Equity & Diversity

Scholars Mull the ‘Paradox’ of Immigrants

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 16, 2009 7 min read
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The academic success, tendency to stay out of trouble, and physical health of children of immigrants to the United States tend to decline significantly from the first to the third generation.

That troubling pattern brought researchers together here recently at Brown University to examine a provocative question: Is becoming American a developmental risk?

More than two decades have passed since researchers began to document what they call the “immigrant paradox”: Immigrants generally do much better in American society than expected, given the challenges of navigating in a new culture, not speaking English well, and often having little money, yet their early success often is not sustained by later generations.

One of the goals of the conference was to nudge researchers toward finding solutions that could help the children and grandchildren of immigrants have as much success as the first arrivals in their families.

“Why the immigrant paradox stands out for me is not because immigrant students are doing so well. It’s because native-born students are doing so poorly,” said Raymond Buriel, a psychology and Chicano/Latino studies professor at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif., who was one of the first researchers to write about the phenomenon.

Paradoxically, he wrote in 1984 about differences between generations of people of Mexican descent, the more a person is involved in his or her immigrant culture, the better he or she adapts to U.S. society.

The immigrant paradox, however, doesn’t seem to exist in many countries, according to Suet-ling Pong, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University. She has looked at data from more than 40 countries that take part in the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

“The first generation does worse than the second and third generations in most countries,” she said.

The United States, New Zealand, and Australia are exceptions, Ms. Pong said. “More professionals come to the United States and to these countries, and their kids may do better,” she said in an interview. In addition, she said, because of the long history of immigration in the United States, new arrivals may have better networks that help them succeed than exist in many other countries.

While a number of researchers are able to document the pattern in the United States, they said they cannot explain satisfactorily why it occurs, except that immigrants often have such strengths as a good education that may be masked by their low socioeconomic status.

Cynthia Garcia Coll, a professor of education, psychology, and pediatrics at Brown University and a conference organizer, said in an interview that the research of Ruben Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, provides insight into why subsequent generations struggle academically. “As the kids acculturate,” Ms. Coll said, “they lose the protectiveness of the homes. ... They don’t want to talk the language. There is a lot of pressure for them to get away from the house.”

She noted that the more acculturated students speak better English but do less homework. In addition, she said, “they are starting to buy in to the notion of minorities here [in the United States], that even if you work hard and play hard, discrimination is going to get at you.”

To prevent the deterioration of academic success over the generations, individual researchers at the March 6-7 meeting recommended such policies as investing in preschool education, supporting bilingual education, strengthening after-school programs, developing stronger relationships between pre-K-12 and higher education, and learning from successful immigrant communities what they do to help their members adapt.

‘Foreign-Born Advantage’

A number of studies using large national databases show that the immigrant paradox holds up generally among many different groups for educational success, health, and the avoidance of risky behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse or teenage sex.

Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, reported results from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (2005), the American Community Survey (2005-2007), the Adolescent Health Survey, and the National Education Longitudinal Survey. He reported data on trends over the generations for Mexicans, Cubans, Central and South Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Filipinos, other Asians, Afro-Caribbean people, and Europeans/Canadians.

When socioeconomic status is controlled for, Mr. Hernandez said, the health of children from most immigrant groups worsens from the first to the third generations. Moreover, the number of teenagers reporting substance abuse rose between generations. Violence increased from the first to the second generations, though people of Chinese descent were an exception. For children of Mexican ancestry, violence increased over three generations.

In school, the first generation of immigrants is less likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities than students in subsequent generations, Mr. Hernandez said.

For children of Mexican heritage, math scores decline from the first to the third generations. Reading scores for children with Mexican roots, however, increase over the generations. Mr. Hernandez speculated that the immigrant paradox doesn’t hold up with reading scores because of English acquisition.

“The immigrant paradox suggests there are features and strengths that immigrant families have. We need to figure out what those are,” said Mr. Hernandez. He said those strengths include the prevalence of many two-parent families, a strong work ethic and optimism, and bilingual skills that can be useful in the U.S. economy.

Dylan Conger, an assistant professor of public policy at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, documented the deterioration of educational success between first-generation immigrants and native-born students in their same racial or ethnic group. She examined the math and reading scores of some 45,000 students in New York City schools from the time they were 3rd graders in 1996 until they were 8th graders. Twelve percent of the students were first-generation immigrants.

“It’s a story of foreign-born advantage,” Ms. Conger said. “The foreign-born test higher and graduate from high school at higher rates than the native-born.”

In addition, she said, they have higher school attendance rates and lower rates of participation in special education programs than native-born students.

Ms. Conger couldn’t say why the pattern occurred, adding that it can’t be explained away by school characteristics.

Several studies presented at the gathering show that acculturation and academic success vary within and between immigrant groups.

Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and Asian-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that despite a much higher level of educational achievement compared with their American peers, Asians show a slight drop in academic success between first- and second-generation immigrants, with the exception of Chinese and Koreans. A bifurcation occurs within Asian communities over time, with high visibility of both high achievers and delinquents, Ms. Zhou said.

In her research, she’s found that the Chinese-immigrant community in Los Angeles has been very effective in using ethnic after-school programs to bolster academic success. She said that in addition to teaching the Chinese language, those programs provide previews and reviews of school lessons.

Chinese parents are reluctant to send their children to public after-school programs, Ms. Zhou said, because they have a stereotype that “bad children” go to them, which she interprets to mean the children are “too Americanized.”

Ms. Zhou noted that while Latinos may live in the same neighborhoods as Chinese, they don’t have access to the private after-school programs because of language and cultural barriers.

To sustain educational success in immigrant communities, she suggested that academic after-school opportunities be made available to all children.

Parents Perplexed

A panel of immigrant parents from the Providence area lent their voices to the conference to help attendees better understand how the parents support their children in school.

Among them was Tony Mendez, who works for a Spanish-language radio station and considers himself to be doing well financially. He came to the United States when he was 12.

Mr. Mendez said he’s puzzled why his young relatives in the Dominican Republic take it as a given that they will finish high school and go to college, but Dominican parents like him in the United States find it hard to persuade their children to stay in high school.

His 16-year-old daughter has struggled with motivation since she attended a private middle school where about 95 percent of the children were Anglo, he explained. She wanted to go to a school where the students looked like her, so she switched to a public school, which enrolls many Dominicans, he said.

Even now, as a high school junior, Mr. Mendez said, her academic performance isn’t consistent: “Sometimes she makes A’s, other times zeros.”

“Why is it a struggle here?” he said. “I don’t know if they go through an identity crisis. My daughter did. She felt she didn’t fit in.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Scholars Mull The ‘Paradox’ Of Immigrants

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