Service utilization for Latino children in mixed-status families.

Author:Xu, Qingwen

In the aftermath of 1996 welfare and immigration reforms, service utilization is particularly challenging for mixed-status families in which U.S.-born children live with undocumented parents. This study used both qualitative interview data and quantitative survey data to document Latino immigrant parents' service utilization for their U.S.-born children and the perceived impact of the existence of detention and deportation on their service utilization. Results indicate that Latino families headed by undocumented parents accessed services for their citizen children at a level similar to that of Latino families headed by documented parents. Although undocumented participants reported that detention and deportation affected their service utilization, their social networks embodied in Latino/a relationships helped them to navigate systems, increased their efficacy, counteracted their fears, and contributed to their family resiliency. Hospitals and schools, in particular, served as the entry points for Latino immigrant families to access a broad range of services. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

KEY WORDS: immigration and welfare systems; Latino; mixed-status immigrant family; service utilization; undocumented immigrant


Scholars who explore immigrants' welfare participation and service use in Western countries frequently ask similar questions (Barrett & McCarthy, 2008): Are immigrants eligible to receive social services and welfare benefits? If they are eligible, what are the barriers that complicate immigrants' ability to participate in programs or access services? In this article, we address the question: How have recent changes in welfare and immigration policy--and the upsurge in raids, detentions, and deportations--affected undocumented Latino immigrants' parents' service utilization for their U.S.-born citizen children?

The literature on international migration has examined multiple factors to explain immigrants' behavior with regard to accessing welfare benefits and social services; scholars have underscored the importance of immigration-related factors in understanding service utilization among immigrant groups. Some have argued that service utilization may be shaped by cultural values that immigrants bring from their countries and cultures of origins. For example, Asian immigrants, in general, have demonstrated low rates of any type of mental health-related service use even after other individual and structural factors were controlled (Abe-Kim et al., 2007; Leduc & Proulx, 2004); among Latino immigrants, Mexicans and Latino men were less likely to use mental health services, which may reflect culturally specific gender expectations (Fortuna, Porche, & Alegria, 2008). Scholars have also argued that immigrants face different economic and social opportunities and challenges because of level of education, English proficiency at the time of migration, areas of initial resettlement, family members' legal status, and available resources, all of which contribute to different access to service programs (Berk, Schur, Chavez, & Frankel, 2000; Bowden, Rhodes, Wilkin, & Jolly, 2006; Jacobs, Shepard, Suaya, & Stone, 2004).

Legal status is a key factor affecting immigrants' service use behavior; for example, Alegria et al. (2007) indicated that rates of mental health service use were higher among Puerto Ricans and U.S.-born Latinos than among foreign-born Latinos (non-Puerto Ricans). For mixed-status immigrant families in the United States--that is, families in which one or more parents is a noncitizen and one or more children is a citizen, members within the same family have differing eligibility for and access to social services. Scholars have indicated that both children's and parents' legal status affect the service utilization for the child; U.S.-born children with noncitizen parents were at a disadvantage when compared with children with citizen parents (Huang, Yu, & Ledsky, 2006). Undocumented immigrant parents are ineligible to receive most government-sponsored social services and welfare benefits because of their unauthorized stay in the United States (Fix & Zimmermann, 2001). Moreover, they may refrain from seeking services for their U.S. citizen children due to fear of possible family separation if the undocumented parents are identified and deported by immigration enforcement authorities (Berk & Schur, 2001; Simich, Wu, & Nerad, 2007).

Changes in welfare and immigrant policies since 1996 substantially affect immigrant children's access to service, particularly children in families headed by undocumented parents. Changes in policies, practices, and climate for undocumented immigrants in the United States send a message to immigrant families that they should avoid using services even if they are eligible. However, the extent to which legal vulnerability affects undocumented parents' attempts to access services for their children in this new political and economic climate is by and large unknown. This study seeks to document the service utilization among Latino mixed-status immigrant families and discuss, from a resilience perspective, the relationships between undocumented status and service use behaviors.


Latino Immigrants in the United States

Latinos (referring to people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, South or Central American, or other Spanish-speaking countries regardless of race) represent the largest group of foreign-born migrants, both documented and undocumented, and the largest minority group in the United States. As of July 2006, the Latino population in the United States was 44.3 million, 14.8% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Among this population, about 40% were foreign-born and an additional 20% to 25% were their children (Mariscal, 2005; Pew Hispanic Center, 2005, 2008). Among noncitizen Latino adults, an estimated 55% were undocumented (Pew Hispanic Center, 2007); of these, an approximately 80% come from Mexico or Central America (Passel, 2006).

In 2004, about 11 million families living in the United States were headed by foreign-born adults (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004) and about 6.6 million families were headed by undocumented adults (Passel, 2006). One in 10 U.S. families with children is considered a mixed-status immigrant family (Fix & Zimmermann, 2001). The vast majority of children in mixed-status families are citizens by birth (Capps, Fix, Ost, Reardon-Anderson, & Passel, 2004). The Pew Hispanic Center found that in 2005 there were about 3.1 million children who were U.S. citizens by birth living in families in which the head of the family or a spouse was unauthorized, accounting for nearly 66% of the children living in undocumented families (Passel, 2006).

Policies that Disadvantage Undocumented Parents and Their Citizen Children

Policies that disadvantage undocumented immigrant parents are likely to have broad spillover effects on their citizen children. In the United States, welfare and immigration reforms enacted in 1996 created a series of legal, economic, and social challenges for immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented (Fix & Zimmermann, 2001). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (P.L. 104-193) restricts the time period for receiving welfare benefits and forbids immigrants who entered the country after August 1996 from receiving services for five years. An examination of the post-1996 welfare reform trends indicated that welfare use by immigrant households has declined sharply relative to the decline experienced by native households (Borjas, 2002; Fix & Passel, 2002).

In addition to PRWORA, two laws passed in 1996 ushered in stricter U.S. immigration regulations and deportation practices: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-132) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-208). These two laws radically changed many grounds for exclusion and deportation (Morawetz, 2004) and, in recent years, have led to aggressive deportation practices. Millions of immigrants--both undocumented immigrants and permanent legal residents--are prevented from remaining in the United States. Deportations have risen steadily; in 2008 the number of immigrants deported reached an all-time record high in U.S. history; a total of 358,886 noncitizens (mainly Mexicans and Central Americans) were deported, an increase of 12% from the previous year (U.S. Department of Homeland Security [DHS], 2009). In addition, more than 811,000 noncitizens were allowed to return to their home countries in 2008 without an order of removal (that is, voluntary departure) (DHS, 2009).

In the wake of the aforementioned changes in welfare and immigration policies, service utilization is particularly challenging for mixed-status families. Mixed-status families are more likely to be disadvantaged in accessing public assistance and services, as noncitizen parents do not have full legal and social membership in the United States and thus cannot access many public resources. Recent legal arrivals are barred from receiving most public benefits because of PRWORA (1996) and, consequently, lack the ability to provide adequate resources for their citizen children (Borjas, 2002; Chow, Bester, & Shinn, 2001). Most undocumented parents do not and will not legalize their status (citizenship or permanent residency) unless current immigration laws change (Kremer, Moccio, & Hammell, 2009). Not only are they ineligible to receive most public benefits, but researchers have indicated that they also may be wary of asking for assistance for their eligible citizen children because of the fears of deportation (Capps et al., 2004; Huang et al., 2006).

Latino Immigrant Family Resiliency

In spite of the many adversities and challenges undocumented Latino immigrant families face, research has documented the resiliency among Latino...

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