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Study Finds Immigrants' Children Face Some Risks in Assimilating

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While the children of immigrants are eager to learn English, their academic prospects in some cases are harmed by their assimilation into American life, data from an ongoing study of 5,000 immigrant children in South Florida and San Diego suggest.

Findings from the study released last month reveal that most children of immigrants speak English well and prefer English over their parents' language.

Only 12 percent of these "second generation'' immigrant children reported speaking English poorly, compared with a third of second-generation youth in Miami and more than half in San Diego who said they knew their parents' language poorly or not at all.

"By the time these second-generation people marry and have children, their children will speak English only,'' Ruben G. Rumbaut, a principle investigator for the study, predicted in a recent interview.

A Growing Population

The study, being conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Florida International University, and the University of California at San Diego, focuses on U.S.-born children with at least one foreign-born parent and on foreign-born children with at least five years of U.S. residence.

This second-generation population, which numbered 24.8 million in 1990, accounts for almost 11 percent of the nation's total population and is expected to grow rapidly.

The study is based on samples of 8th and 9th graders, who were chosen to avoid any skewing of the results created by the substantial high school dropout rates among immigrant students.

The current research differs from most recent immigration studies, which have focused on the nation's 21 million first-generation immigrants. The last major sociological study of second-generation immigrant children was an examination of Italian youths conducted in 1943.

At the time of that study, more than 85 percent of second-generation immigrants had European parents. Since 1960, however, more than three-quarters of immigrants have been non-European, with Hispanics accounting for 47 percent of the total, Asians for 22 percent, and blacks for 8 percent.

The study found that Spanish-origin children were more likely than others to retain their native language. More than 70 percent of Hispanics said they spoke their native language well or very well, compared with 31 percent of Haitians, 29 percent of Filipinos, and 23 percent of Laotians.

Blueprints for Advancement

The study also offers evidence, however, that assimilation can have a negative impact on academic achievement if the children of immigrants are becoming part of a marginalized, low-income subculture.

By contrast, some immigrant children may improve their chances of upward educational and economic mobility by remaining in their ethnic community and relying on it for support, the study's authors said.

"This situation stands the cultural blueprint for advancement of immigrant groups in American society on its head,'' Alejandro Portes, a professor of sociology and international relations at Johns Hopkins, wrote in a recently released paper examining the study's results.

The success of today's immigrants, Mr. Portes argued, is determined largely by the segment of society to which they adapt. He identified three distinct paths for adaptation: the traditional route of becoming acculturated and integrated into the native-born working and middle classes; the increasingly common route of being impoverished and assimilating into an underclass; and a third route of staying close to the ethnic community and using its support to advance.

Haitians who immigrate to Miami, for example, try to instill national pride and a drive for achievement in their children. But they often see their efforts undermined, Mr. Portes contended, by their children's day-to-day experiences in school in Liberty City, a heavily black inner-city area adjacent to Little Haiti.

The native-born children, Mr. Portes said, tend to stereotype Haitian students as too docile and subservient to whites and pressure them to reject their Haitian culture and their belief that education is a vehicle for advancement.

Cuban children in Miami, on the other hand, appeared in the study to have benefited from a history of favorable government policies, a warmer reception from native residents, and a tight-knit community that has provided them with economic and social support and a network of private schools.

Although they were more likely than Haitians to identify with and socialize within their ethnic group, Cuban children were far less likely to report being the victims of discrimination by teachers and others.

Of the various immigrant groups studied, the Cuban students were also among the most likely to report speaking both English and their native language well.

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