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August 23, 2002

American made
Sociologist Alejandro Portes examines the children of immigrants and their assimilation

Alejandro Portes continues to follow the lives of thousands of second-generation immigrant children in San Diego and Miami.

America has been called a nation of immigrants, and the waves of immigrants who have come to the U.S. from every corner of the globe have been well documented over the years.

Researchers and demographers, however, often overlook the children of immigrants. But that is changing, and sociology professor Alejandro Portes, who has studied immigration and urbanization for 30 years, is playing a large role in creating a foundation of research that will help expand knowledge in this area.

He has moved to the fore of this field with the publication of Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation in 2001, which he coauthored with Ruben Rumbaut, a Michigan State University professor. The exhaustive work that went into the book included interviews with 5,200 immigrant children and 2,500 of their parents beginning in 1992 in the San Diego and Miami areas. The book has already won several awards, most recently the Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the American Sociological Association.

As Portes sees it, the longterm effect of immigration on the U.S. does not come so much from the immigrants themselves as from their children, the second generation.

Recent research estimates the 20 percent of children under 18 are children of immigrants, and is the fastest growing sector of the country’s child population. By 2040, 33 percent of the nation’s children will fit this description. The impact that this group of immigrant children – most coming from Latin American, Asian, Caribbean, and African families -– will have on the U.S. in the 21st century is yet to be determined.

“The fate that the second generation experiences is going to determine the long-term position in the American hierarchy of their ethnic group,” says Portes, who was appointed the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Sociology in February after five years at Princeton and who is also the director of Princeton’s Center for Migration and Development. “If the second-generation kids succeed in integrating themselves into the mainstream, than you would find that group as an addition to the American mainstream, the middle class, and a successful process.”

“If they fail because they do not have the education, the credentials, or drop out of school, they can add to the underclass at the bottom of American society. That’s why it was very important to examine in reality how the process of adaptation was taking place for these children.”

Portes will be passing on his research knowledge in the Research Methods in Social Science class he will be teaching this fall. He will also be teaching a class on urbanization and development in the Third World, especially Latin America.

By Argelio Dumenigo

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