One in five children in the United States today has an immigrant parent. This diverse group of kids, 'tweens, and teens yields enormous transformational power that will touch every community, business and individual in the 21st century. However, the immense potential of this new generation to change American society, for better or for worse, is still unmatched by our level of understanding. What do we know about how immigrant children are becoming American, and how do we know it?
Some surprising answers to this question have emerged from the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), an in-depth research project that is following the fortunes of 5,262 teenagers and their parents representing 77 nationalities, primarily based in San Diego, California, and in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Already the source of inspiration for two companion volumes by Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Legacies (2001) and Ethnicities (2001), CILS provides data on the same cohort of youth followed over time. Half of the youth surveyed immigrated to the U.S. before age 12, and the other half were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. (In about 10 percent of cases one of the parents was born in the U.S., and the other abroad.)
By collecting information on these students, first in 1992 during their 8th and 9th grades and again in 1995-1996 as they completed high school, CILS penetrates various aspects of these children's life experiences, including their patterns of acculturation, family and school life, language, identity, experiences of discrimination, self-esteem, ambitions and achievements.
The education results are especially revealing, given that children and adolescents spend more time in school than in any other setting outside their home. In this sense, American schools serve as quintessential agents of acculturation for children of immigrants.
Although these students, primarily from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, display wide variations by national origin in terms of their vulnerabilities and resources, broad trends have emerged, some of which challenge popular beliefs. Consider:
Greater School Retention: Fewer children from immigrant families drop out of school compared to all students from the same school districts. The multi-year dropout rate for grades 9 to 12 in the Miami-Dade public schools was 17.6 percent -- almost double the rate of 8.9 percent for the CILS sample of children. In San Diego, the dropout rate for grades 9 to 12 was 16.2 percent, nearly triple the rate of 5.7 percent for the CILS sample.
Waning Foreign Language Capacity: Over the period of the survey, teens reported much greater levels of fluency in English than in the parental language. The CILS data vividly underscore the rapidity with which English triumphs and foreign languages atrophy among children of immigrants in the U.S., rebutting concerns about the perpetuation of foreign-language enclaves in immigrant communities. Rather than posing a threat to the dominance of English, what is being eliminated rapidly is the ability of these children to maintain fluency in the language of their immigrant parents, a significant loss of scarce and valuable bilingual resources for individuals and for the U.S. in an increasingly global economy.
However, there were notable exceptions to the rule of waning foreign language capacity -- principally among those who attended private bilingual schools in the Miami area. Children in this group, which made up about 15 percent of the South Florida sample, actually showed an improved level of Spanish competency between 1992 and 1995-96. This improvement was especially clear with regard to their ability to read and write in the foreign language, supporting the "use it or lose it" theory of language retention.
Education as an Enduring Value: Almost universally, these children valued a good education. Some 90 percent consider it very important -- more so than any other value about which they were surveyed. Some 85 percent deemed becoming an expert in one's field "very important." Only 41 percent valued "having lots of money."
Differing Patterns of Achievement: As a whole, children of immigrants generally outperform their native peers in their grade point averages. Yet, there are very large differences by national origin -- results which portend a significant ethnic segmentation of the socioeconomic trajectories of these children. Chinese students on both coasts finished high school with by far the highest average grades and the lowest dropout rates. They were followed by other Asian-origin immigrant groups -- Indians, Japanese, and Koreans, then Vietnamese, Filipinos, Lao, and Cambodians. Jamaicans and other West Indians had lower grade point averages -- and the Haitians had much lower still -- but their dropout rates clustered around the CILS average. Overall, Latin American children performed the weakest, with the lowest grade averages found among Dominicans. Unexpectedly, the highest dropout rates were among the Cuban youth in Miami public schools, followed by Nicaraguans in Miami, and Mexican-origin youth in San Diego.
Higher Education Aspirations and Expectations: Sixty-seven percent of the students aspired to an advanced degree, an ambition that remained relatively unchanged between the two time periods. Forty-four percent of the students "realistically" expected to attain it.
On a more sobering note, some of the young people surveyed by CILS may have held quite unrealistic aspirations and expectations. The sample includes children in families with the highest poverty rates in the U.S., including the Hmong, Lao and Cambodians, alongside families of affluent upper middle-class professionals (including Filipinos and certain other Asian groups in San Diego, and Cubans in Miami).
Despite the fact that for the sample as a whole, 44 percent expressed "realistic" expectations of achieving an advanced degree, there was a huge spread in this regard (ranging from only six percent of the Hmong in California to 75 percent of the Cubans attending private schools in Miami). The numbers reflect varying financial and class circumstances. The data CILS is now gathering will show to what extent their dreams were unfounded.
Important Parental Expectations: Eighty-five percent of children who perceived that their parents wanted them to obtain an advanced degree aspired to do so, and 58 percent realistically expected to achieve that goal. Of those students who perceived that their parents did not expect them to graduate from college, only 29 percent aspired to an advanced degree while only 15 percent expected to earn that degree.
Despite the complex circumstances of these children that add to the common stressors of adolescence, the overall picture that emerges from this study is one of noteworthy achievements, not of an immigrant underclass. What remains to be seen is whether this picture can be sustained as these young people make their way into the adult worlds of work and family. To that end, the study has been following them since the mid-1990s.
Another round of findings from CILS is expected in late 2002. Today, a year into a third round of surveys that will continue into August, the group under the magnifying glass has mostly reached the age of 25-26, and many of them have been located not only in California and Florida but across the United States. The latest data will confirm, in several important respects, whose fortunes are falling, and whose are rising, in this group of twentysomethings. Until more information is released, read more about Legacies and Ethnicities, the continuations of the Portes and Rumbaut research effort.