When immigrants make the decision to migrate to the United States it is usually with the hope of achieving a better life for themselves and their families (1). Early psychological theories proposed that as immigrants assimilate to an American lifestyle by acquiring English skills and getting an American Education, they are guaranteed a better life (2). Usually, adapting to a new country involves changes that are related to interacting with different cultures, this process is referred to as acculturation (2). However, surprising research has shown that the longer immigrants stay in the United States the more they are likely to be faced with a plethora of challenges that negatively impact their development (3). Researchers have coined this interesting phenomenon as the immigrant paradox, whereby newcomer immigrants tend to have better health and perform better in school compared to later generation immigrants (3). Thus, acculturation can be viewed as a double-edged sword, since it has both favorable and unfavorable consequences.
Before exploring the unique nature of the consequences of acculturation, it is important to understand the advantage of language acquisition, since mastering English can be an agent for successful acculturation (4). Immigrants tend to view acquiring English skills as essential for their prosperity in the US (4). Some have even gone further to argue that learning English is not only important for survival it also allows immigrants to advance economically. When immigrants speak English fluently there are able to explore career opportunities that are not limited to minimum wage jobs (5). Additionally, being able to fluently speak and understand English has been associated with immigrants being more involved in their children’s education and understanding complicated US systems such as healthcare (5). Lastly, for unauthorized immigrants speaking English can help them be knowledgeable about opportunities that can help resolve their unauthorized status and foster more civic engagement (6). Therefore, acquiring English as a second language helps immigrants acculturate and improve their lives.
However, even though mastery of English affords immigrants opportunities that improve their lives, we still see patterns of poor health and educational outcomes among later generation immigrants as compared to new immigrants (3). Additionally, immigrants also tend to have better health and educational outcomes than white native-born Americans (7). For example, according to a report by the CDC, Hispanics have a higher life expectancy than whites. The report also indicates that during the first years of immigration Hispanics have lower rates of smoking and a better diet. They attribute this to the fact that Hispanics have stronger family ties that foster better health behaviors. In terms of educational outcomes, first generation immigrants tend to outperform their later generation counterparts in school and native-born Americans (8). One reason that has been highlighted for this paradox is parents transferring their motivations, expectations, and values about school to their children (9). However, research is still needed to fully understand this occurrence.
To better understand the impact of acculturation on immigrants we need to acknowledge both the positive and negative outcomes that result from intercultural contact. Adopting this holistic framework allows us to tackle some of the challenges immigrants face when they immigrate to the United States.
1. Wing, N. (2018, June 20). Immigrants Describe The Horrors That Made Them Flee Latin America For The U.S. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/latin-america-migrants-gangs-violence_us_5b295213e4b0a4dc99219f06
2. 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
3. Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., & García Coll, C. (2014). Understanding the U.S. immigrant paradox in childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 59–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12071
4. Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., & García Coll, C. (2014). Understanding the U.S. immigrant paradox in childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 59–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12071
5. Denver Post. (2016, April 30). Learning English can help immigrants survive. Retrieved from https://www.denverpost.com/2013/03/08/learning-english-can-help-immigrants-survive/
6. 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.
7. Gispert, J. G. (2015, May 29). Hispanic paradox: Why immigrants have a high life expectancy. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-32910129
8. 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
9. Study: First generation immigrant children do better in school than US-born kids. (2012, September 12). Retrieved from http://nbclatino.com/2012/09/11/study-first-generation-immigrant-children-do-better-in-school-than-us-born-kids/