Popular images of undocumented immigrants often call to mind workers—nannies, gardeners, restaurant staff, factory and field workers, housekeepers—the list goes on. But these popular images present undocumented immigrants as one-dimensional, lone adults present in the United States to toil away. In reality, their lives are more layered.
Undocumented adults are generally members of families, working toward imagined futures for themselves and their families. After decades of working in service of this vision, they find themselves older, their aging bodies struggling to keep up with intensive labor demands. Their children, now young adults, begin to take note that there are few options for their parents’ retirement.
The older undocumented population is growing. In the next two decades, 40% of the undocumented Latinx population will be older than age 55. Facing this reality, undocumented and mixed-status families confront precarious financial futures as the earning potential of their primary breadwinners declines.
But immigration status will likely persist as a source of economic inequality among undocumented older adults, preventing their retirement, a reality that trickles down to their young adult children’s lives, causing worry about how they will support their parents.
Economic Insecurity in the Older Age Undocumented Population
Undocumented immigration status constrains access to opportunities to plan and care for older adults, too. Drawing on national level data, we find there are large disparities in economic outcomes among Latinx persons older than age 55 when comparing across immigration status. Figure 1 (below) shows data on the average personal monthly income of Latinx adults older than age 55 with varying immigration status.
Average income is lowest among older Latinx adults with precarious legal status; this includes people who are undocumented as well as those who have temporary or non-immigrant visas. Income follows a clear gradient based on immigration status, as those with precarious immigration status had an average monthly income of $967–$246 less than those who are lawful permanent residents (LPRs).
Figure 1. Average Personal Monthly Income of Latinx Adults Older than Age 55
Data source: Authors’ calculations based on Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) 1996–2008. Income is adjusted for inflation and reflects 2002 dollars. Estimates are weighted. Note: Precarious immigration status category includes non-LPRs and non-citizens.
In retirement, older adults may depend upon acquired wealth or Social Security benefits to make ends meet. Average household net worth is about $140,480 for U.S.-born adults older than age 55 and slightly less than $60,000 for immigrants with precarious legal status. Further, older Latinx adults with precarious status are more than half as likely to receive Social Security benefits compared with Latinx older adults with other legal status (see Figure 2).
The older age undocumented population also has lower access to healthcare and health insurance, increasing the likelihood that they will incur substantial medical expenses as they age with little safety net.
Figure 2. Social Security Receipt of Latinx Adults Older than Age 55
Data source: Authors’ calculations based on Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) 1996–2008. Estimates are weighted.
Note: Precarious immigration status category includes non-LPRs and non-citizens.
Aging In and Out of Family Financial Provider Roles
In light of limited economic resources among older Latinx adults with precarious immigration status, their young adult children often step in to pool household resources and make ends meet. Enriquez and colleagues conducted a survey of children of immigrants at the University of California, drawing 2,736 responses from undocumented students, U.S. citizens with at least one undocumented parent and U.S. citizens with lawfully present parents. More than half of these young adults, who were age 20 on average, were already taking on substantial financial roles in their families.
Latinx undocumented students and Latinx U.S. citizens with undocumented parents were more likely to help their family members pay bills, with almost a quarter of undocumented students and almost a fifth of U.S. citizens with undocumented parents helping a lot of the time or more. About one in eight Latinx citizens with lawfully present parents were called upon to do the same (see Figure 3, below).
Figure 3. Data on frequency Latinx University of California students with immigrant parents help family pay the bills by self/family immigration status.
Data source: UC PromISE Survey of college students conducted in 2020.
Enriquez and her collaborators subsequently conducted 63 interviews with survey participants who were undocumented students and U.S. citizens with undocumented parents at the University of California; all names have been changed to protect confidentiality. These interviews made clear that children witness undocumented parents’ economic struggles and become particularly attuned to their precarious financial situation as they enter young adulthood.
Fernando Medina, a U.S. citizen, worried about the pressure his father faces to keep food on their table, even if, “for a while it was just rice and beans.” The need to support the family creates “this pressure on him to go out and find something. He's done everything. And it always puts us on edge of how much that everything takes a toll on his body.”
Others worried about the mental health strain parents experienced in exploitative work situations. Attempting to assuage this worry, the college students we interviewed often began contributing to the household income, or at least minimizing their requests for financial support from their parents.
Participants’ financial worries also extended into the future as they anticipated needing to take on additional financial responsibilities as their parents aged. Julia Soto, a U.S. citizen, sees her mom struggle to continue with her work as an agricultural worker in the fields.
“Her body is just not holding up the way it used to. And even my dad, now as they're getting older, I start to notice more of how they start walking, how it hurts to just get up and get inside of the car so it's just little things that I notice and to me, it's like, as you get older, how is that going to be? How are you going to be able to make that work?”
‘I want to ensure that once they can no longer work, I'm able to be the support system for them financially.’
Edwin Gordillo, who had no legal status, is attuned to these impending family financial needs when the day comes that “their body no longer can tolerate it.” He worries about his parents, siblings, uncles, aunts—all his undocumented family members who are “in their 50s,” and one injury away for being unable to work anymore.
This creates additional pressure on him to earn a substantial income upon graduating from college: “I want to ensure that once they can no longer work, I'm able to be the support system for them financially.”
Immigration Status as a Barrier
As the children of undocumented immigrants anticipate their parents’ impending inability to work, they worry about how their immigration status poses a barrier to a self-sustained retirement. “Not having papers prevents them from also having that retirement fund or having the Social Security [payments]. So that's also a worry of mine when you retire, you're not going to get anything. … And because you can't retire because you're not going to get anything, you constantly have to be working,” said Julia.
When the children of undocumented older adults also are undocumented, they anticipate difficulties being able to financially provide for their parents. Gael Yepez Corea, who has no legal status, explained that he worried about “retirement—not retirement for myself but retirement for my parents. … And I can't guarantee that I'll be able to provide for them because of my own status.” Because of this, he anticipated that his parents may need to return to Mexico, forcing them to separate to make ends meet.
Undocumented young adults who have received work authorization through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program recognize that their tenuous and conditional status paved the way for their ability to economically sustain themselves and their aging parents.
Lucia Ortega, a DACA recipient, worried about the possibility that the program could be rescinded via legal challenges. Losing the work permit the program provides would endanger her and her family’s tenuous financial stability and prevent her from being able to increase the financial support she provides for her parents as they age.
The U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents also experience extreme financial pressure as they begin to see their access to lawful employment as the ticket to their family’s economic stability. Santos Castro explained that these fuel persistent financial worries.
“I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to find a job and how I'll be able to support myself. And not just myself, but my family, because my parents are getting older. So, that is constantly on my mind. How can I get out of this [low-income] situation?” wondered Santos.
‘The inequalities experienced by older undocumented adults and their families is a result of decades of congressional refusal to enact comprehensive immigration reform.’
Rising cost of living, limited job opportunities and impending college loans fuel spiraling concerns of financial doom. Other interviewees shared intense pressures to “pick the right major” and “do well in school” so that they would be able to quickly translate their college degrees into well-paid, stable employment.
The aging of undocumented parents also may hinder social mobility for their children as they increasingly take on financial and caregiving responsibilities. The intergenerational processes of supporting aging undocumented family (parents in particular) may present barriers to developing their own financial security and ability to invest in long-term wealth accumulation. The barriers resonate with those documented in previous work on Mexican low-income people attempting to achieve social mobility.
Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
Undocumented adults are aging into non-ideal economic conditions, which holds implications for younger and older generations. This is a rising issue to which we need to pay attention and address. However, recent social movements and integrative policies, such as the DACA program, have centered almost exclusively on younger generations, leaving out a majority of the undocumented population.
The inequalities experienced by older undocumented adults and their families is a result of decades of congressional refusal to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Congressional inaction has translated into nearly a lifetime of economic precarity for undocumented immigrants who have relatively limited options to adjust their immigration status under current regulations. The lack of immigration reform paved the way for the undocumented aging processes documented here.
A pathway to legalization can empower undocumented immigrant adults and their family members to plan for retirement and help care for their elders in the ways they want. Access to legalization needs to be ongoing, not a one-time program such as the 1986 amnesty, to prevent life-long economic exclusion that feeds wealth gaps.
Social programs that minimize the need for older immigrant adults to depend upon children are another important path forward. California recently expanded Medi-Cal for undocumented people older than age 50. This policy is a step forward, as older persons have more and distinct health needs. Other states should follow suit.
At the same time, inclusive healthcare policies are only one small piece of what’s needed. Older undocumented adults will undoubtedly have caregiver and economic needs. In the absence of government safety net programs, the provision of these resources will likely fall to families, nonprofit organizations and other institutions. We need to invest in policies that will aid families in meeting these challenges.
Laura E. Enriquez, PhD, is an associate professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Josefina Flores Morales is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.