Author: schwartk

Are Our Immigrant Children at Risk?

Children face all sorts of challenges. It is on us – all of us – to educate ourselves about the types of challenges they face and how we can help. Whether you are a parent, an educator, or even a professional, there are a few key points of information you should know. In addition, you should also know who is at risk of falling through the cracks. One population of our children that has been neglected is immigrant youth. Immigrant children face challenges with separation, neighborhood cohesion, and school engagement.

 

One risk that is posed to immigrant youth is the potential to be separated from those most important. It is nearly impossible to avoid stories of family separation. The most common and emotion-evoking story we have seen is the story of separations at the border of the country and the detention of young children, either alone of with their families. These children are no doubt affected by this experience. However, we must remember that the experiences of separated and transnational families are all unique1. Some families are separated by force. Some parents make the decision to leave their children behind or send their children somewhere for a better life1. For example, some Chinese immigrants make the choice to send their American-born children to China while they continue to make enough money in the United States. No matter the reason, separation from a parent has negative effects on a child1. Specifically, when a mother is separated from the child for along period of time, the symptoms are the worst1. On the bright side, symptoms do seem to resolve over time1.

In addition to family separation, we must also focus on the issue of how to ensure the success of immigrant youth academically and socially. You may think that the geographic locations immigrant children live in and the community that occupies them affects this. However, in studies on neighborhoods, there was no clear understanding on whether or not neighborhoods that immigrant youth grow up in have a great affect2. Things such as family processes and immigrant status may have more of an impact. This is not to discount the possible far-reaching effects of quality neighborhood programsthat promote social cohesion. Unfortunately, immigrants are more likely to be living below the poverty line and, in general, neighborhoods low on the socioeconomic scale tend to be low in social cohesion.

Besides neighborhoods, school is also an important developmental space for immigrant youth3.  In all young developing minds, school engagement promotes overall success3. School engagement is a somewhat complicated and multilayered psychological concept; however, it can be broken down. School engagement is about how much the student participates in their learning, their emotions and reactions in the classroom, and how they view their investment in their own education3. Obviously, successes in school and beyond are very important to various levels of achievement. It is importatnt to look for ways to integrateimmigrant youth into US schools. Unfortunately, immigrant status is a risk factor for low school engagement3. Fortunate for those who search for a silver lining, there are things that help. One of those things is access to resources3. These resources can be interpersonal, like a nurturing relationship with a teacher or counselor, or access to a good bilingual English-learning program. They can also be institutional suggestions, such as resourcesprovided by the National Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

So, if you’re asking if immigrant children are at risk: the answer is ‘yes, but…’.

Immigrant youth face many more challenges. But, there is also room for remarkable resilience and intervention by those who care. So, when wondering about immigrant neighborhoods, family separation, and education, know that immigrant youth have the potential to secure and achieve promising futures – if we make sure to provide the appropriate resources.

 

  1. Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). I felt like my heart was staying behind: Psychological implications of family separations & reunifications for immigrant youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26(2), 222–257. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558410376830
  2. Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology, 50(6), 1771–1787. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036424
  3. Motti-Stefanidi, F., & Masten, A. S. (2013). School success and school engagement of immigrant children and adolescents: A risk and resilience developmental perspective. European Psychologist, 18(2), 126–135.

The (non) truths of the immigrant experience.

It would be easy to explain immigrants’ experiences of integrating into the United States using a one-size-fits-all model. Would it simplify our discussions? Would it streamline legislation? Maybe. But in addition, it would also be foolish. The truth is that acculturation (the changes a person goes through when they interact with a culture different from their own) is multidimensional and varies greatly1. Acculturation of immigrants differ based on the individual, their access to quality education, their authorization status, their generation, and resiliency, among other things2 3 4 5. In this post, I hope to explore and unwrap the complex and non-standardized process of acculturation.

Speaking ‘American’?

One dimension of acculturation that comes up often is learning the language of your new country. The rhetoric of ‘immigrants should speak American’ is alive and well in contemporary times. People who speak different languages are harassed in public spaces and accused of assisting in the demise of the English language and American culture (which actually don’t go hand in hand, as the U.S. does not have an official language).  Politicians (on either side of the aisle) don’t hesitate to emphasize the need for immigrants to learn English. Whether people are supporting or demonizing immigrants, there seems to be a link between learning English and assimilating in the ‘right’ way.

This sentiment is not only enacted by native-born Americas. In fact, almost all immigrant students in one study indicated that learning English was extremely important to assimilating into the United States3. In addition to acknowledging that learning English was important, they also viewed the process of learning it favorably3. If this is true, then why do some Americans feel the need to inform immigrants to speak English? An unfortunate truth is that having a positive attitude towards learning a new language doesn’t mean the process will be easier3. What do help are effective language-education programs. Just like acculturation in general, bilingualism is not a simple and objective concept. In that same study, language acquisition programs were examined and researchers concluded that dual immersion programs were best for learning English3. So, when bias-motivated racist individuals want to accost and blame individual immigrants for not speaking ‘American’, they may need to turn their scrutiny around at the educational aid the United States school system offers to immigrant youth or the social services or community programming offered to adults. English may lead to easier acculturation, but good programming leads to better acquisition of English.

Documentation status and barriers.

Another factor that feeds this theme that acculturation is a multidimensional and complicated process is authorization status. For unauthorized immigrants, certain routes to acculturation, and milestones towards American adulthood, are inaccessible. Unauthorized immigrants, whose numbers have significantly increased over the past decade, do not all have the same experience and families may have members with different statuses2. When it comes to engaging in American culture and society, lack of authorization prevents certain activities, like voting, driving, going to college, and getting a job2. Additionally, the fear of deportation of oneself of one’s family is present2. The interaction of documentation status and various social and cultural systems theoretically leads to negative developmental outcomes2. So, while native-born Americans push the importance of assimilation, they are ignoring the barriers of institutional, economic, and cultural contexts that exist for almost one-fourth of all immigrants2. Programs like DACA may serve as a route out from this limbo that unauthorized youth are stuck in. Even if people support unauthorized immigrants being brought out from the shadows and taking their place in line for citizenship, it’s not always that easy.

Generational gaps and resiliency.

One of the last factors I will discuss regarding the intricate and complex process of acculturation is something researchers call the immigrant paradox. The paradox is that second-generation immigrants (children of first-generation immigrants that came to the United States) have worse developmental outcomes and have less success than their parents4 5. To complicate this more, this may be due to the process of acculturation itself5. One proposed theory is that while first-generation immigrants self-select and have the drive to succeed in a new country as immigrants, their children are not guaranteed to have that same success5. They did not choose to be immigrants. Despite the risk factors, a model of resiliency is possibly more important4. While people may continue to spew misinformed or hateful rhetoric about immigrants and their influence and integration to the United States, one thing that’s for sure is that immigrants are resilient and should be studied in a model that reflects this.

Acculturation is complicated, non-linear, and subjective. Whether it is learning a language, reaching educational and cultural milestones, or achieving success in a new country and culture, acculturation is not a one-size-fits-all concept. And it certainly won’t be one any time soon.

 

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  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. 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

How developmental psychology can help.

Examining immigration holistically – while piecing it apart.

Information about immigration is everywhere, whether you welcome it or not. From hot button and emotion-evoking topics like family separation and detention to the hyperbolic promises made by Donald Trump regarding a wall between the United States and Mexico. There are many opinions and many sides. It is easy to utilize the plight of immigrants as a political bargaining chip; the United States has done so for many decades. Attitudes towards immigrants vary and may be passed down through generation, transmitted from parent to child1. But, what happens when we return to the root of this wedge issue and realize that immigrants are humans- constantly developing humans. They are children, young adults, adults, and elderly who chose to emigrate from their heritage country and establish a life in the United States. It is dangerous not to know what all immigrants face. It is also dangerous to assume every experience is the same.

Every person that settles in a new country has a different story, a different future, and different characteristics that make up their immigrant experience.  Race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexuality are just a few things that negotiate people’s experiences and identities. Let us turn to developmental psychology for a few suggestions on how to best aid the people that cultivate greatness in this country.

A holistic lens.

There are broad challenges and processes that almost all immigrants must face. Immigrants go through acculturation, which is the merging of the culture from one’s home country and their new culture2. Immigrants are oftentimes more resilient in the face of adversity3. In popular media, we have seen examples of this resilience come out of the horrors of child detention and troubles at the border or the strength of immigrant communities despite political oppression. Immigrants are strong. This isn’t to say they don’t need systematic and interpersonal support. Studies have shown that immigrant children develop better when they are near familial and parental support4. Attitudes towards immigrants also improve via inter-group friendships and exposure to immigrants5. Additionally, as mentioned above, parents have a substantial role in the way their children perceive immigrants1. If we choose to raise children in this world, why not try to educate and rid ourselves of bias? Your children will be affected, whether you realize it or not.

Piecing it apart.

While there are many broad suggestions and processes that can be applied to immigrants and their experiences as a whole, we must avoid lumping all 43.7 million first and second-generation immigrants in this country together. Developmental psychology has offered several models for examining the human experience. The two models used to study immigrant lives incorporate a multilayered and reciprocal approach4 6. That’s to say they don’t discount things like race, experiences of discrimination, gender, the neighborhood, education, and healthcare system they exist in. These models also take into account the indirect processes that affect their daily lives, such as the relationships with parents and teachers.

With these models, we should be starting to understand that with many factors and forces affecting a single person, human experience is not homogenous. So, neither is the more specific immigrant experience. This hopefully will help with the other trap we sometimes fall into: assuming all immigrants are the same. Unfortunately, the current political climate has fostered attitudes that believe immigrants are infiltrating the United States and stealing jobs, corrupting values, and even committing crimes at a higher rate (not true, obviously).  About 1.9 million immigrants come to the United States each year. It is absurd to think they all fit into one category. According to research, something called ‘context of reception’ has a great effect of immigrants’ ability to successfully integrate into their new country2. The way immigrants are received – oftentimes based on their accents, country of origin, socioeconomic status, and race – matters! So what can we do? If American is striving to be great, we must embrace, accept, and promote the developmental health of immigrants in this country. Development is life-long. We must educate ourselves on the overarching challenges that all immigrants face, then work to view each experience as unique and individual, piecing it apart.

 

Looking for some organizations to get involved? Check these ones out. 

 

References

  1. Gniewosz, B., & Noack, P. (2015). Parental influences on adolescents’ negative attitudes toward immigrants. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(9), 1787-1802. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-05-0291-3
  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. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Journal of Latina/O Psychology, 1(3), 133–148. https://doi.org/10.1037/lat0000001
  4. Bronfenbrenner, U. (2000). Ecological systems theory. In A. E. Kazdin & A. E. Kazdin (Ed) (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 3. (pp. 129–133). Washington, DC, US; New York, NY, US: American Psychological Association.
  5. Zalk, M. H. W., & Kerr, M. (2014). Developmental trajectories of prejudice and tolerance toward immigrants from early to late adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(10), 1658–1671. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-014-0164-1
  6. García Coll, C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., McAdoo, H. P., Crnic, K., Wasik, B. H., & Garcia, H. V. (1996). An integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children. Child Development, 67(5), 1891–1914. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131600

Kara’s Bio

Hello, hello! I’m Kara, a Senior Psychology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies double major from the Philadelphia area. I like to play sports, watch football and basketball, draw and paint, hike, write, sing in an acapella group here on campus, and hang out with other lovely Dickinsonians. My guilty pleasures include reality TV and Cheeze-its. I was abroad last Fall in Queensland, Australia and hope to be returning someday (I think I found my happy place).  Academically, I’m interested in masculinity, sexuality, athletics, and intimacy and I’m currently conducting independent research on said topics with a qualitative interview study using college men who play contact varsity sports.