Seven Things to Know About Mixed-Status Families

By Cassaundra Rodriguez, PhD

With immigration matters constantly in the news, perhaps you may have heard of “mixed-status families.” Mixed-status families include members with different immigration statuses. For example, a common family combination in the United States includes undocumented parents and citizen children. There are approximately 16 million people in mixed-status families in the United States. Mixed-status families are nothing new and yet, current debates over immigration mean that these families are the targets of harmful rhetoric and policies. And, while families are deeply resilient, there are still a few actions we can take to support them. I share seven of these actions below.

1. Call these families mixed-status. This is an easy one! Calling families mixed-status highlights the unique challenges faced by this population — some of which are not shared by same-status citizen or immigrant families. Using this term is also a helpful reminder that immigrants and citizens do not live separate lives. Instead, immigration issues impact the lives of individuals with all immigration/citizenship statuses in very intimate ways. Paying attention to how differences in immigration statuses matter within families can also help advocates craft better supports for this population.

2. Mixed-status families are vulnerable to poverty. Challenges related to immigration status are not the only obstacles these families face. Many are also at a unique risk for poverty. For one, undocumented families are often ineligible for state or federal supports like subsidized housing and food stamps. In the case of mixed-status families, US citizen children in these families can also be blocked from accessing resources. Undocumented parents may be unaware programs exist, and may fear that accessing programs can lead to their deportation. As a result, citizen children are blocked from resources that are rightfully theirs. Further, families are also impacted by the limited, difficult, and low-paying jobs that are typically available to undocumented immigrants. When undocumented parents have precarious jobs, it is families too who experience this precariousness.

3. Recognize that “anchor baby” rhetoric is false, painful, and damaging. I remember first hearing the term “anchor baby” and feeling disgusted. This term is hurled at the citizen children of undocumented immigrants, but it’s also a highly racialized term that specifically targets Mexican, Latinx, and in some cases Chinese-American children. Conservatives claim that undocumented mothers purposefully have children in the United States in order to eventually gain legal status for themselves. Demographic and social science scholarship suggests otherwise. Droves of undocumented mothers are not crossing the border as part of a calculated plan to have children serve as their ticket for legal residency. Yet, this anchor baby narrative lingers, and is sometimes used as a talking point to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children born to immigrants. Instead of demonizing children and their families, we need civil discourse and positive images to remind children that they and their families do belong in this country. Empowering images are especially important when the leader of the United States has publicly claimed that citizen children of undocumented immigrants are essentially unwanted, illegitimate citizens.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

In my research with mixed-status families, adult citizen children are critical of “anchor baby” arguments and see it as yet another example of how their citizenship is challenged by the American public. In my research, I also find that young people often see “anchor baby” narratives as an excuse for elected officials and political pundits to express anti-Latinx racism. As a result, members of mixed-status families juggle that dangerous intermingling of both systemic racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. “Anchor baby” narratives also mislead the public into thinking that undocumented parents can easily access their permanent residency through their children. This is entirely not the case. This brings me to my next point.

4. Many pathways to legalization are difficult and blocked for mixed-status families. A child can sponsor a parent for their legal permanent residency (LPR), or “green card,” when they reach the age of twenty-one. Sponsors also need to make at least 125% over the poverty line and have no criminal history. Stringent requirements are also required of immigrants hoping to be sponsored. Meeting these requirements, however, does not guarantee successful sponsorship. Thanks in large part to a stipulation in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), families are reluctant to pursue legalization pathways because it often means applicants will have to exit the country to wait out a several years bar in their countries of origin. In many cases, the bar for undocumented immigrants who entered the US without authorization can be ten years. In my work, I have found that families are largely unwilling to endure such prolonged separation. In another indirect matter, legalization pathways always involve costs — fees for applications, paperwork, and legal counsel. The process can be financially prohibitive, especially considering the issues raised in my second point above.

5. Members of mixed-status families still face deportation risk. Between 2010–2012, the US deported more than 200,000 parents of US citizen children. Record-breaking deportation rates under the Obama Administration meant that thousands of families were collateral damage. It was only at the end of Obama’s tenure that deportation rates started to decrease and remained relatively low into the Trump Administration. Still, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security, 12,464 deported immigrants reported having at least one US citizen child in the first half of 2017 alone. Clearly, being a citizen child does not protect parents from deportation. It also does not shield citizens from facing the inevitable circumstance of family separation or transplanting their lives to a country that may be unfamiliar to them. Whether children experience a family deportation or live in the fear of this possibility, such circumstances carry with them emotional, academic, and financial stress.

Photo by Gabriela Netto on Unsplash

6. Support undocumented youth and citizen youth who are part of mixed-status families. Rightfully, much attention has been paid to undocumented youth and their resilience in fighting to remain in the country, pursue higher education, and protect their families. Still, we often hear little about their comparatively privileged counterparts: citizen youth in mixed-status families. These citizens also live with the realities of their parent’s precarious immigration statuses. They, too, can live in the shadows with their families. Some children are also helping to support their families emotionally and financially. Understandably, this can take time and focus away from school. Educators should be particularly sensitive to how such fears can impact students in their day-to-day lives at school. College-going youth also need support with navigating financial aid processes, including those that may require parental social security numbers and other information that parents simply may not have due to their unauthorized statuses. Sharing updated and accurate information ensures that students can access financial resources, and it helps prevent students from having to constantly inquire to university staff about their parents’ statuses — something that can be difficult to disclose.

7. Hold the United States accountable for creating mixed-status families and the circumstances they face. Lastly, it is critical to note how the United States helped create mixed-status families headed by undocumented parents in the large numbers that they exist today. First, US foreign policy fosters conditions in foreign countries that make migration and settlement in the United States necessary for survival. Returning to a country of origin, in some cases, means certain violence, and even death. Second, US policies have actually encouraged Mexican undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, instead of participating in historical patterns of seasonal migration. The militarization of the border that began full force in the 1980s and 1990s altered seasonal Mexican labor migration. This caused migrants to consider permanent settlement in the United States. As migrants settle and make the US their home, families often form. Without a broad comprehensive immigration reform program in the last thirty years, it is families — not immigrants by themselves — who are left in legal limbo. A humane immigration policy can do much to relieve many of the challenges mixed-status families face, and our country would be better for it. This is not just an immigration issue, but a deeply American problem that we as a country have a responsibility to resolve.

We must be mindful of the ways in which immigration policies and debates impact individuals of all immigration statuses. This is particularly important considering the dangerous rhetoric that seems to so often surround immigration politics. One of the rallying cries of the anti-deportation movement has been “we are here to stay.” Perhaps we can envision a future where immigrants and mixed-status families not only stay, but are fully embraced as members of the country.


Cassaundra Rodriguez, PhD, is a sociologist who studies mixed-status families, race, and gender. She is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.