Recency of Migration and Legal Status Effects on Food Expenditures and Child Well-Being

Year: 1999

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Kanaiaupuni, Shawn Malia, and Katharine M. Donato

Institution: University of Wisconsin

Project Contact:
Shawn Malia Kanaiaupuni
Department of Sociology
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI 53706


Recent years have witnessed growing debate about the integration prospects of U.S. immigrants. Widespread attention has focused on the costs of immigration, especially in cities that suffered from the onset of a deep recession in the late 1980’s. Since that time, public concern about immigrants in the U.S. economy has led to welfare reform that limited public assistance to legal immigrants who, some studies reported, imposed costs to U.S. taxpayers through their use of educational and welfare services. Steady growth in undocumented migration has accompanied these changes. By the end of the 1980’s, estimates suggested a gross inflow of 3.8 million persons from Mexico alone, which represented a substantial increase from the estimated 99,000 illegal Mexican immigrants of two decades earlier.

Recent research has accumulated considerable evidence about the challenges that confront individuals with uncertain legal status in U.S. society. Undocumented households tend to be poor, often living below established poverty thresholds. Like other immigrants, those without documents are especially likely to be medically underserved, uninsured, and relying on emergency medical care, which increases the risks of preventable death. Many are ineligible or afraid to use public service programs designed to help poor families. Yet to date, primarily because of data limitations, we know little about the effects of illegal immigrant status on social behavior and well-being.

Kanaiaupuni and Donato address this gap with new data from a longitudinal, binational project (Health and Migration Survey) that surveys households in Mexico and in the United States. The data from this report come from a total of 262 households randomly chosen in two migrant destination neighborhoods, one in Houston and the other just north of San Diego. They used these data to examine the health effects of legal status, nativity, and recency of migration. The authors focus their analysis on child health and food security.

Kanaiaupuni and Donato use multivariate analysis to predict household food expenditures, breastfeeding behavior, children’s current illness (serious conditions lasting at least 10 days), and mother-reported overall health status of children. Their sample includes 232 children under 7 years old, all but 40 of whom are U.S. citizens. They find children are much better off if both parents have legal documents—they have more food, higher household incomes, and better health status. Children with at least one undocumented parent suffer significant health costs—their chances of poor health are between three and eight times higher than children with legal parents. Their results also suggest that the advantages conferred by legal status are insensitive to time; net of legal status, children of recent immigrants are no healthier than those whose parents have lengthier U.S. exposure. The authors anticipate future research that will explore the mechanisms that contribute to these differences. To date, their findings suggest that children living in illegal immigrant households would benefit from targeted public health, food assistance, and nutrition policies.