been subject to both mortality and emigration, both of which are likely to be nonrandom in terms of socioeconomic status.12,15 Smith argues that less well educated migrants are probably the most likely either to die or to emigrate, and that immigrants often improve their education levels in the United States, which results in long-term immigrant cohorts that are better educated and more highly skilled than they were at entry.15

Tremendous debate exists about whether the overall “quality” of immigrants, usually defined as education levels, is declining over time. While 1970–1990 decennial census data suggest the labor market skills of all new recent immigrants are quite low and have been declining significantly relative to skills of the native-born, trends for legal immigrants are substantially different, according to Jasso, Rosenzweig, and Smith.11 Data from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for all new legal immigrants between 1972 and 1995, show that for most of this 25-year period, the labor market quality of male legal immigrants has been at least as high as male native-born workers. In fact, starting in the mid-1980s, there has been a steady increase in the quality of legal immigrants. Alba and Nee show that a significant proportion of immigrants admitted for their human capital endowments are completing professional and graduate training in the United States and experience a school-to-job transition similar to that of highly educated Americans.16 Recent work by Smith confirms that legal immigrants are not losing ground to native-born Americans in terms of wages and that evidence of a widening skill gap (as measured by education) between immigrants and natives is weak.15

Evidence suggests that immigrants improve their economic well-being by immigrating to the United States. Using CPS data from 1980 and 1997 and simulations of immigrants' earning in their home counties before migration, Lerman estimates that, between 1979 and 1996, post-1980 immigrants more than doubled their real wages and earnings.17 Jasso, Massey, Rosenzweig, and colleagues. also find that immigrants improved their economic situations by moving to the United States.12 Using data from the NIS-P, they found that, compared with their last job abroad, most legal immigrants who were employed enjoyed large increases in their annual earnings. Taking into account cost of living differences, men experienced a 68% increase in earnings, while women experienced a 62% increase. Even among those who are not legally in the United States, working in the United States appears to improve economic well-being. Powers and colleagues' analyses of the Legalized Population Surveys suggest that unauthorized aliens who legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, have not, as some research has suggested, languished at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.18,19 Rather, even before legalizing, these immigrants quickly joined the labor force, albeit at the lower end of the occupational scale. With time in the United States and with the legalization of their status, their jobs improved and, as a group, they experienced upward mobility not unlike that attributed to immigrants who arrived earlier in the 20th century.

Following the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), which restricted legal immigrants' access to most federal welfare benefits, concerns were raised that many immigrants who remained eligible for welfare were fearful of applying for and of receiving benefits. But Van Hook, Bean, and colleagues have shown that declines in the numbers of immigrants receiving welfare following implementation of PRWORA can largely be explained by changes in labor market conditions, such as improvements in local employment and unemployment rates, and by the fact that many immigrants who were receiving welfare before the reform was enacted are now U.S. citizens. These researchers also failed to find support for the supposition that the restrictions on immigrants' eligibility for welfare under PRWORA resulted in immigrants' naturalizing (becoming U.S. citizens).20 After PRWORA, welfare recipients were no more likely to naturalize than nonrecipients, and immigrant welfare recipients from states with generous benefits were no more likely to naturalize than those from less generous states.21

One area in which immigrants face a disadvantage is in health insurance coverage. The Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey (L.A.FANS), the first large-scale study to collect data on immigrants' legal status and on health insurance coverage, shows large differences in health insurance coverage among legal immigrants, unauthorized aliens, and citizens. Goldman, Smith, and Sood find that unauthorized aliens are less likely than others to have health insurance, both because they are less likely to obtain insurance in the first place and because, if they do obtain coverage, they are more likely than citizens to end up losing it.22 Overall, most of the differences in insurance coverage for natives versus the foreign born overall are due to traditional socioeconomic explanations, but the socioeconomic factors do not explain the large gap between unauthorized aliens and all other groups. Extrapolating from data from L.A. FANS and the census, economists have estimated that unauthorized aliens account for approximately one-third of the total increase in the number of uninsured adults in the United States that occurred between 1980 and 2000.

The pattern of immigrants' geographic distribution has been shifting. Singer documents that while most immigrants continue to live in the six traditional immigrant states—California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois—the share in these states is declining, from 73% in 1990 to 69% in 2000. Expanding job opportunities in North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada have lead to unprecedented increases in immigrants living in these states. Similarly, while immigrants are still concentrated in the traditional gateway metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami, new gateway metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Forth Worth emerged between 1980 and 2000.23 In addition, there has been a change in the historic pattern in which new immigrants clustered in urban enclaves, then moved to the suburbs as they acculturated and achieved socioeconomic success. Alba, Logan, Stults, and colleagues have shown that by the 1980s, recent immigrants were increasingly likely to settle outside central cities, in the suburbs.24 Where immigrants settle has distinct consequences for immigrant populations. Coulson has linked location in urban areas to lower rates of homeownership among Asian and Hispanic immigrants; high values of homes and rental costs in these areas combined with lower levels of current and permanent income impede the ability to purchase and to save.25

Children in Immigrant Families

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References

In general, the economic situation for children in immigrant families appears to have worsened since the late 1960s, according to Van Hook, Brown, and Kwenda.26 Analysis of 40 years of census data shows that while children in immigrant families had lower poverty rates than children in native families in the late 1960s (12% versus 14%), by 1999, the poverty rates for children in immigrant families was substantially higher than that of other children (22% versus 15%). This change occurred despite the very high labor force participation of immigrant males and the low prevalence of single-parent families among immigrant families. Explanations include an increase in the share of children in immigrant families who are members of minority groups, increases in the share of these children's parents who are recent—rather than long-term—immigrants, the relatively low labor force participation of immigrant women, and educational attainment rates among the parents that, while improving over time, still lag behind the rates of native parents.

Children in immigrant families also have limited access to health insurance, even those who are not immigrants themselves. In 1996, while only 11% of children with U.S. native-born parents lack health insurance, 36% of noncitizen children and 21% U.S. citizen children in immigrant families are uninsured, according to Brown, Wyn, Yu, and colleagues.27 Some immigrant youth may be hampered from engaging in health-seeking behaviors. Latina immigrants in rural North Carolina were hampered in their efforts to participate in physical activity due to transportation barriers and a lack of accessible facilities, both typical features of exurban communities, according to Evenson, Sarmiento, Macon, and coauthors.28

But despite the high and increasing poverty rates of some immigrant groups and other barriers, the long-term outlook for immigrants and their children is fairly positive. For instance, Hummer, Powers, Pullum, and colleagues show that the early infant mortality rates (first-hour, first-day, first-week) of children born to Mexican immigrant women are significantly better than those for children born to non-Hispanic white U.S.-born women. Furthermore, among children born to U.S.-born women, early infant mortality rates for the children of Mexican-origin women do not differ significantly from those of non-Hispanic white women and are significantly better than those of non-Hispanic black women, although the Mexican-origin and non-Hispanic black mothers have similar socioeconomic characteristics.29 Being foreign born also serves as a protective factor for the health of rural youth. Wickrama, Elder, and Abraham find that while residence in rural areas may be linked to an increased likelihood of chronic illness for Latino and Asian youth, immigrant youth were better off than the children of immigrants, while the assimilated third-generation Latinos had the greatest illness prevalence.30 Harris reports that, according to data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), immigrant children are as healthy as or healthier than children of native-born U.S. parents, although their health appears to decline the longer they have been in the United States. First-generation immigrant youth are healthier physically and are less involved in risky behavior (such as sexual activity, juvenile delinquency, violent behavior, and substance abuse) than are second-generation and native-born U.S. youth.31 In another Add Health study, Harker shows that immigrant adolescents in secondary school experience less depression and greater positive well-being than their similar native-born peers, attributable to their closer and more supportive relationships with their parents.32

At virtually all levels of schooling, from pre-kindergarten through college, children in immigrant families are doing well, although there are some exceptions. In general, when lower achievement levels of first- and second- generation immigrants are observed, they are attributable to relatively low socioeconomic status and related factors. Lara-Cinisomo and Pebley's analysis of the L.A. FANS shows that ethnicity and immigrant status are not important predictors of school readiness, once differences in socioeconomic status are taken into account. In fact, when socioeconomic status is taken into account, children whose parents were born outside the United States do better on basic skills than children with U.S.-born parents.33

Glick and White find that when family characteristics are taken into account, school achievement gains of immigrant high schoolers equal or exceed those of their native peers. Family characteristics—parents' income and education, race/ethnicity, and language—had a greater impact on achievement levels and gains than the length of time a student lived in the United States. Researchers have found no evidence that more recent groups of immigrants are further behind or achieve less than earlier immigrants: The achievement gains of immigrant students in the early 1990s outpaced those of immigrant students in the early 1980s. However, even when structural and family background variables are controlled, immigrant and second-generation youth are more likely than their third or higher generation peers to complete secondary school and go on to post-secondary education.34,35

Data from Add Health show that adolescents of Mexican descent are less likely to enroll in math and science courses and have lower math/science achievement than their peers. Differences in performance disappear when the greater family and school disadvantages among teens of Mexican descent are accounted for, but differences in course enrollment remain and actually become larger, according to Crosnoe, Lopez-Gonzalez, and Muller.36 Ryabov and Van Hook, using Add Health data, show that high levels of social capital in immigrant families buffer these children's academic achievement from negative effects of attending schools with high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage.37

Fuligni and Pedersen find that high school graduates from immigrant families are as likely to go on to college and to perform as well academically as their peers from American-born families.38 Students from immigrant families are also more likely to support their families financially than are their American-born counterparts. Students from some of the immigrant groups are more likely to live with their parents than their counterparts from native families. Youth from Latin American immigrant families have lower rates of college enrollment and are less likely to earn four-year college degrees than their counterparts from East Asian (predominantly Chinese) and Filipino immigrant families.

Today's immigrants are learning English about as quickly as past generations of immigrants have. Alba, Logan, Lutz, and colleagues examined how many generations it takes today's immigrants to be “English only”—that is, speaking only English at home—and found that, for Asians, the vast majority are English only by the third generation—the grandchildren of immigrants—matching the patterns of European immigrants in the early 20th century. For Hispanics immigrants, the shift to English only is slower, but this is because of the relatively slow transition to English for one particular group: families in heavily Hispanic areas in which both parents are of Hispanic descent.39

New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References

Many problems associated with studying immigrants will eventually be addressed by the New Immigrant Survey (NIS). The NIS is based on a representative sample of new legal immigrants who received green cards between May and November 2003 drawn from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administrative records. The sample includes more than 8000 adult sample members and over 800 child sample members. Initial data collection took place from June 2003 to June 2004. A second wave of data collection is taking place starting in fall 2007. Extensive data about the immigrants and their families are collected, including health measures, demographic and socioeconomic background, detailed family information, financial transfers, economic characteristics, and housing. The legal status of all sample members is known—they are all legal immigrants—as is their exact visa status (including employment visa and family reunification), and past visa status is known as well. The NIS is following their immigrant sample over time and wherever the immigrants move, including to other countries, which will allow unbiased estimates of immigrant adaptation to the United States, including economic adjustments. The NIS also deals with one source of bias in assessing immigrants and their families, which is the omission of respondents who speak neither English nor Spanish, a population that is particularly likely to be in or near poverty.40 The NIS interviewed in 19 languages, which provides more breadth in language coverage than any data collection other than the decennial census. (Information is available at

Another data set containing information on children in immigrant families is Add Health, a nationally representative longitudinal study of adolescents in grades 7 through 12 that follows the children through young adulthood. Add Health includes oversamples of Chinese and Cuban origin children, as well as a large subsample of other Hispanic youth, which allows for the examination of trajectories of children in immigrant families. The data set also includes an embedded sample of sibling pairs, which can be used to tease out effects of family processes from peer and genetic influences on adolescents' behavior. Since immigrants tend to have larger families, it is likely that immigrant youth are overrepresented in this special sample and could be analyzed separately.41 Data are available for two time points in secondary school and one in early adulthood, and data are currently being collected for sample members in their late twenties and early thirties. Since the original sampling frame was based on public and private secondary schools in 1994, the data are representative of children of immigrants enrolled in school at that time. This population is useful, but it does not represent the population of U.S. immigrants in the 21st century. (Information is available at

Another source of data on immigrant families is the L.A. FANS. The survey, which collects detailed information about children, adults, families, and neighborhoods, with an emphasis on children's outcomes, effects of welfare reform, and residential mobility and neighborhood change, is based on a stratified random sample of 65 census tracts in Los Angeles County. The first wave of data, on approximately 2700 households, were collected in 2000, 2001, and early 2002. The second wave of data collection, which includes interviews with original households, including those who moved out of their initial neighborhood as well as a sample of new neighborhood residents, began in 2006 and is expected to be completed in 2008. Detailed information about household members is collected (see About L.A.FANS Overview of L.A.FANS Survey Design While this survey is limited in initial geographic scope and was not primarily intended to be a survey of immigrants and their families, it includes detailed immigration-related data. For respondents and a randomly selected child, fairly detailed information about place of birth, citizenship, legal, and visa status were collected. L.A.FANS captures some information on family members living outside the United States, as well as information on immigration/legal status as a reason for ineligibility for government benefits, not working, and lack of health insurance. One potential limitation is that only households that could complete the interviews in English or Spanish were included in the sample, but this resulted in only a small number of cases being dropped, approximately 2%.42

The Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS) has the potential to expand our understanding of families with members on both sides of the U.S. Mexico boarder. MxFLS is a longitudinal survey of individuals in more than 8000 households from 150 communities across Mexico. Data are collected on social, economic, demographic, and health characteristics and include information on family members living outside the household. The first wave of data was collected in 2002 and the second wave of data collection, starting in 2006, included follow-ups of individuals who moved to the United States. A third wave of data will be collected starting in 2008 (see The Mexican Family Life Survey Project,

The Mexican Migration Project (MMP) is based on an annual collection of data on randomly selected households in communities across Mexico. Information is collected on social, demographic, and economic characteristics at the family and individual levels. Identical questionnaires are administered to Mexican migrants in the United States who originated from the same communities that were sampled in Mexico. The data are repeated cross sections, not longitudinal, although extensive retrospective data are collected. The focus of the MMP is migration, and detailed information on migration history, including legal status, is collected. However, information on household characteristics is also collected, including a detailed household roster, data on all the household head's children, including those not living in the household, the head's year-by-year life history, including child-bearing history (see MMP Research Study Design


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References

The circumstances of today's immigrants are best seen in historical context. While the percentage of the population that is foreign born is now high, it is not high compared with a large part of American history. As Alba and Nee have documented, concerns about immigrants' ability to speak English and perceived resistance to assimilation, for example, are not new.43 Benjamin Franklin said of the Palatinate German immigrants in Pennsylvania: “Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours?” (p. 17).43 Concerns about the quality of immigrants to the United States also has historical precedent. Francis A. Walker, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and superintendent of the U.S. Census characterized new immigrants as “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence” (p. 68).43

Interest in immigrants' socioeconomic characteristics from scientists, policy-makers, and the public has run ahead of the availability of the data to address these interests. The most serious omission from data sets is information on legal status, whether a foreign-born individual is in the United States with the knowledge and permission of the U.S. government or whether the foreign-born individual's presence in the United States constitutes a criminal offense. Even with the immigrant restrictions introduced by PRWORA in 1996, legally present immigrants have more access to government services and protections those whose presence is illegal and their existence is less precarious, which has tremendous implications for the socioeconomic well-being of these immigrants and their children. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few data sources, such as the NIS, the L.A.FANS (which covers only a limited destination area), and MMP and LAMP (which include immigrants from only certain origin groups), most data sets used to analyze immigrants do not contain information on legal status. Much of the current debate on the “quality” of legal immigrants and on the estimated costs, benefits, and impacts of unauthorized aliens is hampered by a pervasive lack of data.

Close to one in four U.S. children are being raised in immigrant families. Most of these children are native-born U.S. citizens, and most can be expected to remain in the United States as adults. The future productivity, competitiveness, and general well-being of the U.S. workforce will therefore be affected by the resources, training, and nurturance these children in immigrant families receive now. The current outlook for children in immigrant families is mixed. On the one hand, the poverty rate for children in immigrant families is rising. On the other hand, the educational achievement for children in immigrant families is higher than expected given their relatively low socioeconomic situation. It remains to be seen, however, whether the educational advantage conferred by some immigrant groups outweighs the long-term effects of economic disadvantage. Furthermore, the high proportion of minority children who are in immigrant families—the vast majority of Asian and Hispanic children and a growing proportion of black children—means that, increasingly, attention to racial and ethnic disparities in health and well-being will have to take into account immigration, immigrant assimilation, and the difficulties and opportunities facing immigrants and their families. At the same time, these immigrants are swept into patterns of on-going racialized social forces for which their home societies did not prepare them.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Socioeconomic Status and Immigrant Subgroups: Data Limitations and Findings
  5. Children in Immigrant Families
  6. New Sources of Data on Immigrants and Their Families
  7. Conclusion
  8. Conflicts of Interest
  9. References
  • 1
    U.S. Census Bureau. 2007. DataFerrett, Current Population Survey, March 2007.
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    Schmidley, A.D. & C. Gibson. 1999. Current Population Reports, Series P23-195, Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 1997. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington , DC .
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    Schmidley, D. 2003. The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: March 2002 Current Population Reports, P20-539. U.S. Census Bureau. Washington , DC .
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    U.S. Census Bureau. 2005. DataFerrett, Current Population Survey, March 2005.
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    Jasso, G., D. Massey, M. Rosenzweig, et al. The New Immigrant Survey Pilot (NIS-P): Overview and new findings about U.S. legal immigrants at admission. Demography 37: 127138.
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    Harachi, T.W. 2005. One shoe may not fit all: Adjustment of Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrant youth. Presented at One in Five: Addressing Health, Educational, and Socioeconomic Disparities of Children in Immigrant Families, May 25.
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    Glick, J.E. & B. Hohmann-Marriott. 2007. Academic performance of young children in immigrant families: The significance of race, ethnicity, and national origins. Int. Migration Rev. 41: 371402.
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    Smith, J.P. 2006. Immigrants and the labor market. J. Labor Econ. 24: 203233.
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    Alba, R. & V. Nee. 1997. Rethinking assimilation theory for a new generation of immigration. Int. Migration Rev. 31: 826874.
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    Lerman, R. 1999. U.S. wage inequality trends and recent immigration. Am. Econ. Rev.: Papers Proc. 89: 2328.
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