Immigration Studies : Youth Adapts to Change - 27 septembre 2010

fr - II. Critical Factors

Based on existing social science research, the ten factors outlined below have the strongest implications for the trends in schooling performance and social adaptation of immigrant children identified in by LISA and other studies

1 Educational background

Immigrant youth arrive in American neighborhoods and schools with varied educational skills. On one end of the spectrum, we find youth from upper-status urban backgrounds. They are typically highly literate and have well developed study skills. Their more educated parents are well equipped to both provide resources including additional books, a home computer, Internet access, and tutors. They can guide their children in how to study, access, and make meaning of data and information. In sharp contrast are those youth whose parents have little or no formal educational experience.

Equally disadvantaged are the children who arrive from countries with compromised educational infrastructures having missed critical years of classroom experience and often unable to read and write in their native language. Such varied experiences and backgrounds have profound implications for immigrant children’s transition to the U.S. setting. Unsurprisingly, those arriving with lower levels of education tend to decline academically more markedly once they settle in the United States.#10

2. Poverty

Although some immigrant youth come from privileged backgrounds, large numbers of them must face the challenges associated with poverty. Immigrant children are more than four times as likely as native-born children to live in crowded housing conditions and three times as likely to be uninsured.11 Poverty frequently coexists with other factors that augment risks such as single-parenthood, residence in suboptimal neighborhoods, as well as schools that are segregated, overcrowded, and understaffed. Children raised in circumstances of poverty are more vulnerable to an array of psychological distresses including difficulties concentrating and sleeping, anxiety, and depression as well as a heightened propensity for delinquency and violence–all of which have implications for educational outcomes

3. Segregation

Where immigrant families settle shapes the overall immigrant journey and the specific experiences and adaptations of children. Latino immigrants in particular tend to settle in segregated, deeply impoverished, urban settings. In such neighborhoods with few opportunities in the formal economy, informal and underground activities tend to flourish. Immigrants of color who settle in predominantly minority neighborhoods will have virtually no direct, systematic, and intimate contact with middle-class White Americans. This, in turn, affects a host of experiences including cultural and linguistic isolation from the mainstream

 A pattern of triple segregation–by race, language, and poverty–shapes the lives of many new immigrants, especially those originating in Latin America and the Caribbean. Segregated and poor neighborhoods are more likely to have dysfunctional schools characterized by ever-present fear of violence, distrust, low expectations, and institutional anomie. Lacking English skills, many immigrant students are often enrolled in the least demanding classes that eventually exclude them from courses needed for college preparation. Such settings undermine students’ ability to sustain motivation and academic engagement. The least engaged students are most likely to decline in their academic performance over time.#12

4. Undocumented status

Today there are approximately 1.8 million youth living in the United States without proper documentation, and an estimated 3.1 million are living in households headed by at least one undocumented immigrant.#13 Research suggests that undocumented youth and their families resemble other immigrant families in basic ways. Many waited patiently for years for their visas to be approved so they could be reunited with family members already in the United States. Frustrated by the seemingly interminable waiting lists–over five years in many cases–many immigrant youth finally venture forth without the required papers.#14 LISA data suggest that undocumented students often arrive after multiple family separations and traumatic border crossings. Once settled, they may continue to experience fear and anxiety about being apprehended, being separated again from their parents, and being deported. Such psychological and emotional duress can take its toll on the academic experiences of undocumented youth. Undocumented students with dreams of graduating from high school and going on to college will also find that their legal status stands in the way of their access to post-secondary education.#15

5. English language acquisition

Most immigrant children are second language learners. English language difficulties present particular challenges for optimal performance on high-stakes tests. Performance on tests such as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), the Regents Exams in New York, and the MCAS in Massachusetts has real implications for college access. Second language acquisition issues can serve to mask actual skills and knowledge. Even when immigrant students are able to enter colleges while they are still refining their language skills, they may miss subtleties in lectures and discussions. They may read more slowly than native speakers and may have difficulty expressing more complex thoughts on written assignments. This is likely to bring down their grades, in turn impacting access to graduate or professional schools. In many schools, the separation and segregation between the immigrant English language learners and their native born peers is nearly complete. The hermetic status quo results in less exposure to the linguistic modeling their U.S.-born peers could provide, and U.S. students, in need of knowledge about the world beyond our borders, also miss out. Conversely, the data show that immigrant youth who report having even one native English-speaking friend acquire English skills more quickly and proficiently.#16

6. Promoting academic engagement

Healthy social support networks are linked to better adjustment. Interpersonal relationships and social companionship maintain and enhance self-esteem, acceptance, and approval. Instrumental social support provides individuals and their families with tangible aid such as language tutoring, as well as guidance and advice about good teachers and supportive counselors. Instrumental supports are particularly critical for disoriented immigrant newcomer youth. LISA data suggest that social supports also can play a role in moderating negative influences.#17

7. Family

Family cohesion and the maintenance of a well-functioning system of supervision, authority, and mutuality are perhaps the most powerful factors in shaping the well-being and future outcomes of all children. Families can support children’s schooling by establishing the value of education and promoting high expectations. They can also actively support children as they complete assignments. Immigrant parents who work long hours and who may have limited schooling are at a distinct disadvantage in this regard. Aside from logistical difficulties, immigrant parents are often unable to support their children in ways that are congruent with American cultural models and expectations. Many come from traditions that revere school authorities and expect parents to keep a distance from the day-to-day workings of their child’s education. This stands in sharp contrast to U.S. expectations of parental involvement

 8. Peer relationships

Peers often play an important role by sustaining and supporting the development of significant social competencies in youth. Peers can specifically serve to support or detract from academic engagement. By valuing (or devaluing) certain academic outcomes and by modeling specific academic behaviors, peers can establish norms of academic engagement. Peers can tangibly support academic engagement by clarifying readings or lectures, helping one another complete homework assignments, and by exchanging information about, for example, standardized tests, helpful tutors, volunteer positions, and other college pathway knowledge. Because, however, immigrant youth often attend highly segregated poor schools, they may have limited access to knowledgeable networks of peers beyond their immigrant group.

9. Communities and community organizations

Because no family is an island, family cohesion and functioning are enhanced when the family is part of a larger cohesive community. Culturally constituted patterns of community cohesion and supervision can support immigrant youth when they encounter the more socially toxic elements in their new settings. Youth-serving community based organizations, much like churches and some ethnic-owned businesses and extended family networks, can enrich immigrant communities and foster healthy development among its youth through the support they provide to parents and families.

Such urban sanctuaries, often affiliated with neighborhood churches, non-profit organizations, and schools provide youth out-of-school time that is not spent in isolation, unsupervised, or on the streets with one’s peers. Community program staff can serve as “culture brokers” for youth, bridging the disparate norms in place in children’s homes and those in place at school. Adults who work in community programs can provide tutoring, educational guidance, advice about the college application process, and job search assistance, information which is often inaccessible to immigrant youth who attend schools with few guidance counselors and whose parents have not navigated the academic system in the United States.

10. Mentoring relationships

In nearly every story of immigrant success there is a caring adult who took an interest in the child and became actively engaged in her life. Connections with non-parent adults–a community leader, teacher, member of the church, or coach–are important in the academic and social adaptation of immigrant adolescents. These children are often undergoing profound shifts in their sense of self and are struggling to negotiate changing circumstances in relationships with their parents and peers. Protective relationships with non-parent adults can provide immigrant youth with compensatory attachments, safe contexts for learning new cultural norms and practices, and information that is vital to success in school.

Additionally, mentoring relationships may have special implications for immigrant youths. During the course of migration, loved ones are often separated from one another and significant attachments are ruptured. LISA data reveal that approximately eighty percent of immigrant youth were separated from one or both parents during the migration to the United States.#18

Mentoring relationships can give immigrant youth an opportunity to be involved in reparative relationships engendering new significant attachments. Since immigrant parents may be unavailable due to long work hours or emotional distress, the guidance and affection of a mentor may help to fill the void created by parental absence. The mentor can provide information about and exposure to American cultural and educational institutions and help as the adolescent negotiates developmental transitions. If the mentor is bicultural, he or she can interpret the rules of engagement of the new culture for parents and youth and hence, help to attenuate cultural rigidities. Bicultural mentors can also serve as role models in the challenging process of developing a bicultural identity, exemplifying the ways in which elements of the ethnic identity can be preserved and celebrated even as features of more mainstream American culture are incorporated into youth’s lives.

Taken together, these networks of supports can make a significant difference in immigrant children’s lives. They can help immigrant youth develop healthy bicultural identities, engender motivation, and provide specific information about how to navigate schooling pathways. When successful, these relationships help immigrant youth and their families overcome some of the barriers associated with poverty and discrimination that prevent full participation in the new country’s economic and cultural life.