Living arrangements of ‘Dreamers’ are more complex, less stable, study shows

Undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who came to the United States as children or teens, commonly known as “Dreamers,” live in more complex and less stable households than their documented or native-born counterparts, according to a new study from Cornell researchers.

In “Living Arrangements and Household Complexity among Undocumented Latino Immigrants,” researchers in the College of Human Ecology provided the first national estimates of the family living arrangements for this group. The study compared the composition, size and stability of the households of unauthorized immigrants, documented immigrants and U.S.-born groups, and examined the extent of these groups’ shared family and residential ties.

“We find substantial complexity in the living arrangements of undocumented migrants, who are less likely than other groups to live in simple arrangements with partners and children and much more likely to co-reside with extended family and non-family members,” said co-author Matthew Hall, associate professor of policy analysis and management. “We also find that these households are characterized by greater instability, being most likely to change in size and form over time.”

The study was co-authored with professor Kelly Musick and doctoral student Youngmin Yi, both in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management.

The researchers used nationally representative data from the 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which include sufficiently large samples of Latino immigrants, information about legal status and measures of all relationships among household members. 

Results show that undocumented Latinos who were living in the U.S. before age 15 are significantly less likely than documented Latinos, U.S.-born Latinos and whites to be living with just a partner or a partner and children, at 47 percent compared with 55, 52 and 62 percent, respectively. They are also twice as likely to live with nonrelatives than other groups, at 14 percent compared with about 7 percent.

Undocumented migrants are less likely to live with immediate family members, and highly likely to live with extended family members. One-quarter share a household with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and more distant extended kin, compared with 12 percent of documented Latinos and 3 percent of whites. Under 10 percent of whites and African-Americans live alone, compared with 2 percent of undocumented Mexican and Central American migrants.

Dreamers also tend to live in households that are bigger and more complex than their documented or native-born counterparts. The average undocumented migrant resides in a home with 3.1 adults and 2 children – compared with 2.7 adults for similarly aged documented migrants, and 2.3 adults and one child for native whites.

“Our models reveal that undocumented migrants’ household size, along with counts of adults, children and families, exhibit substantially (and significantly) higher rates of change across waves than all other legal/racial groups, including documented migrants,” the researchers wrote. “With the exception of changes in household children, these markers of instability remain when household size is held constant.”

According to the researchers, understanding these household dynamics is a critical piece of the broader social context of undocumented life, the household strategies that undocumented immigrants use to get by and the role of legal status in Latino social mobility and integration.

“Our work contributes to a growing literature on the life chances of undocumented immigrants, showing that the precarity and instability associated with lacking authorization impacts not only educational and work outcomes, but increases complexity and instability in living arrangements.” Musick said. 

This line of research is also important for understanding how the effect of legal status extends beyond the unauthorized population to the legal immigrants and U.S.-born citizens to whom they are linked through family and co-residential ties.

“These patterns have potentially lasting effects on social and economic well-being, and are likely to reverberate across generations with implications that spill well beyond the unauthorized population – having direct consequences for their U.S.-born children and less direct but important consequences for the citizens to whom they are linked and communities in which they live,” Hall said.

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communications in the College of Human Ecology.

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