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Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004

Children of Immigrant Families: Analysis and Recommendations
Margie K. Shields Richard E. Behrman

Strengths of Immigrant Families

Immigrant families generally come to America with many strengths, including healthy, intact families, strong work ethic and aspirations, and for many, a cohesive community of fellow immigrants from the same country of origin. These strengths can help to insulate children of immigrants from various negative influences in American society, but they are not always sufficient to keep children on pathways to success over time.

Healthy Intact Families
According to several measures, children born to immigrant mothers are healthier than those born to U.S.-born mothers, on average. For example, infant mortality rates are lower among immigrant mothers, and their babies are less likely to be born with low birth weights.3 Also, children of immigrants are reported to experience fewer health problems across a wide range of conditions-from injuries and physical impairments, to infectious diseases and asthma.4

Moreover, children in immigrant families are more likely than children in U.S.-born families to live with two parents in the home, with a father who works and a mother who does not work. As detailed in the article by Hernandez in this journal issue, the percentage of children of immigrant families living in a single-parent household is only about 16%, compared with 26% for children of U.S.-born families.

Children of immigrants are also more likely to live with a large extended family that can help provide child care and other household support. Nearly 40% live with other relatives and non-relatives in their homes, compared with about 22% for children of U.S.-born families. Although, as Hernandez notes, overcrowding can place a strain on resources, parental time, and even the ability to find a quiet place to do homework, large households also can provide many social and ecomomic benefits.

Strong Work Ethic and Aspirations
Immigrant families generally come to America eager to improve their standard of living. Parents are willing to work hard, and they expect their children to do the same.  According to data provided by Hernandez, the parents in immigrant families are almost as likely to be working as those in U.S.-born families (97% versus 99%).5

Children of immigrants typically are imbued with a strong sense of family obligation and ethnic pride, and with the importance of education. As a result, the children of immigrants tend to have high educational aspirations and are less likely than children of U.S.-born families to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, early sexual intercourse, and delinquent or violent activity.6 Studies show that they also tend to spend more time doing homework and that they do better in school, at least through middle school. For example, although their reading test scores are somewhat lower, 8th-grade children of immigrants have slightly higher grades and math test scores than their counterparts of the same ethnicity in U.S.-born families.7

According to the National Center on Education Statistics, the dropout rate is higher for children of immigrant parents than for children of U.S.-born parents, but the rate is calculated based on the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in high school and have not graduated.8 As a result, the rate includes a large number of older foreign-born children--especially Hispanics-- who never attended U.S. schools. The dropout rate for non-Hispanic children of immigrants is considerably lower than the U.S. average (6% versus 11%).

Community Cohesion
When immigrant families arrive in America, they often settle in communities with others from their same country of origin. Fellow immigrants in these communities can facilitate a family's adjustment, helping them learn to navigate new systems and institutions (such as schools) and to find jobs.9 As noted in the article by García Coll and Szalacha in this journal issue, such communities also can be supportive of the child's emotional and academic adjustment by reinforcing cultural values and parental authority, and by buffering them from the negative influences of mainstream society. The role of a cohesive, culturally-consonant community can make a critical difference in helping youth maintain positive aspirations despite the challenges they face as newcomers to this country.