In the United States, ¼ of the immigrants are considered unauthorized ¹ which are people who live within a country without having the legal authorization to do so. Approximately 5.5 million children and adolescents are growing up with unauthorized parents, about a million are unauthorized themselves.¹ The child may be an American in spirit, school, and their everyday experience but in the eyes of the law, they are not legal citizens and their family status hinders the regular stages of their development.¹ In some religions, there are rituals that mark new stages of life such as baptism, quinceaneras, and bar mitzvahs.¹ These rituals are called rites of passage. In America, there are legal rites of passage that an unauthorized child may not partake in, like getting a driver’s license, passport, even going to college.¹ This may lead the child to question their identity and where they belong. Children of immigrants are also being put into a position of interminable liminality¹ (practicing rites of passages to belong but the corresponding country does not acknowledge it and consider them illegal and cannot belong) by the legal status of themselves and their family.¹ American Identity is the degree of which the person feel connected and engaged with America and its history and traditions.² The children believe that they are American because they share America’s values, beliefs, and speak the language, but still, are seen as illegal because they do not have the legal documentation.¹ These issues call into question what it really means to be an American – if speaking the language, sharing the same values and beliefs as my peers is not enough, then why is a piece of paper all that it takes to help shape a national identity?
Immigrant children did not make the choice to migrate to another country, as it was their parents’ decision and they should not have to struggle to define their identity simply because their family does not have the means of legally documenting their citizenship. ¹ Not only do the children grow up worried about their status but also the acculturation process. Acculturation is the changes that occur as a result of contact with people, and groups and who are culturally different.² Going through the acculturation process may lead to discrimination toward immigrants who are from lower socioeconomic status as well as against immigrants who are illegal and are viewed as a burden and a drain to the receiving country resources.² This discrimination may lead immigrants to have more problems adapting or resisting to adopt the practices, values, and beliefs of the receiving culture.²
Learning English is another complication for immigrant children and is an added stress on top of dealing with their legal status and the process of adjusting to a new country. Children of immigration reported that learning English was a harder obstacle than any of the other difficulties they faced during immigration.³ Immigrants are often criticized for not learning English quickly upon their arrival due to a lack of understanding and compassion, especially when considering how long it takes for a person to become proficient in a new language. ³ Despite the language barrier, studies show immigrant children, on the whole, perform surprisingly well in school compared to natives who come from the same socioeconomic status.⁴ This advantage of the immigrant children, who might unknowingly be considered educationally disadvantaged due to a shift in language and general unfamiliarity with the culture, is called the immigrant paradox.⁴ Though immigrant children may perform well in school they still face difficulties with their unauthorized status, acculturation process and being proficient in English.
- Suárez-Orozco, C., Yoshikawa, H., Teranishi, R. T., & Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (2011). Growing up in the shadows: The developmental implications of unauthorized status. Harvard Educational Review, 81(3), 438–472.
- Schwartz, S. J., Unger, J. B., Zamboanga, B. L., & Szapocznik, J. (2010). Rethinking the concept of acculturation: Implications for theory and research. American Psychologist, 65(4), 237–251. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019330
- Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA, US: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. (The Challenge of Language Acquisition)
- Greenman, E. (2013). Educational attitudes, school peer context, and the “immigrant paradox” in education. Social Science Research, 42(3), 698–714. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.12.014