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U.S. Citizen Kids in Immigrant Families Face Barriers to Social Services
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U.S. Citizen Kids in Immigrant Families Face Barriers to Social Services

This blog post was written by Yana Kunichoff, a Chicago-based reporter and a 2014 Immigration in the Heartland Fellow.

About 88 percent of children living in immigrant families are U.S citizens, but they are heavily impacted by immigration laws and policies that restrict social services to immigrants.

Even if the children qualify for government services such as subsidized health care or food stamps, their parents may be undocumented and thus reluctant to apply for such benefits, said Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration and child rights policy at First Focus, a D.C.-based advocacy group focused on children’s issues. “You can imagine how confusing it can be for an immigrant family that is afraid if they enroll for any program it could somehow implicate their ability to sponsor other family members or obtain citizenship themselves,” she said.

Laws also restrict access to benefits to green-card holders until they have lived in the United States for five years – a long period in the life of a child. Some states have waived the five-year requirement for children, but the hodgepodge of eligibility rules is confusing for social services providers, not to mention the families, Cervantes said.

Cervantes spoke at IJJ’s Immigration in the Heartland conference, a training program for journalists at the University of Oklahoma. This year’s conference, held April 27-30, focused on children in immigrant families, who account for one out of every four youngsters under age 18.

Cervantes, a former English as a Second Language teacher and community organizer, said that immigration reform is a critical issue. A path to citizenship would impact the 5.5 million children who have at least one undocumented parent, and increased access to public benefits programs and health care could improve the living standards of the youngsters in immigrant families — the fastest growing segment of the child population.

In the Senate bill in particular, a portion of the legislation allows immigration judges to waive the deportation of a parent if it would cause “hardship,” rather than “extreme hardship,” to family members. Cervantes said she is realistic about the low chances of the immigrant bill passing, given the current deadlock. As a result, she said that groups such as First Focus have been “focusing on the administration and what they can do to stop the suffering of families until we get immigration reform.”

The Affordable Care Act allows refugees, green card holders and individuals with temporary protected status to apply for insurance coverage. But the law excludes immigrants who brought to the United States as youngsters and now have temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. More than 400,000 immigrants have status under DACA as of 2014, and many of them work and pay taxes.

Health care coverage for children in immigrant families varies by state. Some states, including Illinois, Washington and New York offer medical coverage for children regardless of immigration status. Other states, including much of the South and Midwest, exclude undocumented children as well as legal residents who have been in the country for less than five years.

2015 will be a critical year for several social services program serving low-income families. Congress will be debating reauthorization of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, school nutritional initiatives and the supplemental food program for women, infant and children.

“There is always some kind of attack on immigrant eligibility,” said Cervantes, noting that an anti-immigrant political climate affects the well-being of children in immigrant families. “We are dealing with people who don’t feel like immigrants deserve any kind of benefit at all, even if it’s specifically for children.”

For more information, check out Cervantes’ Power Point presentation as well as resources from other speakers at the IJJ conference.

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