As the proportion of our nation’s children of immigrant origins increases, new research is essential to understand and intervene in shifting patterns of disparity.

Over 40 million (approximately 12.5 percent) of people residing in this country are foreign born, and 25 percent of children under the age of 18, a total of 18.7 million children, have an immigrant parent. And while many immigrant-origin youth successfully acclimate to their new land, faring as well as or even better than their native same-ethnicity peers, others face significant challenges in their educational and psychosocial adaptation. Most at risk are youth at the intersection of multiple types of disadvantage, namely low parent education and employment, poverty, newcomer status, language barriers, racialization, and undocumented status.

In Intersecting Inequalities: Research to Reduce Inequality for Immigrant-Origin Children and Youth Carola Suárez-Orozco and colleagues explore how inequality plays out along these six dimensions of disadvantage particular to immigrant-origin families, outline how developments in educational and family contexts can alleviate unequal outcomes and opportunities, and introduce four broad areas of future research that may inform policies, programs, and practices to reduce inequality for immigrant-origin children and youth.

Summary and Key Findings

  • Over 40 million people in the U.S. are foreign born, and over 18 million children have an immigrant parent. These populations are growing rapidly amid rising social and economic inequality.
  • Immigrant groups represent some of the most and least advantaged groups in the U.S. in terms of skills, education, and assets.
  • As the proportion of our nation’s children of immigrant origins increases, new research is essential to understand and intervene in shifting patterns of disparity.

Intersecting Sources of Inequality for Immigrant-Origin Children and Youth
  1. Pre-migration and post-migration circumstances (i.e., starting points and contexts for development) affect outcomes for immigrant-origin youth.
  2. An “intersectional” perspective takes into account marginalization according to a combination of social categories.
  3. Some of these intersections (education and poverty, for instance) are correlated, but, to the extent that circumstances pre- and post-migration may change, it’s useful to consider them separately. For instance, a parent who is highly educated pre-migration may suffer a decline in employment post-migration.
  4. Especially at risk for disadvantage are those youth at the intersection of the following dimensions:
  • Low Parent Education and Employment:
    There is wide variety in educational levels and employment conditions of parents of immigrant-origin youth, and these variations have tangible implications for children’s educational pathways.
  • Poverty:
    Even more so than low education and employment status, poverty has negative developmental and education implications for young people. During the recent recession, poverty among immigrant-origin youth grew from 22 percent to 31 percent, faster than the rate at which non-immigrant-origin youth grew. Well over 50 percent of children with immigrant parents live in low-income households, but these families are less likely than native-born poor to receive federal anti-poverty benefits.
  • Generation and Newcomer Status:
    One might assume that the longer an immigrant family is in the new country, the better they will do, but research shows that a number of factors (including racism and acculturation) present obstacles. First generation youth (born abroad), on average, live in poorer neighborhoods, but fare as well or sometimes better than second or third generation youth.
  • Racialization:
    89% of immigrants in the U.S. are from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, or the Caribbean. “Racialization” presents many obstacles, including workplace and housing discrimination, and physical and mental health tolls. “People of color” may be treated as “perpetual foreigners” for generations.
  • Language Barriers:
    81% of immigrant youth have parents who speak English and another language at home. Research has shown that dual-language learners have cognitive and social-emotional advantages over single-language children, but ELL students fare worse than non-ELL students in a variety of educational outcomes.
  • Undocumented Status:
    5.2 million US children live with at least one undocumented parent; 4.5 million of these children are US-born citizens. Children with undocumented parents make up one-third of all immigrant-origin youth. Evidence shows that undocumented status is associated with developmental vulnerabilities, including lower cognitive development and educational progress in children, and anxiety and depression in adolescents.

Contexts for Alleviating Inequality:
  • Improving Educational Contexts
    Immigrant parents often frame migration narratives in terms of offering better educational opportunities to their children. In the post-war years, educational opportunities usually allowed students to surpass their parents in educational attainment. In recent decades, though, these patterns have been reversed, resulting in rising inequality.

    How does this affect immigrant-origin youth, in particular? Future research should focus on English language instruction and assessment, socio-emotional supports in schools, state and federal education policy, and postsecondary access.

  • Enhancing Family Contexts
    There is limited evidence on how issues within the family context influence and predict inequality among immigrant-origin youth. But future research focused on anti-poverty programs, parental educational interventions, and overall greater inclusion in U.S. institutions can illuminate how these contexts may serve as levers for reducing disparities in outcomes and opportunities for immigrant families.

Priorities for Future Research:
  • Prioritize Research on Immigrant-Origin Youth Outcomes
    Data on immigrant background needs to be improved and should be more routinely collected, and studies focusing specifically on immigrant-origin youth, as opposed to adults, are needed to better understand development and outcomes. This research focus extends beyond education and into other domains of inequality, such as housing and the justice system.
  • Deepen and Broaden Research on Policies and Programs that Target Immigrants
    It’s important for research to examine the benefits and limitations of legislation and policies that are intended to improve undocumented families’ access to resources and participation in education, the labor market, and society as a whole.
  • Avoid a Deficit Framework in Inequality Research with Immigrant-Origin Children
    Rather than pursuing a model that focuses on deficits of immigrant groups, some scholars have focused on immigrants’ strengths that contribute to positive outcomes. The family contexts that lead to positive outcomes among immigrant-origin youth provide opportunities for researchers to discover new avenues for the development of programs and policies.
  • Conduct Research with Families of Immigrant-Origin Children
    Research on the employment of immigrant adults should be integrated with research on youth outcomes, and studies of workforce interventions should distinguish effects for immigrant vs. non-immigrant workers. Also, variations and changes in family structure that affect immigrant families, such as parent-child separation, divorce, and multi-generational families, should be studied in the context of how they affect youth outcomes.

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