Children of recent immigrants face many challenges

Growing up as the child of parents who immigrated to the United States can be a challenging experience. Parents often put intense pressure on their children to succeed in the United States, which many see as a land of opportunity compared to the country they left behind. Those same parents may know only fragmentary English while their offspring quickly become fluent, forcing the children to take on grown-up responsibilities when the parents need to interact with the world outside the family.

Princeton Professor Alejandro Portes has captured the dynamic of these children's lives in his new book, "Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation," co-written by Rubin Rumbaut of Michigan State University. The book is based on interviews with 5,262 children of immigrants, making it the largest study of its kind. The children were initially contacted in 1992 when they were in junior high school; that research produced an early edited collection, "The New Second Generation," published in 1996. Follow-up interviews, conducted when the children were finishing high school, formed the basis for the new book, which provides real-life stories of immigrant families and an analysis of their achievements, self-esteem and family life. Recently, staff writer Jennifer Greenstein talked with Portes, a professor of sociology and a faculty associate at the Woodrow Wilson School, about the book's findings.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: There are about 30 million immigrants in this country today, which is approaching 15 percent of the population. Because this new immigration, coming primarily from Latin America and Asia, has been taking place since the 1960s, it has spawned a fast-growing second generation. One in five of all American children age 18 and under are either themselves immigrants or children of immigrants, so we're talking about a very significant chunk of this population, and because it is highly concentrated in certain cities, it has had a greater impact. In places like Los Angeles, Miami and New York, immigrant children and children of immigrants are coming close to being half or more of the school-age population.

What we have attempted to do in the book, after collecting these massive data, is to provide a report that is not limited to hard statistics -- one that only social scientists can read -- but that conveys, through the stories of our respondents and their parents, the drama of confronting a new country and struggling with the challenges, and the effort to try to succeed.

Q: You were surprised by some of the findings of your research, particularly the fact that English is so universally adopted by children of immigrants. In fact, you found that 98 percent said they are fluent in English, meaning they can speak, read and write it, while only 30 percent said they are fluent both in English and in the native language of their parents?

A: The educational system, the media and American society in general do such a good job of socializing people -- of teaching them English -- that what is at risk is the preservation of some fluency in the languages from their parents' native land. Those are valuable language skills that these kids acquire as a gift from their parents, and in the course of their education and trying to assimilate to America, they lose that. We quote a Miami businesswoman who declared, "There are 600,000 Hispanics in Miami, and we have a hard time hiring a person who can write a proper business letter in Spanish."

That is why we recommend, instead of a full transition toward English monolingualism, efforts to preserve fluent bilingualism. We think efforts should be made by immigrant communities and school systems to promote selective acculturation, which is combining learning English with maintaining the parental language and learning elements of the parents' culture. That language is a source of pride and a source of understanding of where their parents came from, and when that is maintained, the prognosis for the children's success in this country is much better.

Q: You talk about the immigrant drive to succeed, which can lead the offspring of poor immigrants to do very well in the United States and make the leap, through education, into the middle class. But you point out that pushing children so much can also have drawbacks. In fact, you used a quote from the daughter of Korean immigrants who says, "By making the biggest move of their lives for me, my parents indentured me to the largest debt imaginable -- I owe them the fulfillment of their hopes for me." Is it common for the second generation to feel that kind of pressure?

A: Newcomers arrive in the United States with a great willingness to do whatever is necessary in order to succeed. They view this as the land of opportunity, and parents work very hard to instill in their kids the sense that they can respond to their parents' sacrifices by doing well in school. Most immigrant families are very ambitious -- in some cases it can be excessive -- but that leads children to have a strong desire to achieve, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, children of immigrants tend to do better in school than children of native-born Americans. On average their grades are higher and their rates of graduation are higher, when compared with the rest of the school population.

Q: Parents pushing their kids to do well in life is particularly a phenomenon among Asian immigrants, according to your book. You describe one Vietnamese family in which the parents have posted handmade signs throughout their house with Vietnamese aphorisms, such as "If you don't salt a fish, it will rot" (a variation of the American saying, "Spare the rod, spoil the child"). They posted another sign that says, "If you talk back, you are doomed forever."

A: Yes. Can you imagine an American family doing that? There is a very high success rate for second-generation Asians, especially Southeast Asians, Cambodians and Laotians. We call it the Asian paradox. Their parents have such low levels of education, they come from almost tribal societies that found themselves in the middle of the Vietnam War. They are often illiterate even in their own languages. You would expect that their children would do the worst in school, and yet they work very hard, they are appreciated by their teachers and they do well.

It's very common in areas with high levels of immigration that the valedictorian and the salutatorian at the high school turn out to be Vietnamese-American or Korean-American. Why? We attribute it to a positive reception in the United States. Because these people were refugees, they received a lot of assistance, and that allowed the parents to concentrate on their kids. The second reason is this drive from their parents, that they are going to make it no matter what the obstacles. If the parents come from modest origins but they have a strong community that supports the family, usually the kids do well.

Q: But immigrants who are not welcomed as enthusiastically into this country face some major obstacles, right?

A: Yes, children of certain immigrant groups, such as Mexicans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, may be significantly at risk of dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law and assimilating to the bottom of American society. When parents have low levels of education, they are poor, and they have been subject to high levels of discrimination, then there may be problems in terms of how the children assimilate. Those children often get a negative reception here -- poor support from government agencies and often generalized discrimination. They are racially stereotyped as black or brown, and that makes the process of adaptation difficult.

There is an anecdote in chapter one about Mexican kids who witnessed their parents being treated roughly because of their ethnicity, and the kids reacted with great ire to that. They changed their focus from achieving in school, in order to make it in the system, to viewing the educational system as an adversary. That tends to have very dangerous consequences. It is very telling that three-fourths of the black kids in the sample, mostly Haitians and Jamaicans, say that no matter how much education they get, they will always be subject to prejudice.

Q: But you point out that no group is doomed to failure, that the outcome ultimately depends on the individual?

A: You can have individual cases of success despite the most adverse circumstances. There will be many, many second-generation Mexicans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who make it despite adverse circumstances. As well, there will be children from relatively privileged backgrounds who disappoint their parents' dream. Some children are slated to enter easily into the American middle class, riding on their parents achievements and income. Others will make it on the strength of the support and solidarity of their communities, and others will fall below even their parents' modest condition. This last group represents a real concern, because they create the prospect of an expanded "rainbow underclass" at the bottom of society.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601