Accounting for the Diverse Experiences of Older Immigrants in Today’s America

Margarita, a 72-year-old undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who lives in Union City, NJ, is afraid to leave the protective space of her enclave to attend a medical appointment in a nearby city. She has spent the past two decades in her Spanish-speaking community, where she has been a factory and domestic worker since she arrived in the United States. Due to her rigorous work schedule, coupled with limited educational resources, Margarita never learned the English language.

The thought of traveling to a much-needed medical appointment outside of her city causes Margarita great stress and anxiety, further exasperated by the fact that she might be caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But she knows her health is at stake.

Margarita decides to leave for her appointment at 8 a.m. to show up within an hour, but she gets lost shortly after arriving at the bus station. Unable to find anyone willing to help her locate the correct bus route (people ignore Margarita or tell her that they do not know what she is asking them in Spanish), Margarita finds herself walking for blocks until her feet and legs are swollen and in pain. On the brink of tears, she finally finds a middle-age woman who speaks Spanish and guides her to the correct bus stop. An otherwise hour-long journey takes Margarita more than six.

Overrun by fear, physical and mental anguish from that day, Margarita vows to never venture out of the community without help from family or friends.

Differing Life-course Trajectories of Older Immigrants

Immigrant restrictions and anti-immigrant rhetoric have caused fear and significant stress among older immigrants like Margarita. She represents a larger segment of the older adult population that have lived in the U.S. for years but still experience the social, political and economic conditions of living like an outsider.

Today, older foreign-born immigrants make up more than 13% of the total older adult population and are expected to increase to 22 million by 2060. Within this population, two out of three older immigrants have lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. Despite the length of time, not all older immigrants have experienced a linear trajectory in their adjustment and adaptation to life in the U.S. When one considers racial, ethnic and class background, as well as time of arrival, different life-course trajectories have affected older immigrants' access and mobility.

Differences among broad categories of older immigrants demand we alter our perspectives of them and note their histories of arrival.

Consider older Latinos. Within this category are older immigrants who arrived from several countries in Latin America and the Hispanic-Caribbean. Among them are Cubans, who arrived as refugees, Puerto Ricans under colonial rule, and the border-crossing communities of Mexico that shape differential access to government recognition, citizenship and belonging within the Latino community. In recent years Indigenous Latin Americans from Mexico and Central America have added new layers, including non-Spanish indigenous languages and cultural differences from the dominant nonindigenous Latino population. These differences demand we amend our perspectives of older immigrants and note their histories of arrival, which can clue us in to the macro and micro experiences that have impacted their life course trajectory.

Ageism Plus Anti-Immigration Fuel Work Struggles

Aviana, a 74-year-old immigrant from Colombia, arrived to help care for her sister's daughter in the 1980s after one of the last comprehensive immigration reforms in the United States, 1986’s Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Once Aviana was no longer needed to care for her niece, she was let go by her sister and told to fend for herself. For Aviana, later life has been a struggle, as she tries to support herself economically in a society rife with age discrimination and anti-immigration rhetoric.

Recently, she was told by a job center that caters to finding employment for immigrants that she is too old to work. She has been willing to work as a dishwasher, cleaner or anything that can help her make ends meet, but many employers have turned her down due to her age, with one restaurant writing her off as a potential "hazard." Aviana’s struggle shows how her identities as an immigrant and older adult intersect and contribute to her precarity in the United States. This is commonly the case for older adults, who arrived to contribute to our society by working in our factories, as our care workers and performing other informal work, but have not been granted adequate retirement options or healthcare in old age.

Immigration status plays a significant role in how one navigates old age. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) narrowed who could access federal benefits like Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) by creating distinctions between immigration statuses. These distinctions, such as the use of “qualified” and “unqualified” deemed who would be eligible to apply for certain governmental programs. Qualified immigrants include such statuses as lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, abused spouses and trafficking survivors (for more information, see Access to Public benefits for Older Immigrants).

If an older immigrant is not considered a "qualified" person or federally authorized under immigration law, they will not receive public benefits from the government. The list of "qualified persons" has become more stringent over time, with many older immigrants not fitting within the confines of this category. During the Trump administration, there was an expansion of who could be deemed a “public charge," or someone likely to use public resources in the future, and in turn denied status (see The Diversity of Older Immigrants and Precarious Aging: Eligibility and Access to Public Benefits). While the Biden administration has lifted the more stringent restrictions to "public charge," fear of using these resources linger among older immigrants.

‘Older immigrants say it is not apparent which resources they qualify for in old age.’

Gustavo, a 76-year-old from Ecuador, arrived and found work sewing in the embroidery factories throughout the New York Metro area. Only recently has he been able to legalize his undocumented status with the help of his son, who is a U.S. citizen. Even though his status has changed, he does not qualify for benefits because he did not accumulate the right amount of work credits. As a result, Gustavo must continue to work informally to make ends meet by sewing for friends and finding other odd jobs in his neighborhood.

Many benefit programs have requirements that consider status, work history, disability determination and income, and navigating these statuses and rules can be confusing. Resources such as the National Immigration Law Center “Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs” table can help.

Accessing Supports Is Another Struggle

Two out of every five older immigrants have had less than a high school education, which means they may find themselves in low-wage work and without a retirement plan. As a result, many older immigrants who are federally authorized rely upon Social Security Income (SSI) as their primary source of economic support.

Even if older immigrants qualify for benefits, there can be uncertainty about which benefits they might qualify for based upon their status and state and federal levels. Older immigrants say it is not apparent which resources they qualify for in old age, such as SNAP or state programs for housing, furniture stipends and energy assistance.

Signing up for Medicare can also be a challenge. Enrolling in Medicare Part B must be done within a seven-month period of eligibility. Still, many older immigrants may not know this if they are not receiving help accessing information. Other older immigrants expressed difficulty selecting a program when they were not well-versed in the English language or in our healthcare system.

Gelila Selassie, an attorney with Justice in Aging, says that what is needed to address some of the confusions experienced by older immigrants in applying for support is “really targeted education and outreach” that not only translates important documents into the languages spoken by older immigrants but also conveys this information to them in a culturally competent way.

Given all that they have experienced, there is a deep desire to age in community and maintain the freedom that brought them to the U.S.

State resources for older immigrants are also important to note. States like California offer older undocumented adults health benefits, including institutional-based care, while New York has expanded its benefits to include undocumented populations. Other states might offer medical support based on a certain age or only in emergency situations.

A majority of older immigrants live in California, Florida and New York. In these states and across the U.S. are "sanctuary cities" that welcome immigrants and vow to protect them against deportation and other threats. Such places have become especially important for older immigrants like Margarita, Aviana and Gustavo, who live in sanctuary communities that support their safety and understand their cultures and language. However, many of these communities are in jeopardy of gentrification, where wealthier people and businesses have changed the socio-demographic and economic characteristics of their communities.

One need to only look at the Elder Economic Index to see what many older adults would need to live in particular geographies undergoing these transformations. Housing insecurity and the need for affordable housing for older immigrants remain critical, especially as they are in danger of being pushed out of communities that have historically offered them protection, as well as much-needed opportunities, social networks and support. These communities not only feel reminiscent of the homeland but also provide much-needed access to transportation, culturally competent doctors and medical facilities or staff that speak their language and offer them assistance.

Many older immigrants already have experienced significant trauma migrating from their home country to the U.S., and yet their struggles continue here as they navigate their status and needs, with potentially limited means. Older immigrants find themselves readapting to life in the U.S., even in the supposed retirement phase of their life, as they adjust to the needs that come with growing older. Returning home may be a possibility, but there also are many factors to consider. Their home country could be at war, or be devoid of remaining relatives, or a place where they would risk losing their autonomy as independent older adults. Moreover, many older immigrants have established American families here. Given all that they have experienced, there is a deep desire to age in community and maintain the freedom that brought them to the U.S.

Addressing today's older immigrant population requires a nuanced approach—one that considers the needs of older immigrants, their health and safety, and is cognizant of different experiences across communities and geographies. Such a focus can help inform future best practices to meet our increasingly diverse, older, foreign-born population.

Melanie Zoraida Plasencia is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a César Chávez Fellow at Dartmouth College. She studies race, ethnicity and aging, concentrating on aging immigrants and the older Latina/o/x experience.