E.g., 06/07/2023
E.g., 06/07/2023
The Second Generation in Early Adulthood: New Findings from the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study

The Second Generation in Early Adulthood: New Findings from the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study

During the last four decades, a large new "second generation" formed by children of immigrants born in the United States or brought at an early age from abroad has emerged. Most of its members are still in school, but many entered adulthood during the 1990s and the first years of this century.

According to data from the 2005 Current Population Survey (CPS), that mushrooming post-1960 population already totaled more than 30 million people, including over a quarter of all immigrants in the United States who arrived as children under 13 (a "1.5" generation totaling more than 9 million), and another 21 million born in the United States since the 1960s who had either one or two foreign-born parents (see Table 1).

The median ages of virtually all of those U.S.-born children of immigrants from Latin America and Asia range between 9 and 13 years old. In other words, they consist still largely of children. But as their presence is already being felt in the nation's public schools today, it will be felt increasingly tomorrow in higher education, in labor markets, and at the ballot box.

The 2000 Census, like its predecessors in 1980 and 1990, omitted questions about the nationality of parents, thus preventing a full description of the size and characteristics of today's second generation. CPS, although it contains questions on ancestry and country of birth, does not collect data on language use or proficiency. The survey does not provide a large enough sample to analyze smaller immigrant populations, or to make comparisons based on national origin and generational cohorts in particular metropolitan areas. However, combining data from more than one survey year can make some analyses and comparisons possible.

The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS)

The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), a decade-long panel survey conducted in San Diego, California, and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was designed to accomplish what government data alone cannot do: examine in-depth the interaction between immigrant parents and children and the evolution of the young from adolescence into early adulthood in these two metropolitan areas of immigrant concentration.

In total, 5,262 students took part in the first CILS survey in 1992 when they were in the 8th and 9th grades. With an average age of 14, they represented 77 different nationalities: Cubans, Haitians, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and Jamaicans in Florida, and Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodians, and Laotians in California. Jointly, the largest nine nationalities in the CILS sample represented over three-fourths of total immigration to the United States during the 1990s.

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The group was surveyed again in 1995-1996 as they completed high school (with 81.5 percent responding). At the same time, more than 2,400 separate, face-to-face interviews were conducted with their immigrant parents in both regions, obtaining detailed information on their backgrounds, present socioeconomic situation, and outlooks for the future (see Table 2 for some of the results of these 1995-1996 parental interviews).

The most recent survey took place in 2001-2003, by which time respondents had reached an average age of 24 (ranging from 23 to 27 years old). While most still resided in Southern California and South Florida, the rest were located in more than 30 states and even in military bases overseas. This survey retrieved data on 3,564 original respondents, representing 84 percent of the 1995-1996 group. In 2002-2003, 55 in-depth, open-ended interviews were additionally conducted with members of the CILS sample living in the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale metropolitan area, and with 134 respondents living in the San Diego area and elsewhere in California.

Results from the third survey represent the most compelling current evidence of how the adaptation of the second generation actually occurs. Such outcomes comprise educational attainment, language proficiency and preference, family incomes, employment and unemployment, marriage and parenthood, religion, and arrests and incarceration.

The results are broken down by major nationalities because of the wide differences among them. These differences, which show remarkable continuity from those observed in the two previous surveys taken during the adolescent years, demonstrate the resilient influence of parental human capital — meaning the skills and education of the parents — along with family structure and how the parents are incorporated into their communities.

The parents' "modes of incorporation" are defined by (1) the availability of official resettlement assistance for some groups; (2) legal entry but no assistance and a generally neutral reception for others; and (3) high levels of racial prejudice against certain immigrants, combined with governmental hostility toward groups regarded as sources of illegal immigration.

While actual modes of incorporation vary across families and over time, the relevant column in Table 2 provides a summary measure (positive, neutral, negative) of the actual contexts encountered by different nationalities in the mid-1990s.

Educational Attainment

In Southern California, as shown in the first columns of Table 3, the greatest educational disadvantage is found among children of Mexican immigrants and Laotian and Cambodian refugees.

By their mid-20s, these groups had achieved less than 14 years of education on average and close to 40 percent failed to go beyond a high school diploma. These results are far worse than those found in the South Florida groups and reflect the difficulties faced by children coming from families with very low levels of human capital.

A positive governmental context of reception for Cambodian and Laotian refugees did not suffice to lift their second generation to a position of educational advantage. In fact, the proportion of children who achieved no more than a high school education is about the same as among their parents (as shown previously in Table 2).

In the case of Mexican youths, low levels of parental human capital, combined with a negative mode of incorporation — that is, with a history of exploitation and discrimination, a high proportion of undocumented immigrants, and the prevalence of negative stereotypes — produced high rates of school abandonment and low mean levels of academic attainment. However, in this case, the proportion that did not complete high school is only about half the figure among their parents.

This and other results indicate that Mexican-American young men and women have made considerable progress relative to the adult first generation. However, having started from such a position of disadvantage, they still could not match the educational attainment of other second-generation or native-parentage youths (see Table 3).

At the other end, the combination of high parental human capital, a high proportion of intact families, and a neutral context of reception (as defined above), led second-generation Chinese and other Asians to extraordinary levels of educational achievement, only matched in South Florida by the offspring of upper-middle-class Cuban exiles who attended private schools. Vietnamese youths also did quite well despite low average levels of parental education.

In South Florida, all nationalities in the CILS sample managed to complete an average of 14 years of education or two years past high school graduation. Since 50 percent of the sample is still enrolled in college or vocational schools, this average can be expected to increase over time.

While variations among nationalities in average education are minor, those pertaining to school abandonment or lack of post-high school education are not. Just five percent of this sample dropped out of high school, but one-fifth quit after completing it.

Those who failed to pursue their studies range from a low of 7.5 percent among children of upper-middle-class Cuban families (those who had graduated from private high schools) to a high of 26 percent among Nicaraguans. As Table 3 shows, Cuban children who attended public schools had much lower levels of educational attainment than their more privileged compatriots.

Importantly, the two black immigrant minorities in South Florida, Haitians and West Indians, were not particularly disadvantaged in this dimension. Thus, despite below-average academic performance during high school, 85 percent of Haitian children managed to graduate, and their mean educational attainment is only slightly below the sample average.

These results reproduce, in all the basics, those observed earlier on, showing both the importance of early academic performance and of national differences in modes of incorporation on educational achievement.

Language Preference and Proficiency

Language is a fundamental part of the adaptation process and, in this respect, the assimilative power of American society is overwhelming. Two-thirds of second-generation youths in both California and Florida indicated that they prefer to speak English only (see Table 3).

The bilingual alternative, speaking English and another language, was endorsed by a substantial number, including the young adult children of Mexicans (56 percent), Laotians and Cambodians (53 percent), and Vietnamese (43 percent). The two categories combined (English only and English plus another language) exceed 97 percent, leaving those choosing a foreign language as a tiny minority (less than 3 percent).

A different pattern emerges, however, when respondents are asked in what language they would like to raise their own children. In this case, 68 percent of youths in California and 82 percent of those in Miami indicated a preference for bilingualism. Whether that preference can be fulfilled and they can successfully raise a bilingual third generation —the grandchildren of the adults who immigrated to the United States — remains to be seen.

Still, second-generation adults understand the benefits of bilingualism, even if only a minority has opted to sustain it themselves. Exceptions are children of West Indian and Filipino immigrants, a majority of whom prefer to raise their offspring as English monolinguals. The result is not surprising since English is the predominant or official language in those countries.

Family Incomes

Family incomes only partially reflect respondents' personal earnings, since the majority of these youths still lives with their parents; the reported figures in Table 3 are the sum of parents' and children's incomes. Still, these figures are important because they indicate that, on average, children of immigrants in South Florida live in relatively comfortable economic circumstances. Since parents generally help their offspring whey they become independent, this favorable situation may be expected to continue in the future.

Seen from this perspective, national differences in family income are quite important. At one end of the spectrum are children of upper-middle-class Cuban exiles who, according to the last CILS survey, enjoy a median family income of $70,395 per year compared with $26,974 for Haitian-American families. These figures can be compared with the median household income for the overall population of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale in 2000, $38,362.

While 46.5 percent of Cubans who went to private school and 25.2 percent of those who attended public schools have incomes over $75,000, only 11.5 percent of West Indians and just 4.9 percent of Haitians do. The two mostly black groups concentrate in the bottom income categories, with about one-third receiving annual incomes of less than $20,000. This is particularly noteworthy since, as seen in Table 3, most of these youths did manage to graduate from high school and achieve at least average levels of education.

In California, average second-generation family incomes are lower than those in South Florida, but the sample contains the "richest" nationality among all major immigrant groups considered — Filipino Americans, whose average family income is over $64,000 per year. They are followed by Chinese Americans and other Asians (primarily Korean Americans).

At the other end are the same groups that lagged behind in education. The very low incomes of Mexican-American families (the median annual income is just over $30,000) reflect again the many handicaps faced by both parents and their young adult children. The still lower figures for Laotians and Cambodians (the median annual family income is just over $25,000) reinforce the conclusion that governmental assistance did not suffice to lift these groups out of poverty.

Only six percent of Mexicans and only eight percent of Laotians and Cambodians have family incomes above $75,000, reproducing the situation of the most disadvantaged second-generation youths in South Florida.


Figures on unemployment range greatly: three percent or less among Chinese, Colombians, and private-school Cubans; almost 10 percent among West Indians, Laotians, and Cambodians; 14 percent among Vietnamese; and 17 percent among Haitians.

To put these figures into perspective, they can be compared with the 4.3 percent unemployment rate among the working-age population of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale in 2000, and an even lower rate of 3.0 percent in San Diego County in 2000.

Again, it is significant that high unemployment rates are found among children of black immigrants in South Florida, despite their relatively high educational achievement.

Marriage and Parenthood

The dictum that the "rich get richer and the poor get children" is well supported by the results of the 2002-2003 CILS survey. Only three percent of upper-middle-class Cuban Americans had children by early adulthood, while none of the Chinese Americans had children at the time of the survey (when they were 24 years old on average).

The rate then rises to about 10 percent for second-generation Vietnamese; over 15 percent for Colombians, public-school Cubans, and Filipinos; 25 percent for Haitians, West Indians, and Laotians and Cambodians; and a remarkable 41 percent among Mexicans.

Thus second-generation groups with the lowest average education and incomes are those most burdened, in their transitions to adulthood, by the need to support children at an early age. The overall picture is compelling, pointing toward the cumulative effects of structural disadvantages in the first generation.

Arrests and Incarceration

Still more telling are differences in rates of arrest and incarceration (shown in Table 3). Compared with an arrest rate of 6.4 percent among persons 18 and over in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and a crime index of 7.6 percent for this metropolitan area in 2000, only three percent of Cubans who attended private schools were incarcerated during the preceding six years. The figure then climbs steadily to six percent among public school Cubans and Colombians, seven percent among Haitians, and 8.5 percent among West Indians.

The highest and lowest rates of incarceration are found in California: exactly zero percent of Chinese Americans compared with 11 percent of Mexican Americans. Second-generation Laotians and Cambodians are not particularly high in these statistics, indicating that their poverty does not lead to confrontations with the legal system as often as some other groups.

Predictably, differences among males are still wider. Those incarcerated for a crime range from three percent among private-school Cubans to about 10 percent of Laotians and Cambodians and of other Latin groups in Miami, and up to 20 percent among second-generation Mexicans and West Indians. To put this last figure in perspective, it can be compared with the nationwide proportion of African-American males currently incarcerated by age 40: 26.6 percent. With an additional 16 years to go, on average, before they reach 40, it is possible that males from these two groups may catch up or exceed that figure.

Thus, in South Florida, no less than 10 percent and up to 20 percent of black second-generation youths live in poverty, are unemployed, and have already been in jail or on probation. In California, the same fate is suffered by Mexican Americans and, to a lesser extent, by children of Cambodian and Laotian refugees. The fact that Mexican Americans are, by far, the nation's largest second-generation minority adds to the weight carried by these figures.


By and large, despite their diversity of class and national origins, members of the new second generation in South Florida and Southern California are doing well: performing better academically than their native-parentage peers, graduating from high school and going on to college (where many are still enrolled), speaking accentless English, working hard at their first jobs, taking steps toward independent entrepreneurship, and beginning to form families of their own.

Optimistically, children of families with practically no money and little or no human capital can move forward, riding on their own determination and the support of their families or communities. A number of success stories from the CILS survey were grounded far more on social capital than on the education and economic resources of parents. Even the most alarming statistics — those concerning incarceration — show that 90 percent of second-generation males have managed to stay clear of that path.

However, this overall positive picture should not obscure the challenges faced by many second-generation young adults and the anomalies in their processes of adaptation. A sizable segment — a minority found mostly among the children of Mexican, Haitian, and West Indian immigrants — is being left behind. Young adults caught in a cycle of menial jobs, low incomes, early childbearing, and frequent confrontations with law enforcement face immense obstacles for the future, reinforcing the same racial and ethnic stereotypes that helped contribute to their situation in the first place.

Expert outside assistance can help young at-risk persons avoid this course. Second-generation youths at risk of such downward assimilation deserve special attention and support. There is a reservoir of hope and ambition in them that can be readily tapped. "I'm so close to success, I can almost taste it," remarked a CILS respondent in Miami, despite having been in jail twice and having taken only the first fledgling steps toward independent entrepreneurship.

It may still be possible to overcome the worst effects of such downward trajectories by drawing on external support, a resilient drive, and role models provided by those second-generation youths who, like many in CILS, have managed to overcome the challenges of poverty and discrimination to carve a place in the sun for themselves.

This article is based on chapter 8 of Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, new 3rd edition (University of California Press, 2006); and on the latest results from the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, which was carried out with the support of research grants from the Russell Sage Foundation.

For more on the latest results of the CILS study, see the November 2005 edition of Ethnic and Racial Studies (Vol. 28, No.6), a special issue edited by Portes and Rumbaut on "The Second Generation in Early Adulthood."