The ever-growing immigrant population in the United States1 calls for an increase in our understanding of how immigrants participate in United States society how our society can be molded in a way that accommodates this significant portion of the population.  Inundated by the  political turmoil and anti-immigration rhetoric of today, perhaps the most important immigrant population to focus on is those who are growing up in the thick of it all: the children.   As of 2013, one-fifth of children in United States schools came from immigrant families, a number that is expected to grow2.  These individuals have the potential to become the leaders, teachers and change makers of the future, but this cannot and will not happen given the systems we have in place.  So, how can we best serve these children?  What barriers stand in their way?

The topic of best-practice for immigrant children can get muddled by the individual and group differences within this population.  The relationship between the context of the receiving culture a child enters into, and the heritage culture that their family has come from plays a significant role in their development both inside and outside of the classroom3.  For example, developmental theory describes that the more similar the heritage and receiving culture are, the easier it will be for an immigrant to integrate into society3.  This notion has significant implications in terms of schooling, even if the immigrant child is a United States citizen.  Take the fundamental issue of race for example, a factor that can have a phenomenal impact on the perceptions of students in the classroom.  The current anti Mexican rhetoric, and the deeply rooted racial prejudice of our nation systematically disadvantages immigrant students of color, compared to those that may pass as white3.  Our cultural preference for “whiteness”, situates those immigrants who are white or who may pass as white more in line with the norms of United States culture, thereby easing their integration into it3.

In looking at cultural norms and expectations, if both parent and child understand the interworking’s of their receiving society, active parent participation within the educational system is more likely to occur3,4.  One of those expectations is the ability to speak English4.  The inability of a parent to effectively speak English, places a barrier along the path to their active participation to their child’s education.  Active parental participation has been shown to bolster student motivation and performance, thereby, disadvantaging immigrant students with non-English speaking parents.  Although sentiments about schooling, and the motivation to do well may vary by immigrant generation1,2, the general belief of immigrant students is one that acknowledges the importance of English profiencency4.  While bilingual education programs do exist within many United States schools, they vary in effectiveness, and are challenging to create and regulate based on the differences in language ability and the scope of the students they serve4.

Issues such as the relationship between heritage and host culture apply to most all immigrant students, but one group within this population that experiences additional barriers to optimal development are those that are unauthorized.  The term ‘unauthorized immigrant’ refers to an individual who is not legal United States citizen but is rather living in the United States in a state of never-ending uncertainty5.  As of 2011 nearly one-fourth of all immigrants living in United States society were undocumented5, pointing to the challenges of gaining United States citizenship.  If it were so easy to become a citizen, why would one fourth of the population be undocumented?  The constant worry of being deported yourself, or having a parent be deported adds an additional psychological burden to daily life as a student, making it more challenging to relate to and interact with those around you5.  Policies such as The Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals act, otherwise known as DACA, intend to lessen some of these burden’s by providing protection for children who immigrated to the United States as children.  These individuals, having never gaining citizenship, are protected from deportation and allowed to work and often attend college in the United States.  Although the mission of DACA is to help, because of a lack of bipartisan support since its introduction its future is uncertain leaving many students in a state of fear and ambiguity as to whether their DACA status will be maintained or if they are at risk of deportation5.

In order to create the most conducive environment for the successful personal and educational development of immigrant children, a deeper understanding of these issues is essential1,4.  If educators are not aware of the unique psychological stressors and societal barriers facing immigrant students both documented and undocumented, there is no way to improve their experience and advance society.


  1. 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.
  2. Greenman, E. (2013). Educational attitudes, school peer context, and the “immigrant paradox” in education. Social Science Research, 42(3), 698–714.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)
  5. 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.