Panel Paper: Our Children’s Fear: Immigration Policy’s Effects on Young Children

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Marriott Balcony A - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Wendy Cervantes, Rebecca Ullrich and Hannah Matthews, Center for Law and Social Policy

Children in immigrant families are a large and growing segment of the young child population in the United States. More than 9 million children under age 8 live in an immigrant family in which one or more parents are foreign-born, comprising 26 percent of the young children population. Given what we know about the importance of children’s experiences in the early years of life, we were concerned about how young children in immigrant families are experiencing—and are being affected by—recent anti-immigrant policy agenda and rhetoric.


Between May and November 2017, CLASP conducted semi-structured interviews with child care and early education teachers, home visitors, and staff and community-based social service providers in six states—California, Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Participants included more than 100 staff across 33 organizations, including private child care centers, Head Start programs, preschools, public schools, and home visiting programs. We also convened four focus groups in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania with a total of 45 immigrant parents of young children.

Findings and implications

While children may not be the targets of immigration policy changes, our study adds to a growing body of research demonstrating that they too experience the harmful consequences. Young children in immigrant families—including children whose parents have lawful immigration status—are worried that their parents will be taken from them. They are expressing their fearfulness in words and troubling behaviors, such as self-harm, social withdrawal, and increased aggression. Children are increasingly isolated from their communities, and some are missing out on child care and early education programs. Some are forgoing medical care and are not getting health and nutrition assistance they are legally entitled to as citizens. Children’s home lives are increasingly unstable due to overcrowded housing, frequent moving, or decreased economic security. And their parents and caregivers are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress themselves.

Research is clear that this kind of stress and instability in early childhood can do immense damage to children’s health and wellbeing. When basic needs are not met—or hardship and distress disrupt their environments—children’s development is undercut, with the potential for enduring, even life-long consequences. Moreover, experiencing multiple types of adversity (for example, lower household income, housing instability, and not having enough to eat) does far greater damage to young children’s long-term development than simply adding up the effects of each individual risk factor. While children with undocumented parents may be most vulnerable to multiple stressors due to their parents’ immigration status, we learned that even children whose parents have legal permanent residency or are U.S. citizens are experiencing increased fear and anxiety as well.

We offer recommendations to federal, state, and local policymakers to ensure that the best interests of children are held paramount in immigration policy decisions, that immigrant families can access the programs and services they need to promote their children’s healthy development, and that early care and education programs have the resources they need to effectively serve children in immigrant families.