Study: Mexicans Likelier to Enroll If They Arrive Early in U.S.

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 13, 2002 3 min read

Immigrant children from Mexico are much more likely to be enrolled in school by the time they become teenagers if they moved to the United States at roughly 10 years old or younger, according to a study conducted by a University of Washington researcher.

The study looked at a sample of more than 39,000 immigrants who were 15, 16, or 17 years old at the time of the 1990 Census.

Mexican teenagers had the highest rate of school “nonenrollment” of all immigrant groups studied, with an average of 28 percent not enrolled in school. But the percentage increased to 41 percent when those Mexican adolescents who had arrived in the United States after the age of about 10 were broken out into their own group, separate from those teenagers from Mexico who had arrived at a younger age.

By contrast, the rate of nonenrollment for American-born teenagers of the same age is 7 percent, according to the study, which first appeared in the August issue of Demography, a research journal, and was distributed to the media last week.

The high rate of school nonenrollment for Mexican teenagers is a cause for great concern, said Charles Hirschman, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and the study’s author, particularly since at least a quarter of immigrant teenagers come from Mexico.

“If you don’t have a high school education, that sticks with you throughout your life,” he said. “It’s hard to get a good job. It’s hard to do a lot of things that you have to do in life.”

Mr. Hirschman uses the term “nonenrollment” rather than “dropouts” because some immigrant teenagers never even register to attend American schools. He speculated that some of the immigrant youths from Mexico who aren’t in school moved to the United States with the intention of joining the labor market.

He said the percentage of nonenrollment might be even higher among Mexican teenagers than the study shows because the 1990 Census likely undercounted undocumented immigrants, many of whom come from Mexico.

Illegal Status an Issue

One reason for the high rate of nonenrollment among Mexican teenagers is that some of their parents are undocumented and may not be aware of the rights of their children to attend U.S. schools, noted Patricia J. Mazzuca, a Philadelphia middle school principal and the co-chairwoman of President Bush’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

School systems need to do a better job of reaching out to churches, work sites, health centers, and other organizations in which Hispanics are involved to let them know that their children have a right to an education and that they don’t need to be afraid to enroll them in school, she said.

In addition, she said, “school systems need to not only find these youths but have adequate programs for these kids so they stay in school. When you have a child who is 15 from Mexico or Puerto Rico who only went to school up to the 4th grade, where do you place that child?”

Other immigrant groups that the study found to have high rates of nonenrollment in school—about double that of American-born teenagers—were Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans. Immigrant teenagers from Asia, however, were more likely to be enrolled in school than even American-born teenagers.

Harold Hodgkinson, an independent demographer and the director of the Center for Demographic Policy in Washington, criticized the study because it didn’t take into consideration state and regional differences in the school enrollment of immigrant teenagers.

“What states immigrants move to is terribly important,” he said. “Nothing is distributed [evenly] across the country, and that’s what [the study’s author] neglects.”

He said that the study has an additional problem in that it used data from the 1990 Census, even though demographers are now publishing findings about immigrant trends based on the 2000 Census.

Mr. Hirshman responded by saying that if he had broken down the national data into regions, it would have been difficult to find a large enough sample of some immigrant groups in some regions to draw meaningful conclusions.

He said his study relies on the 1990 Census, which provides more detailed information than what is yet available from the 2000 Census.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Study: Mexicans Likelier to Enroll If They Arrive Early in U.S.