Q&A: Resources, reception key to realizing ‘American dream’

From the March 7, 2005, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Princeton University sociologist Alejandro Portes and colleagues spent more than a decade observing the successes and failures of second-generation immigrants in adapting to American life. The wide-ranging study has illuminated the challenges faced by children of immigrants across academic, social and familial settings.

Beginning in 1992, the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) — directed by Portes and Rubén Rumbaut of Michigan State University — charted the progress of 5,200 middle-school children in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale and San Diego metropolitan areas. Among many publications generated by the study was “Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation” (2001) by Portes and Rumbaut, which was based on interviews conducted with the students as they moved into high school.

Findings from the final wave of the study, based on interviews with the second-generation immigrants in their early 20s in 2002, will be published in a series of papers in an upcoming issue of the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies. Portes recently spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about the study and ways to help struggling immigrant families.

Portes, the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Sociology, is chair of the sociology department and director of the Center for Migration and Development. A member of the Princeton faculty since 1997, he has written some 200 articles and chapters on national development, economics, sociology, immigration and urbanization. His other books include “City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami,” with Alex Stepick; “Immigrant America: A Portrait,” with Rumbaut; and “The Economic Sociology of Immigration.”

What were the major findings of the final wave of the CILS project?

There are significant differences between children of different nationalities in the way that they acculturate to America and the way they move up. There is a significant danger of assimilation problems for young people coming from more underprivileged backgrounds, both in terms of their parents’ socioeconomic status and resources and the way that they have been received in the United States.

For children whose parents were early Cuban exiles in the ’60s and ’70s, for example, the world is their oyster. Their process of assimilation has been relatively painless and has allowed them to maintain their language of origin because they went to bilingual private schools. They have a strong sense of self-esteem and took positions of early leadership as entrepreneurs and professionals. And children of Chinese, Korean and Filipino immigrants whose parents had a lot of human capital — high levels of education or entrepreneurial skills — have also done well. They are almost all in college or still studying. Very few have had problems with the law or experienced premature parenthood. They are poised to fulfill the American dream, which is what their parents wanted for them.

But there is a significant proportion of children of Mexican, Haitian and West Indian immigrants whose parents come from more modest backgrounds and were more poorly received in the United States because of discrimination and the view that many are illegal aliens. All of that had repercussions on the way the kids grew up. The proportion of males who have been arrested or incarcerated among these groups is higher. The proportion of both males and females who are married very early in life or have had children is also very high. The proportion who quit school before graduating high school is high as well.

What ideas have you suggested to help reverse some of these negative trends?

Unfortunately, state institutions — especially public schools — have done a very poor job of compensating for the disadvantages that kids bring from home. Most findings indicate that the public schools tend to compound rather than mitigate inequality in terms of family backgrounds. So basically the rich get richer and the poor get children. Public schools have not served well the children of immigrant laborers. They did not serve well the children of African Americans and Puerto Ricans beforehand, and they are not serving well the children of Mexicans, Haitians and others today.

So who can help? For one, the Hispanic ethnic organizations. I have called upon Latin-origin organizations in the United States to worry less about issues of how they look in the media and pay more attention to the crucial issue of their young — to provide support to families that are struggling to keep their kids in schools. One of the key findings is that the success of Asian kids in going to college and doing well is very closely related to activities promoted by their communities — after-school programs, college prep programs, discussions in their language of origin about how to make it in America. Often in the neighborhoods where Mexican Americans, Salvadoran Americans or Haitian Americans live they are bereft of those resources, and parents do not know where to turn.

Another institution that can help is the church, especially the Catholic church. The Catholic church was fundamental in facilitating the successful adaptation to America of earlier immigrant groups that had as low levels of education as Mexicans do today, like the Italians and the Poles. They moved up because the Catholic church created an enviable parallel system of education from grammar schools to universities that children of Catholic immigrants could pursue to be able to compete with the mostly Protestant mainstream.

The American Catholic church — perhaps because it’s too weak now or it’s concerned with other things — has not taken the same level of activism toward Hispanic groups that it had vis-à-vis the Irish, the Italians and the Poles. If private Catholic schools cannot be provided for every child, at least they can provide after-school programs, remedial programs, English teaching, programs of scholarships and so on. Most of the kids who did well in CILS attended private Catholic schools in Miami. But their parents had the means; they were middle-class immigrants.

Another possible source is the governments of sending countries. These governments are becoming very active in establishing ties with their diasporas in order to promote the remittances that immigrants are sending back home. So they have a clear economic interest. They have promulgated programs of dual citizenship so that immigrants can become U.S. citizens without losing their home nationality. Instead of being narrowly concerned just with their economic interests at home, the Mexican consulates and others should collaborate with their diasporas in the successful adaptation of their children. That can be done through prizes for scholarly achievement, trips to the home country and programs of English learning, as well as courses on the history of their nation. All of these things can build on kids’ sense of self-esteem and a sense of where they come from, so they can know where they are going.

Are there other patterns that contribute to the disparities between Asian and Hispanic immigrants?

Because of their information and their education, Asian immigrants tend to move to suburban areas where the schools are better and to be very attentive to what their kids need to do to succeed. We can see it around here. The high-tech corporate campuses that surround Princeton have been attracting a large number of Asian immigrants — engineers and programmers, mostly from China and India. They tend to live in Lawrenceville and Plainsboro, because Princeton is too expensive for them. But those are clear middle-class families, very oriented toward the education of their kids, toward making them fit into American customs — playing soccer, going to piano lessons, taking part in school activities, whatever it takes.

Trenton, on the other hand, is where the Guatemalans and Mexicans are moving in large numbers because that’s where housing is very cheap. Their kids are going to very poor schools where they are exposed to gangs, drugs, all the pathologies of American life.

What is remarkable, however, is that in our estimation three-fourths of children of poor families somehow are going to make it. They are going to escape, they are going to learn. But that still leaves a very significant population very much at risk. That’s what American society is facing today, and it’s a major structural problem given the size of immigration. One out of every five Americans under 18 is now an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, and that proportion will keep growing.