In the absence of clear pathways to citizenship, undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who came to the United States as children, commonly known as “Dreamers,” tend to live in more complex and less stable households than their documented or native-born counterparts, according to a new study.

Prior research has shown the widespread impact that lack of legal status has on immigrants’ economic and social well-being, including reduced likelihood of finishing high school, concentration in dangerous jobs, and lower pay for their labor. Combined with the constant threat of deportation, these vulnerabilities undercut the health and well-being of undocumented Latinos. In “Living Arrangements and Household Complexity among Undocumented Latino Immigrants,” Matthew Hall, Kelly Musick, and I provide the first national estimates of the living arrangements of this group and compare their experiences to those of other racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups.

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

Results show that undocumented migrants are less likely than other groups at similar life stages to live in simple arrangements, exclusively with partners and/or children, and much more likely to co-reside with extended family and non-family members. Their households are also characterized by higher levels of instability, as they change membership, size, and form more frequently than other Latino families.

  • Undocumented Latinos who were living in the U.S. before age 15 are significantly less likely than documented Latinos and U.S.-born Latinos to be living with just a partner or a partner and children, at 47 percent compared with 55 and 52 percent, respectively.
  • They are also twice as likely to live with nonrelatives as other groups (including documented Latinos), at 14 percent compared to about 7 percent.
  • Undocumented migrants are less likely to live with immediate family members, and highly likely to live with extended family members. As many as one-quarter share a household with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and more distant extended kin, compared with just 12 percent of documented Latinos.
  • The average undocumented Latino lives in households with more people, on average 3.1 adults and 2 children, compared with 2.7 adults for similarly-aged documented Latinos.
  • Undocumented migrants’ household size and composition, 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 Latinos.

Other research finds that undocumented immigrants are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, less likely to be homeowners (Hall and Greenman 2014), and more likely to be making residential decisions within contexts of significant economic and social constraint (Asad and Rosen 2018). Taken together, these findings illustrate the volatility that distinguishes the daily lives of those who lack authorization status in the U.S. The uncertainty associated with the absence of legal authorization destabilizes the family life of undocumented immigrants and others – including U.S.-born citizen children who may be living in their households.

Our study, as well as the other work cited here, sheds much-needed light on some aspects of the lives of those affected by their documentation disadvantage. However, it is critical to note that our analysis cannot speak to the heightened precariousness of Dreamers’ lives due to uncertainty about the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Our analyses are also unable to reflect the experiences of the thousands of people who are not included in household data because they are being detained and placed in foster arrangements as part of U.S. family separation and immigrant detention policies. Other research indicates that the looming threat of deportation and detention has consequences for the living arrangements of even U.S.-born citizen children living in households, so there is reason to believe that the current social and political climate may already be compounding the household and family instability and complexity of those who are undocumented (Amuedo-Dorantes and Arenas-Arroyo 2018).

Providing Dreamers with pathways toward permanent residence and the cessation of family separation and institutionalization policies could stabilize and strengthen family life and promote the wellbeing of future generations of immigrant families.



Youngmin Yi,



Youngmin Yi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Cornell University