Left behind: A child's burden

Children of illegal immigrants twice as likely as other kids to be poor

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eight-year-old Alex picked up a 75-cent can of fruit punch from one of the grocery store's shelves and called excitedly to his mother in Spanish.

"Mami! Can we buy something to drink?"

Maria, 38, gave her stocky third-grader a sympathetic smile. She'd already made Alex and his 3-year-old sister, Emelyn, walk 30 minutes under a broiling sun from their house in suburban Maryland to the Safeway, the closest place that accepts Emelyn's federal milk and cereal vouchers. Then they'd trekked 20 minutes more to this cheaper Latino grocery so Maria, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who can't afford a car and wouldn't be eligible for a driver's license anyway, could save $3.40 on chicken.

"At home, my son," Maria said soothingly. "When we get home, you can drink some water."

"But I'm really thirsty," Alex persisted.

"No, son. At home."

"But I need to drink now."

"No! No!" snapped Maria. "I already said, 'No!' "

She hates these moments, she said later -- these unavoidable reminders of the hardships her U.S.-born children face because she and their father, Luis, are illegal immigrants.

Of all the disadvantages that U.S.-born children of Hispanic immigrants might confront, none is more significant than being raised by parents who are in the country illegally.

Forty percent -- or 3.3 million of these children -- have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant, mostly from Mexico or Central America, according to a recent analysis of census data by demographer Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. And researchers warn that the long-term consequences for the country could be profound.

"The fact that so many in this population face these initial disadvantages has huge implications in terms of their education, their future labor market experience, their integration in the broader society, and their political participation," said Roberto Gonzales, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied this generation.

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