Background and Purpose: According to the American Immigration Council, there are approximately 4.5 million U.S. citizen children under the age of 18 living in a mixed-status immigrant family (American Immigration Council, 2017). In addition, as of 2013 approximately 775,000 children and youth in the United States were of undocumented status (Passel, Cohn, Krogstad, & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2014). These figures show that over a quarter of the 18.7 million children of immigrants in the United States are affected by undocumented status (Child Trends, 2013). Yet the large number of children in immigrant families and the impact of parent and child immigration status on children’s wellbeing are mostly ignored in the literature. (e.g., Abrego & Menjívar, 2011; Dreby, 2012).
The present study examines the association between mother and child immigration status and externalizing and internalizing behaviors. This study also examines how key factors such as age, maternal mental health, and family environment may exacerbate or buffer the negative effects of parent and child immigration status on children’s internalizing and externalizing problems.
Data and Sample:The study uses multiple regression analysis and data for this study were drawn from the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Study (L.A. FANS). Data from Wave 1 were used because the attrition rate for undocumented immigrants in Wave 2. The sample included 678 mothers of children and adolescents of Mexican origin.
Measures: Children were assigned to four types of immigrant families: U.S. born, documented, mixed-status, and undocumented. The Behavior Problems Index (BPI) was used to measure children’s behavioral problems, including anxiety, depression, and aggression (Peterson & Zill, 1986).
Results: Results revealed that children in mixed-status and undocumented families had worse internalizing behavioral problems than children in U.S.-born and documented families. Even though family immigration status was not associated with externalizing problems, the interaction between family immigration status and children’s age was significantly related to children’s behavioral problems. Among girls, parents’ marital conflict exacerbated the negative influence of undocumented or mixed status. On the other hand, high maternal self-efficacy attenuated the relationship between immigration status and externalizing behavioral problems among girls.
Conclusion and Implications:The findings shed light on how immigration status harms children in the different stages of development and that these children’s experiences may vary by their developmental period and cognitive abilities of children to understand the implications that family immigration status may have on their well-being (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011).This study also highlights that maternal immigration status matters for the mental health of youth. Therefore, it is crucial to consider maternal mental health and family environment as a point of intervention when working with children in undocumented or mixed-status families such as those that focus on increasing family strengths by teaching parents to manage stress when facing adversities and trauma and developing a positive parent-child relationship amidst among these adversities (Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2017). Further studies should examine the different risk and protective factors associated with the wellbeing of mixed-status and undocumented families in the current anti-immigrant climate.