Migrants' kids missing out
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 8, 2005 12:00 AM
Study: Fearful parents skipping benefits for fast-growing group

Sergio Bustos and Daniel Gonzalez

Arizona was among 13 states nationwide whose population of kids with immigrant parents grew by more than 80 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to an Urban Institute study to be released today. Only 10 other states had higher growth rates.

The study paints an illuminating portrait of millions of young children of immigrants - a group often overlooked by researchers and policy makers - who may be eligible for a variety of public services.

Randy Capps, the study's lead researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., said the high percentage of undocumented immigrant parents raises serious public policy issues.

"These children may be eligible for a host of public benefits like food stamps and health insurance, but their parents may be too afraid of applying for them out of fear of being deported," Capps said.

He also said the presence of so many young children of immigrants presents a real challenge for state and local officials, especially schools, across much of the country. Schools will need to prepare for, and adapt to, the needs of children who come from immigrant families.

"The future of these children will largely depend on the neighborhoods they grow up in, the education they receive and investments we make in them," he said.

The study's authors, using 2000 Census data, found that more than one in five young children under age 6, about 22 percent, live with at least one foreign-born parent. That translates to 5.1 million children nationwide.

The authors also found that an overwhelming majority of these children, about 93 percent, are U.S. citizens, but a significant percentage of their parents, 30 percent, live illegally in the country.

Capps said the report shows President Bush's proposed guest-worker plan could have a dramatic impact on millions of children whose parents lack legal residency status.

Under Bush's plan, the country's estimated 8 million to 10 million undocumented immigrants would be eligible for temporary work visas that would allow them to remain in the country. But they would have to return to their native country when the visas expire.

"However you feel about undocumented immigrants, the whole issue is complicated by the fact they have children who are U.S. citizens," Capps said.

New law, added fear

In Arizona, the recent passage of Protect Arizona Now has further scared immigrant parents from applying for benefits for their U.S.-born children, even though their children may be entitled to them, said Luis Ibarra, executive director of Friendly House, a non-profit organization that provides human services targeted at Latino immigrant families.

The ballot measure, intended to ensure undocumented immigrants don't receive state benefits and don't vote, requires state workers to report undocumented immigrants who apply for certain benefits to federal immigration officials.

"Consequently children aren't getting medical services or after-school programs they need," Ibarra said.

Dana Naimark, director of special projects at the Children's Action Alliance a Phoenix-based non-profit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization, said not enough attention has been paid to the large increase in the number of children of immigrants in Arizona.

"Some people might react with fear," Naimark said.

However, "these children are our future workforce. They are our future teachers, our future business people, our future leaders. So therefore what happens to them isn't important just to their own families. It's important to all of us."

She said while children of immigrants face many challenges, they also bring several strengths, notably that many come from two-parent, working families.

Topping the needs of these families are good-paying jobs, access to quality education, and good, safe child care, "needs that all families have," she said.

More services urged

Laura Walker, director of Early Childhood Development for Chicanos Por La Causa, a non-profit social services organization, said there are not enough programs to help prepare children of immigrants for school.

At just the nine Head Start programs she oversees around Phoenix and other parts of the state, seven have waiting lists. Combined, the nine programs serve 700 children, almost all of them children of immigrants.

"We could serve 300 to 400 more children," she said.

Walker said the state's education system was unprepared for the large influx of children of immigrants that arrived during the 1990s and which continues to grow. Many of these children come from families where English is not spoken at home, yet the lack of bilingual staff prevents schools from being able to adequately communicate with parents, she said.

Among other highlights of the study:

Young children of immigrants are more likely to live in two-parent families than U.S. natives (86 percent vs. 75 percent).

They are more likely to live in two-parent families with low incomes (50 percent vs. 26 percent) and low education (29 percent have less than a high school diploma vs. 8 percent of U.S.-born parents).

They are less likely to receive welfare benefits and more likely to lack health insurance than U.S.-born parents.

The states with the fastest-growing population of children of immigrants between 1990 and 2000 were North Carolina, Nebraska, Arkansas, Nevada, Georgia, Iowa, Tennessee, Oregon, Colorado and Idaho.