Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004
Donald J. Hernandez
Barriers to Educational Success and the American Dream
Children in many immigrant families confront an additional set of barriers to well-being and development that are experienced by comparatively few children in native-born families. Many children in immigrant families live in a household that includes at least one member who is not a U.S. citizen, and as a result, the family may be ineligible for—or reluctant to seek—certain supports and benefits. In addition, many children in immigrant families live in a household that is linguistically isolated from English-speaking society, or their parents are limited in their spoken English, or they themselves are limited in their English. Lack of language skills can make it difficult to communicate with teachers and with health and other service organizations. These barriers, combined with the other indicators discussed above, cause children in immigrant families to be more than twice as likely as those from native-born families to experience multiple risk factors critical to their development.
Recency of Immigration and Family Citizenship Status
Immigration to a new country can involve a wide range of changes, including the need to become familiar with a new language, with new educational and health institutions, and with new social customs. Children in newcomer families who have arrived most recently have had less time to adjust to life in the United States and to become naturalized citizens
Every child in a newcomer family is foreign-born or has at least one foreign-born parent, and many of the parents are recent immigrants. Among children in newcomer families, 52% have a father—and 60% have a mother—who has lived in the United States for less than 15 years. Children in immigrant families in the highest parental education group are most likely to have a father who has lived in the United States for less than 15 years. Insofar as most children in immigrant families were born in this country, the proportion with a father or mother who has lived here for less than 15 years declines substantially for older versus younger age groups.
Citizenship status within immigrant families is important because, for the first time, the recent welfare reform legislation (enacted in 1996) excluded many non-citizens from eligibility for important public programs. As a result, immigrant parents who are not citizens may be hesitant to seek public benefits for their children, even if their children were born in the United States, and hence have been citizens for their entire lives. Although many children have parents who have lived in the United States for less than 15 years, the overwhelming majority of children in immigrant families live in a family where either the child or a parent is a citizen of the United States. Four of every five children in an immigrant family are U.S. citizens, because they were born here. These children are eligible for programs and services on the same basis as all other U.S. citizens.
Although 30% of children in immigrant families have parents who are naturalized citizens, 53% of children in newcomer families live in a mixed-status nuclear family, where at least one sibling or parent is not a U.S. citizen, and at least one sibling or parent is a U.S. citizen. The highest proportions living in a mixed-status nuclear family occur among children with low parental education and origins in Mexico (66%). The lowest proportions in mixed status nuclear families occur among children with Southern and Eastern Soviet bloc origins (32%). (For detailed data on citizenship status by racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin group, see Appendix 8.)
Because parents who are not citizens may be unaware of their children's eligibility for important services or may fear to contact government authorities on behalf of their children, a substantial number of children in immigrant families are at risk of not receiving important public services or benefits. This may be especially the case among children with low parental education, because children from these countries not only have high proportions of families with non-citizen parents, but also have high proportions of families living in poverty which may, therefore, make them eligible for critical public benefits or services. (See the article by Nightingale and Fix in this journal issue.)
Language and Linguistic Isolation from English-Speaking Society
Lack of language skills may pose a significant barrier stemming from the cultural circumstances of children in newcomer families, requiring special attention or programmatic initiatives from educational, health, and other institutions. With the global span of countries of origin of children in immigrant families comes an extraordinary diversity in languages spoken by children and their parents. Because many children in newcomer families have parents who have arrived within the past 15 years, and because learning a new language, especially during adulthood, can be a long-term process, many children in immigrant families speak a language other than English at home, and many live in linguistically isolated households where no one over the age of 13 speaks English exclusively or very well.
These children may have substantial difficulty communicating with and learning from teachers, because the teachers are, in turn, limited in their ability to speak the child's primary language. These children and their families also may experience barriers in communicating with health and other service organizations and agencies that are not prepared to function in a variety of languages. Linguistic isolation among immigrant families is not a new phenomenon, but it continues to act as an important barrier for many children and families. All together, 18% of children in the United States speak a language other than English at home. Among children in native-born families, 6% speak a language other than English at home, and among children in immigrant families, the proportion rises to 72%. Especially likely to speak a language other than English at home are children in low parental education homes with origins in Mexico and the Dominican Republic (both at 91%). (For detailed data on language skills by racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin group, see Appendix 8.) Even among children in several native-born groups, between one-fifth and two-fifths speak a language other than English at home.
In nearly three-fourths (74%) of homes where a language other than English is spoken, at least one person over age 13 speaks English exclusively or very well, providing a linguistic bridge to English-speaking institutions. But this means just over one-fourth of these homes do not have such a person, and are characterized by the Census Bureau as linguistically isolated from English-speaking society. Overall, 6% of children live in linguistically isolated households, but this varies widely between native-born and newcomer families. Only 1% of children in native-born families are linguistically isolated, but one-fourth (26%) of children in newcomer families are linguistically isolated. Although linguistic isolation varies among different racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin groups, it is strongly correlated with parental education—that is, those with lower parental education are most likely to be linguistically isolated. Linguistic isolation also varies sharply by age for many newcomer children, declining among the older age groups. For example, among children in newcomer families with origins in Mexico, 44%-45% of children ages 0-8 live in linguistically isolated households, but this falls to 36% at ages 9-13, and to 15% at ages 14-17.
Focusing on children themselves, 6% have limited English skills, that is, they do not speak English exclusively or very well. The proportion is nearly twice as large among parents: 12% have fathers and 11% have mothers with limited English skills. Most of the children with limited English skills live in immigrant families, and their English proficiency is strongly correlated with the level of parental education and age. Groups with higher parental education are less likely to have limited English skills compared to those with lower parental education. Moreover, within each racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin group, older children are less likely than younger children to have limited English skills. (For detailed data, see Appendix 8.)
Multiple Risk Factors
A wide range of socioeconomic and cultural factors in children's families can have negative impacts on child well-being and development. The statistics presented thus far indicate the extent to which children of different groups experience various risk factors, looking at each risk factor individually. But some children experience none of these risks, while others experience several. Four critical risk factors that can have significant effects on children's outcomes include:
(1) Having a mother who has not graduated from high school
(2) Living in economic deprivation (based on the 2x-poverty measure)
(3) Living in a linguistically isolated household
(4) Living in a one-parent family
Overall, nearly one-half of children experienced at least one of the four risk factors. (See Figure 7.) Although there are enormous differences across racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin groups, it is important for policymakers and program administrators to note that even among white children in native-born families, 35% experience at least one of these risk factors. But among immigrant-origin groups, the overall proportion experiencing at least one of these risk factors is substantially higher at 67%. (For detailed data on risk factors by racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin group, see Appendix 9.)
It is also important to note that, as shown in Figure 7, many children experience more than one risk factor. Overall, about a quarter of all children experience at least two of the four risk factors. Moreover, the proportion experiencing at least two of the four risk factors is more than double for children in immigrant families compared with children in native-born families. Among children in most high parental education families, only 5%-14% experience at least two of four risks, but this jumps to 35%-57% for children in low parental education groups, and to 65% among Mexican-origin children. Thus, many children experience multiple circumstances that may benefit from policy initiatives.