Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
From this review, it is evident that the assimilation of immigrants and their children to the host societies is not simple, homogeneous, or problem-free. Empirical work shows that, on the positive side, much progress is made, on average, from the first to the second generation, both culturally and socioeconomically. On the less rosy side, many individuals and entire groups confront significant barriers to advancement, either because they lack economic resources and skills or because they are received unfavorably by the host community.
The varied theoretical perspectives differ widely in the specific assimilation outcomes they regard as being most important. For researchers of the culturalist school, it is most important for immigrants and their children to acculturate, shedding their old ways and language and becoming undifferentiated from the rest of the American population. Whether they move upward is less important than that they cease to be "foreign." Huntington's Hispanic-challenge view is that immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular do not want to join the mainstream. Although Alba and Nee's new melting-pot perspective provides a more nuanced account, with attention to socioeconomic outcomes, their overall emphasis is still on children of immigrants' joining the mainstream and losing their ethnic distinctiveness in the process.
Structuralist writers are much more concerned with socioeconomic outcomes. While the second-generation-advantage thesis of Kasinitz and his colleagues fits within this school, its optimistic conclusions are largely predicated on second-generation youths in New York City becoming "true" New Yorkers; it does not seem to matter much if, in the end, they attain only rather mediocre jobs. The remaining perspectives are more mindful that immigrants and their descendants can fully acculturate and still neither move upward occupationally and economically, nor be accepted into native middle-class circles. The aspirations of immigrant parents clearly line up more closely with the structural than the cultural viewpoint: the parents generally care much less that their offspring join an undifferentiated mainstream than that they move ahead educationally and economically.
If upward mobility is the goal, the data at hand indicate that many migrant children are not making it. The overall advancement of this population is largely driven by the good performance and outcomes of youths from professional immigrant families, positively received in America, or of middle-class refugees who have benefited from extensive governmental resettlement assistance72 and, sometimes, from strong co-ethnic communities. For immigrants at the other end of the spectrum, average socioeconomic outcomes are driven down by the poorer educational and economic performance of children from unskilled migrant families who are often handicapped further by an unauthorized or insecure legal status. From a policy viewpoint, these children must be the population of greatest concern.
A first urgent policy measure is the legalization of 1.5-generation youths who are unauthorized migrants. These children, brought involuntarily into the United States by their parents, find themselves blocked, through no fault of their own, from access to higher education and many other everyday needs, such as driver's licenses, because of their status. This is not an insignificant population. In 2008, it was estimated to number 6 million and included almost half of immigrant youths aged eighteen to thirty-four.73 As Rumbaut and Golnaz Komaie put it: "For foreign-born young adults, an undocumented status blocks access to the opportunity structure and paths to social mobility. It has become all the more consequential since the passage of draconian federal laws in 1996… and the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform." 74
"DREAM Acts" repeatedly introduced in the U.S. Congress to regularize this population and grant them access to opportunities open to others have stalled. Passage of such legislation is urgently needed lest the situation of this large 1.5-generation population devolve into a self-fulfilling prophecy in which youths barred from conventional mobility channels turn to gangs and other unorthodox means of self-affirmation and survival. The limited longitudinal data available on the adaptation of migrant children point to the importance of volunteer programs and other forms of outside assistance to guide the most disadvantaged members of this population and help them stay in school. A recent study based on the final CILS survey found that respondents who had managed to succeed educationally despite having poor and undocumented parents and an otherwise handicapped upbringing had consistently been supported by volunteers who came to their schools and exposed them to a different social world.75 The same study found that cultural capital brought from the parents' home country provided a significant boon because it anchored adolescent self-identities and strengthened their aspirations. These cultural memories helped fend off discrimination and maintain a disciplined stance toward schoolwork.
Cultural capital from the home country sustains and is sustained by selective acculturation. By contrast, dissonant acculturation across generations deprives youths of cultural capital. As they lose contact with or even reject the language and culture of parents, whatever resources are embodied in that culture effectively dissipate. Rejecting parental cultures may facilitate joining an amorphous mainstream, but often at the cost of abandoning those social and social psychological resources that assist structural mobility. The available evidence supports the paradox that preserving the linguistic and cultural heritage of the home countries often helps migrant children move ahead in America.