Currently in the United States, one out of every five children under the age of eighteen — a total of fourteen million — is either an immigrant child or a child of immigrant parents. With most of these “newcomers” — the majority of whom are of Latino or Asian origin — enrolled in public school, meeting their needs has become a pressing issue facing educators nationwide.
To meet the needs of immigrant children, it is crucial to first understand issues related to their adaptation. A new book, Children of Immigration, written by Harvard University immigration experts Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, expands our knowledge of immigrant children’s adaptation to their new cultural setting. The book, relating “a fascinating and critical — but too often forgotten — chapter of the immigrant experience” (p. 1), represents the Suárez-Orozcos’ most recent contribution to the field of immigration and education.
Children of Immigration draws on the Suárez-Orozcos’ twenty years of experience working in the field with immigrant children and centers on their codirected research project, the Harvard Immigration Project. This five-year longitudinal study follows four hundred children from five different countries and regions: China, Mexico, Haiti, Central America, and the Dominican Republic. The Suárez-Orozcos report important findings from their first-year data, and use immigrant memoirs, plays, and films to demonstrate the variety of experiences of the children of immigrants.
The book, which takes an interdisciplinary perspective — psychological, sociological, anthropological, and historical — is “designed to provide an overview of the major themes in the lives of the children of immigrants — the nature of their journey to the United States, their earliest perceptions, and their subsequent transformations” (p. 13). With a central theme of the book being “how the children of immigrants are faring in American society” (p. 3), the authors emphasize the importance of understanding the experiences of immigrant children. They point out that “the future character of American society and economy will be intimately related to the adaptation of the children of today’s immigrants” (p. 3). Furthermore, the authors examine important themes established by recent scholarly work on immigrant children’s adaptation, most prominently the “disconcerting” trend of generational decline: the longer immigrant youth stay in the United States, the worse their overall physical and psychological health, and “the more ‘Americanized’ they bec[o]me, the more likely they [are] to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, unprotected sex, and delinquency” (p. 5).
In chapter one, the authors introduce five youngsters from five different countries who have diverse backgrounds and motivations for migration to the United States: a girl from Hong Kong, a boy from El Salvador, a Mexican girl, a Haitian boy, and a Guatemalan boy. Through these youngsters the Suárez-Orozcos delineate and describe three different pathways that structure today’s immigrant experiences: “immigrants” (those who immigrated to the United States voluntarily), “transnationals” (migrants who move frequently between the United States and their country of origin, usually due to work-related reasons), and “refugees” (asylum seekers who were forced out of their country of origin by war or political persecution). These different pathways in turn have significant implications for immigrant children’s adaptation. At the end of this chapter, the authors examine the crucial impact of undocumented status on children’s adaptation.
In chapter two, the authors explore in detail the question, “What is new about the ‘new immigration’?” Compared with the “old immigration” at the beginning of the last century, the “new immigration” is characterized by its unprecedented size, diversity, and a “remarkable shift in the countries from which immigrants originate” (p. 56). Moreover, the authors examine in detail the “ethos of reception” — public attitudes toward immigrants and immigrant children from both a contemporary and a historical perspective. They critically consider five recurring concerns about immigration, including immigration and the economy, immigration and the welfare state, illegal immigration, immigrants and crime, and the lack of assimilation of children of immigrants.
Since “immigration is one of the most stressful events a family can undergo” (p. 70), in chapter three the authors carefully examine the psychosocial effects of immigration on immigrant families and children — how immigrant families deal with the gains as well as the losses, changes, opportunities, and stresses associated with immigration. Specifically, the authors consider the effects of various stresses of immigration on immigrant families, including traumatic border crossing, separation and reunification, violence in the new setting, and adjusting to “unanticipated realities,” that is, learning the new rules, changes in family and gender roles, and the process of “Americanization.” In this chapter, the authors also examine factors that influence the successful long-term adaptation of immigrant students, such as family cohesion, socioeconomic status, motivation for immigration, documentation, school quality, and neighborhood safety.
In chapter four, the authors focus on the “remaking of identities” for second-generation children — how they negotiate different identities in the U.S. cultural setting. The authors wisely point out that the traditional “straight-line assimilation” theory — as immigrants become more assimilated into the mainstream society and lose their own cultural traits, they experience upward social mobility and achieve educational and economic parity with the natives — no longer holds in the context of the new immigration. Similarly, “the Eriksonian theory of continuity and sameness in identity-making needs to be updated to effectively engage the complexities of experience in this era” (p. 92). The Suárez-Orozcos develop the concept of “social mirroring” to illustrate how the host society’s attitudes toward immigrant children, particularly those informed by discrimination and stereotypes, can affect immigrant children’s identity formation. The authors delineate three different styles of identity adopted by children of immigrants —“ethnic flight” (abandoning their own ethnic group and mimicking the dominant group), “adversarial identities” (constructing identity in opposition to the mainstream culture and its institutions), and “transcultural [bicultural] identities” (developing competence to function in both cultures). Finally, the authors provide a conceptual framework to understand important factors in the construction of ethnic identity for immigrant youth, such as ethnic community, opportunity structure, family factors, individual factors, and “social mirroring.”
In chapter five, the authors get to the core of the educational adaptation of immigrant children. The Suárez-Orozcos discuss divergent pathways of school adaptation in children of immigrants today. They claim that, for immigrant children, “doing well in school is more important today than ever before” (p. 124) because of today’s economic structure. The authors point out that, while nearly all immigrant parents and children have positive attitudes toward schooling, immigrant children face many challenges in school, including the challenges related to the “sending context” (circumstances before migration), the new neighborhood, and school factors, particularly the issue of segregation. Finally, the authors discuss other key issues in the education of immigrant children in the U.S. school system: bilingual education, school reform, classroom engagement, and school and parent relations.
In their Epilogue, the authors contend that immigration, especially that from Latin America, will continue. Thus, the key question becomes “how we can best incorporate into our society the larger number of immigrants who now call the United States their home” (p. 155). According to the Suárez-Orozcos, “schooling is at the heart of” (p. 155) this question. They point out that it is important to reconsider the issue of acculturation in this new context. They discuss the issue through two concepts, “instrumental culture”—“the skills, competencies, and social behaviors that are required to successfully make a living and contribute to a society” (p. 156) — and “expressive culture” –- “the realm of values, worldviews, and patterning of interpersonal relations that give meaning and sustain the sense of self” (p. 156). The authors conclude the book by pointing out that “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 this country” (p. 156).
The Suárez-Orozcos’ new book, Children of Immigration, presents an excellent overview of important issues that have crucial implications for the adaptation of immigrant children in the United States today. It also provides important insights into the policy implications on the education of immigrant children. Researchers, teachers, counselors, clinicians, policymakers, and others working closely with immigrant children and the children of immigrants will find this book tremendously helpful in understanding the experiences of young new Americans.