Teaching Opinion

Immigrant Children and The American Project

By Carola Suarez-Orozco & Marcelo Suarez-Orozco — March 21, 2001 13 min read
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What will the ethos of the country “feel like” by the mid-21st century, when the children of today’s immigrants and other racial minorities constitute nearly half of its population?

As we face the largest wave of immigration in the history of the United States, much attention has been focused on its economic and policy implications. This focus, while important, can be limiting. In the final analysis, if that is ever possible in this field, the economic implications of large-scale immigration turn out to be marginal. The U.S. economy is so large, powerful, and dynamic that most responsible economists do not think immigration will either “make or break” it. The recent public concern about immigration seems, therefore, out of proportion to its importance for our economy. We must conclude that the intensity of public concern reveals more deep-seated, personal anxieties.

We suspect that these anxieties have to do with the demographic and cultural implications of a wave of immigration made up largely of non-European, non- English-speaking people of color migrating in large numbers from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Many concerns are being raised—some vehemently and others quite reasonably. What will this wave of immigration do to the culture of our nation? What will the ethos of the country “feel like” by the mid-21st century, when the children of today’s immigrants and other racial minorities constitute nearly half of its population? And the bottom line: Will the country suffer or be better off because of this historic shift?

While important policy questions need to be addressed, such as how many immigrants the United States should accept each year, what kinds of publicly funded services they can access, and how to stem continuing waves of undocumented immigration, in some respects much of this debate is academic. The proverbial horse is out of the barn, and closing the door now, even if it would be symbolically satisfying to some, will in practice have little effect.

Immigration, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean, will continue. The experience of the last three decades has taught us that immigration is structured by extremely powerful and global social, economic, and cultural factors that democratic nations cannot easily regulate with unilateral policy initiatives. The anemic results of policies such as the multibillion-dollar border-control efforts now in place, California’s Proposition 187, and the array of recent federal legislation affecting the services that immigrants can access reveal just how difficult it is to contain immigration.

The more relevant question at the beginning of the new millennium is how we can best incorporate into our society the large number of immigrants who now call the United States their home. Nowhere is the need to responsibly address these issues greater than when it comes to immigrant children. How can we ease their transition and adaptation to the American setting? How can we harness their energies and prepare them for the future? How do we make sure that they grow up to be citizens who contribute to the public good? Schooling is at the heart of all these questions.

The current wave of immigration coincided with the “tax revolt” that led to massive cutbacks in education. These cutbacks resulted in overcrowded classrooms, unmanageable counselor-student ratios, and outdated materials. Not surprisingly, poor schools in poor districts were most negatively affected by these initiatives. These were precisely the schools where poor immigrant children enrolled in large numbers.

Three decades after the tax revolt, there is now a consensus that our educational system is in crisis. Since the late 1990s, education has emerged as the No. 1 public concern—ahead of the economy and crime. While different observers of the educational system have proposed an array of possible solutions, there is a general agreement that reinvesting in the schooling of children is a crucial first step. It is important to recognize that immigrant children are a growing sector of the school population; policy interventions and funding decisions must be attuned to their special needs. If immigrant children are well served today, they will become important contributors to the future well-being of our country.

To date, the attention focused on immigrant children and their families has been largely misplaced. To paraphrase the Israeli statesman Abba Eban, “Those who oppose immigration never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Consider, for example, the ever-present concern that immigrant children are not learning English and therefore not acculturating to the United States. There are two fundamental problems with this commonly held belief. First, it runs counter to the now nearly overwhelming evidence that immigrant children are learning English as quickly and well as they always have—if not faster. At the same time, unfortunately, immigrant children are rapidly losing their native languages. Second, the link between learning English and “acculturation” rests on a superficial and reductionistic assumption that speaking English equals acculturation. But simply speaking English does not make one an American.

It is important to recognize that immigrant children are a growing sector of the school population; policy interventions and funding decisions must be attuned to their special needs.

To reduce culture to the acquisition of a second language misses the great depth of what culture is in terms of values, worldviews, and social practices.

Some of our concerns about acculturation rest on a deep flaw in the understanding of culture. Analytically, we differentiate between two broad realms of culture: “instrumental culture” and “expressive culture.” By instrumental culture, we mean the skills, competencies, and social behaviors that are required to successfully make a living and contribute to society. By expressive culture, we mean the realm of values, worldviews, and patterning of interpersonal relations that give meaning and sustain the sense of self. Taken together, these qualities of culture generate shared meanings, shared understandings, and a sense of belonging. In sum, the sense of who you are and where you belong is molded by these qualities of culture.

In the instrumental realm, there is arguably a worldwide convergence in the skills that are needed to function in today’s global economy. Whether they live in Los Angeles, Lima, or Lagos, workers need communication, symbolic, and technical skills as well as good work habits and interpersonal talent.

Immigrant parents are very aware that if their children are to thrive they must acquire these skills. Indeed, immigration for many parents represents nothing more, and nothing less, than the opportunity to offer children access to these skills. We have yet to meet an immigrant parent who says that he does not want his child to learn English or to acquire the skills and work habits that will prepare him or her for a successful career in the United States or “back home.”

While immigrant parents encourage their children to cultivate the “instrumental” aspects of culture in the new setting, they are decidedly more ambivalent about their children’s exposure to some of the “expressive” elements in the new land. During the course of our research, it has been obvious to us that many immigrant parents strongly resist a whole array of cultural models and social practices in American youth culture that they consider highly undesirable. These include cultural attitudes and behaviors that are anti-schooling (“school is boring”) and anti-authority (“the principal is an idiot”), the glorification of violence, and sexually precocious behaviors. Immigrant parents, rightly, reject and resist this form of acculturation.

We claim that the incantation of many observers—acculturate, acculturate, acculturate—needs rethinking. If acculturation is superficially defined as acquiring linguistic skills and job skills, then there is a universal consensus on these shared goals. If, on the other hand, we choose a broader, more realistic, definition of acculturation that includes the realm of values, worldviews, and interpersonal relations, then a worthy debate ensues.

The first issue that needs airing is the basic question of “acculturating to what?” American society is no longer, if it ever was, a uniform or coherent system. Given their diverse origins, financial resources, and social networks, immigrants gravitate to very different sectors of American society. While some are able to join integrated well-to-do neighborhoods, the majority of today’s immigrants come to experience American culture from the vantage point of poor urban neighborhoods. Limited economic opportunities, ethnic tensions, violence, drugs, and gangs characterize many of these settings. The structural inequalities found in what some social theorists have called “American apartheid” are implicated in the creation of a cultural ethos of ambivalence, pessimism, and despair. Asking immigrant youths to give up their values, worldviews, and interpersonal relations to join this ethos is a formula for disaster.

‘Those who oppose immigration never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’

Abba Eban,
Israeli Statesman

For those immigrants who come into intimate contact with middle-class mainstream culture, other trade-offs will be required. As our data suggest, immigrant children perceive that mainstream Americans do not welcome them and, indeed, disparage them as not deserving to partake in the American dream. Identifying wholeheartedly with a culture that rejects you has its psychological costs, usually paid with the currency of shame, doubt, and even self-hatred.

But even if the new immigrants were unambivalently embraced by middle-class mainstream Americans, it is far from clear that mimicking mainstream behaviors would in the long term prove to be an adaptive strategy for immigrants of color. Mainstream middle-class children are protected by social safety nets that give them leeway to experiment with an array of dysfunctional behaviors including drugs, early sexual relations, and alcohol. But for the many immigrant youths who do not have robust socioeconomic and cultural safety nets, engaging in such behaviors is a high-stakes proposition where one mistake can have lifelong consequences. While a white middle-class youth that is caught in possession of drugs is likely to be referred to counseling and rehabilitation, an immigrant youth convicted of the same offense may be deported.

The current wave of immigration involves people from diverse and heterogeneous cultural backgrounds. Yet beneath surface differences, a common grammar can be identified among groups as culturally distinct from each other as Chinese, Haitian, and Mexican immigrants. The importance of family ties, an emphasis on hard work, and optimism about the future are examples of shared immigrant values that are deepened during immigration. Consider, for example, the case of strong family ties among immigrants. Many immigrants come from cultures where the family system is an integral part of the person’s sense of self. These family ties play a critical role in family reunification—an important force driving the new immigration. Furthermore, once immigrants settle, family ties are accentuated because immigration’s emotional and practical challenges force family members to turn to one another for support. Immigrant families do not need to be lectured by opportunistic politicians about family values—they embody them.

Hard work and optimism about the future are likewise central to the immigrant’s raison d'être. The immigrant’s most fundamental motivation is to find a better life. Immigrants tend to view hard work as essential to this project. That some immigrants will do the impossible jobs that native workers simply refuse to consider indicates just how hard they are willing to work. The strong family ties and work ethic of immigrants, as well as their optimism about the future, are unique assets that should be celebrated as adding to the total cultural stock of the nation.

Immigration generates change. As we argue in our forthcoming book, the immigrants themselves undergo a variety of transformations. Likewise, immigration inevitably changes the members of the dominant culture. In the United States today we eat, speak, and dance differently than we did 30 years ago, in part because of large-scale immigration. But change is never easy. The changes brought about by the new immigration require mutual accommodation and negotiation.

Rather than advocating that immigrant children abandon all elements of their culture as they embark on their uncertain journey, a more promising path is to cultivate and nurture the emergence of new hybrid identities and bicultural competencies. These hybrid cultural styles creatively blend elements of the old culture with that of the new, unleashing new energies and potentials.

The skills and work habits that are required to thrive in the new century are essential elements of acculturation. Immigrant children, like all children, must develop this repertoire of instrumental skills.

In the United States today we eat, speak, and dance differently than we did 30 years ago, in part because of large-scale immigration.

At the same time, maintaining a sense of belonging and social cohesion with their immigrant roots is equally important. When immigrant children lose their expressive culture, social cohesion is weakened, parental authority is undermined, and interpersonal relations suffer. The unthinking call for immigrant children to massively abandon their culture can only result in loss, anomie, and social disruption.

The model of unilineal acculturation—where the bargain was straightforward: Please check all your cultural baggage before you pass through the Golden Gate—emerged in another era. The young nation was then eager to turn large numbers of European immigrants into loyal citizen workers and consumers. It was an era of nation-building and of bounded national projects.

But even then, despite what we may have learned in history books, immigrants did not rush in unison to trade their culture for American culture. German Americans, Italian Americans, and Irish Americans have all left deep cultural imprints in American culture. Even among fifth-generation descendants of the previous great wave of immigration, symbolic culture and ethnicity remain an emotional center.

But beyond the argument that maintaining the expressive elements of culture supports social cohesion, there is another argument worth considering. In the global era, the tenets of unilineal acculturation are no longer relevant. Today there are clear and unequivocal advantages to being able to operate in multiple cultural codes—as anyone working in a major (and now not-so-major) corporation knows. There are social, economic, cognitive, and aesthetic advantages to being able to transverse cultural spaces. Immigrant children are poised to maximize that unique advantage. While many view these children’s cultural—including linguistic— skills as a threat, we see them as precious assets to be cultivated.

A renowned historian once said that the history of the United States is fundamentally the history of immigration. Throughout history, U.S. citizens have ambivalently welcomed newcomers. The fear then, as now, focused on whether the immigrants would contribute to the American project. The gift of hindsight demonstrates just how essential immigration has been to the making and remaking of America. Welcoming and supporting new generations of immigrants to the United States will ensure that this vital legacy continues.

Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco are the co-directors of the Harvard Immigration Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. This essay is adapted from their forthcoming book, Children of Immigration, to be published April 16 by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2001 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Any change to the text shall be made only with the written consent of Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Immigrant Children and The American Project


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