Many immigrants face significant challenges in moving to the United States, yet it is unfortunately common to hear insensitive remarks about immigrants. Many Americans are concerned with immigrants’ effect on culture, and ask reductive questions such as “How will they learn English?” Many claim that immigrants are not even trying to learn English or adapt to U.S. The reality is that many immigrants actually are trying. However, English is a difficult language to learn and can take years to master.1 In terms of adapting to a new culture, it is not as simple as just learning English or understanding American social customs. There are many parts involved in interacting with and adapting to a culture different than one’s own, which is a process called acculturation.2 People who question why immigrants can’t just learn English are being insensitive to their efforts, and are not recognizing that language acquisition resources are not accessible or equal for everyone, especially in regards to language education for immigrant children.1
Acculturation does not only involve the learning of a new language, but also adopting the beliefs and values of the new country of residence. However, adopting these new beliefs does not equal losing the beliefs and values they acquired from their country of origin. The level of difficulty an immigrant may have acculturating to their new country of residence can depend upon how similar the new country and their country of origin are. As previously mentioned, many Americans judge immigrants negatively for speaking a language other than English. This means that for immigrants who come from an English speaking country to the United States, they may have an easier time acculturating and experience less discrimination, as language barriers are not an issue and they will not be judged based on language.2
Language acquisition and acculturation are long, difficult processes for immigrants. However, difficulties and discrimination that result from being unauthorized are some of the most limiting, and attitudes towards unauthorized immigrants are particularly negative in the United States today3. In 2014 there were 12.1 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.4 These 12.1 million immigrants are experiencing unique stressors that accompany an unauthorized status. Many people do not take children into account when debating unauthorized immigration issues5, even though they are severely affected by growing up without authorization. Growing up in the U.S. as an unauthorized child or adolescent affects the ability to engage in activities or experiences that are considered important to an American’s identity, such as obtaining a drivers license or attending college. They also grapple with the issue of whether or not to expose their status to their friends—but it is also important to note that some unauthorized children are never told of their status until they are teenagers. Another unique stressor that unauthorized children deal with is the fear of themselves or their families being deported3. This fear unfortunately turns into a reality for many children, and has been the topic of news coverage constantly throughout 2018. Over the summer, unauthorized families who were detained at the Southern border of the U.S. were being held separately from each other. Children as young as only a few months old were being taken away from their parents for extended periods of time, which for such a young child is severely stressful6. Many unauthorized families watching these events unfold likely experienced an increase in the fear that already exists of being discovered and detained.
Overall, immigrants both authorized and unauthorized face a plethora of stressors, and many Americans are not sensitive to the length of time it can take to learn English or acculturate, nor to the fears that accompany being an unauthorized citizen. With so many immigrants in the U.S., it is imperative that people somehow become more educated about all of the different parts involved in immigrating and cultivate more empathy, instead of reducing the experience to “just learning English” or labeling immigrants as “alien”.
- 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. From: The Challenge of Language Acquisition
- 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, 237–251. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019330
- 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, 438–472.
- Baker, Bryan. (2017). Estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population residing in the United States: January 2014. Office of Immigration Statistics: Office of Strategy, Policy, & Plans, 1-9.
- Yoshikawa, H. (2011). Immigrants raising citizens: Undocumented parents and their young children. New York: Russell Sage.
- Domonoske, C. & Gonzales, R. (2018, June, 19). What we know: Family separation and zero tolerance at the border. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/19/621065383/what-we-know-family-separation-and-zero-tolerance-at-the-border