Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Lives in Limbo: Legal Status and Cumulative Disadvantages over the Life-Course Among Mexican Immigrant Childhood Arrivals

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 3:30 PM
Stanford (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

James Bachmeier, Temple University, Claire Altman, Rice University and Jennifer Van Hook, Pennsylvania State University
Over the past two decades, the U.S. has witnessed exponential increases in the size of its unauthorized foreign-born population, the rate of which has only abated in the wake of the great recession.  Against this backdrop, numerous policy-relevant questions have been raised about the degree to which unauthorized status, which by definition blocks immigrants’ political membership, also diminishes their economic and social integration, and by extension, that of their children.  Unfortunately, and despite the fact that immigration reform remains a top public policy priority, few evidence based studies have addressed these crucial questions owing to a paucity of nationally representative survey data that includes measures of immigrants’ legal status. 

This paper seeks to begin filling this gap by employing a newly developed method, known as “data fusion” or “cross-survey multiple imputation”, to assign legal status to immigrants in the American Community Survey (ACS).  We limit our focus here to “1.5-generation” Mexican immigrant young adults, which refers to those persons migrating from Mexico to the U.S. as young children.  The analyses examine the degree to which undocumented status disrupts key turning points in the transition from late adolescence into early adulthood, and thus represents a source of disadvantage among members of the 1.5-generation that is likely to accumulate over the life course, as suggested by recent ethnographic studies.

We suggest that the 1.5-generation may be a particularly strategic population for the estimation of legal status effects, if for no other reason than it is less likely to be affected by migrant selection dynamics, as compared with those migrating as adults.  Arguably, because the 1.5-generation is socialized largely within the United States, and thus have weaker social network and emotional ties to their country of birth relative to adult migrants whose formative years are spent in Mexico, the 1.5-generation is less likely to be affected by selective return migration likely to bias the association between legal status socioeconomic integration outcomes, or at least will be affected to a lesser degree. 

We use data from the 2008-2012 ACS to examine legal status differentials in secondary and post-secondary educational transitions and marriage among 1.5-generation Mexican immigrants between the ages of 25 and 40.  In all outcomes examined, we find significant disadvantages associated with unauthorized status, and perhaps more importantly, that legal status gradients widen with each subsequent life-course transition.  Thus, relative to their undocumented counterparts, legally resident and naturalized 1.5-generation Mexicans are 8 percent more likely to complete high school.  Among high school completers, legally resident persons are 17 percent more likely to enroll in college and 42 percent more likely to complete a four-year degree, conditional on post-secondary enrollment.  Similarly, the legally resident 1.5-generation adults are 29 percent more likely to have married.  The public policy relevance and implications for subsequent research on the significance of legal status for immigrant integration are discussed.