Growing numbers of children of illegal immigrants are being born in this country, and they are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty than those with American-born parents, a report says.
The study released Tuesday by the Pew Hispanic Center highlights a growing dilemma in the immigration debate: Illegal immigrants' children born in the United States are American citizens, yet they struggle in poverty and uncertainty along with parents who fear deportation, toil largely in low-wage jobs and face layoffs in an ailing economy.
The analysis by Pew, a nonpartisan research organization, estimated that 11.9 million illegal immigrants lived in the U.S. Of those, 8.3 million were in the labor force as of March 2008, making up 5.4 percent of the U.S. work force, primarily in lower-paying farming, construction or janitorial work.
Roughly three out of four of their children — or 4 million — were born in the U.S. In 2003, 2.7 million children of illegal immigrants, or 63 percent, were born in this country.
Overall, illegal immigrants' children account for one of every 15 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Illegal immigrants also have become more geographically dispersed, increasingly passing up typical destinations like California in favor of jobs in newly emerging Hispanic areas in Southeastern states like Georgia and North Carolina.
In 2008, California had the most illegal immigrants at 2.7 million, double its 1990 number, followed by Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey. Still, California's 22 percent share of the nation's illegal immigrant population was a marked drop-off from its 42 percent share in 1990.
The latest demographic snapshot comes as President Barack Obama is preparing to address the politically sensitive issue of immigration reform later this year, including a proposal to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Though their numbers have soared over the past two decades, the total number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has declined or remained flat in the last few years. Demographers attribute that to slower rates of migration into the U.S. caused in part by the recession, as well as to deportations and stepped-up immigration enforcement during the Bush administration.
Among the findings:
—One-third of the children of illegal immigrants live in poverty, nearly double the rate for children of U.S.-born parents.
—Illegal immigrants' share of low-wage jobs has grown in recent years, from 10 percent of construction jobs in 2003 to 17 percent in 2008. They also make up 25 percent of workers in farming and 19 percent in building maintenance.
—The 2007 median household income of illegal immigrants was $36,000, compared with $50,000 for U.S.-born residents. In contrast to other immigrants, illegal immigrants do not earn markedly higher incomes the longer they live in the United States.
—About 47 percent of illegal immigrant households have children, compared with 21 percent for U.S.-born residents and 35 percent for legal immigrants.
—About three-quarters, or 76 percent, of illegal immigrants in the U.S. are Hispanic. The majority came from Mexico (59 percent), numbering 7 million. Other regions included Asia (11 percent), Central America (11 percent), South America (7 percent), the Caribbean (4 percent) and the Middle East (2 percent).
Children of illegal immigrants hold a delicate place in the U.S. On the one hand, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that these children — whether they were U.S. citizens or not — were entitled to a public school education. California and a few other states also provide some college tuition breaks to illegal immigrants.
At the same time, the immigrants and their families are among the poorest people in the U.S., easily exploited by employers and subject to arrest at any time. Children who are U.S. citizens cannot petition for their parents to become legal U.S. residents until they are at least 21.
Earlier this year, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general found that more than 100,000 parents of U.S. citizens were deported over the decade ending in 2007, prompting the department to say it would gather more information about families before deporting immigrants.
The Pew analysis is based on census data through March 2008. Because the Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, the estimate on illegal immigrants is derived largely by subtracting the estimated legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born population.