Public Release: 

Undocumented Mexican immigrants' kids have higher risk of behavior problems

Penn State

Children of undocumented Mexican immigrants have a significantly higher risk of behavior problems than their co-ethnic counterparts with documented or naturalized citizen mothers, according to a team of sociologists.

The difficulties come in two forms: sadness or social withdrawal -- what the authors refer to as internalizing behavior problems -- and issues such as aggressiveness towards others, which the researchers call externalizing behavior problems.

"To our knowledge, our study is the first study based on a representative sample to investigate differences in the behavioral functioning of youth with undocumented versus documented parents," said Nancy S. Landale, Liberal Arts Research Professor of Sociology and Demography, Penn State. "We found that treating Mexican children with immigrant parents as a single undifferentiated group masks important differences in outcomes by parental legal status."

The researchers used data on more than 2,500 children ages three to 17 from Los Angeles County and their mothers, according to Lansdale, who worked with Jessica Halliday Hardie, assistant professor of sociology, Hunter College, City University of New York; R.S. Oropesa, professor of sociology and demography, and Marianne M. Hillemeier, professor of health policy and administration and demography, both at Penn State.

Among the children of Mexican immigrants in the sample, 36 percent had an undocumented mother. According to the researchers, who released their findings today (Feb. 26) in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, approximately half of Mexican immigrants are undocumented, and Mexican-origin children comprise 70 percent of children with unauthorized immigrant parents in the United States.

Landale suggests that finding the reasons why children of undocumented Mexican immigrants have more behavioral problems than their co-ethnic counterparts with documented or naturalized citizen mothers is complex.

"There is no simple answer," Landale said. "However, our study rules out explanations that emphasize differences in socioeconomic status, family routines, or maternal mental health. It is also important to note that although most children with undocumented parents are U.S. citizens, they face unique and poorly understood challenges due to their parents' insecure legal status."

In terms of the study's policy implications, Landale said the study reveals that children of undocumented Mexican mothers are at risk of experiencing behavior problems that may adversely affect their life chances, and she believes their access to mental health services may be limited by family poverty, a lack of health insurance, language barriers, parents' limited awareness of mental health resources and parents' reluctance to seek assistance from service providers because of fear of detection, apprehension and deportation.

"Barriers to treatment must be reduced through polices that promote services in places familiar to youth and their undocumented parents," Landale said. "For example, schools and public health clinics can be effective sites for screening for mental health problems and for engaging with immigrant parents about available resources, but such screening must be paired with culturally-sensitive services that involve both the child and the family."

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This National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supported this study.

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