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Children and Immigration Reform

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Recently, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill and President Obama has urged the House to do the same.  Such a measure would likely provide a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants.  The House is debating whether the possibility of citizenship might apply only to those who were brought illegally as children and not to those who crossed the border as adults, meaning parents might face a greater risk of deportation than their children.

Immigration reform would certainly affect many families, especially the 5 million children who have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.  As Future of Children authors Nancy S. Landale, Kevin J. A. Thomas, and Jennifer Van Hook write, the number of unauthorized immigrants arrested at workplaces has increased, and the children related to those who are arrested often experience family separation and material hardship.  If deportations increase, more children could find themselves in this situation.

Such experiences affect children's psychological well-being.  Children in families directly affected by immigration enforcement via workplace raids tend to feel abandonment, fear, social isolation, and anger.  Children and parents may also experience chronic stress.   To learn more about the challenges that immigrant children and their families face, along with pertinent policy recommendations, see the Future of Children issue on Immigrant Children.

College-Bound Children of Immigrants

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Though the nation's financial woes and other recent changes have left net Mexican migration to the US at around zero, past decades have seen rapid growth in the population of immigrants, including children and adolescents who are now approaching adulthood. Of the more than 68 million young adults in the US in 2010, about 30 percent were foreign-born or had foreign-born parents. Moreover, young adults made up about half of the estimated 11.6 million undocumented immigrants in 2008.

 

As these young people prepare to enter the labor market, those who are undocumented often experience greater adversity, even though many have grown up on US soil. Future of Children author Marcelo Suarez-Orozco tells NBC Latino that immigrant parents are motivated to offer their children better opportunities, but those who are undocumented are blocked from access to supports and services that children could benefit from. For example, Silvia Rodriguez, who immigrated to the US with her parents at age two, learned what it meant to be undocumented as she prepared for college. "When it came time to apply for scholarships and financial aid, that was the moment it really, really hit me," she said.

 

Future of Children authors Robert T. Teranishi, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco argue that increasing immigrant children's educational attainment and economic productivity should be a national priority and that community colleges are an important means to this goal. They suggest outreach programs to help prospective students learn about the application and financial aid processes. They also argue that researchers and community colleges should collaborate to find and implement the most effective strategies for intervention programs. For the latest research on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Immigrant Children and the Transition to Adulthood.

Hispanic Children in Poverty Exceed Whites

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According to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, "More Latino children are living in poverty--6.1 million in 2010--than children of any other racial or ethnic group. This marks the first time in U.S. history that the single largest group of poor children is not white. In 2010, 37.3% of poor children were Latino, 30.5% were white and 26.6% were black."

 

Prior to 2007, more white children lived in poverty than Hispanic children. But the Great Recession hit the Hispanic population particularly hard. Poverty rates between 2007 and 2010 increased by 36.3% for Hispanic children. Comparable rates during this time period for whites and blacks increased by 17.6% and 11.7%, respectively.

 

Of the 6.1 million Latino children living in poverty, more than two-thirds (4.1 million) are the children of immigrant parents. And, as noted in the Future of Children's Immigrant Children volume and policy brief, a substantial percentage of these children are falling behind in school.  More than 5 million, for example, struggle with their academic subjects because they are still learning English.

 

Evidence shows that three policy reforms -increased attendance in quality preschool, improved instruction in English, and increased attendance in postsecondary education -would improve the school achievement of Hispanic youth, lift their economic wellbeing as adults, and increase their economic and social contributions to American society.

 

Latin American immigrants arrive in the United States with a strong work ethic and strong family values. By the second generation, their work rates decline, their wage progress appears to slow, and both their nonmarital birth rates and their divorce rates rise. Finding ways to boost achievement and help more Latinos complete high school and attend and complete college or other postsecondary training should be high on the nation's list of priorities.

 

As Pew Center Associate Director Mark Hugo Lopez commented in the New York Times "Who [Hispanic children] become will be important for the future of the nation."

 

For more specific information about the Future of Children's recommendations for children of immigrant families, see our Immigrant Children volume.

Few Youths to be Deported in New Policy

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The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will suspend deportation proceedings against many illegal immigrants who pose no threat to national security or public safety, said the New York Times.

 

Senator Richard Durbin, the chief proponent of the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) in the Senate, believes that the new policy will stop the deportation of most illegal immigrants who came to the United States as young children, graduated from high school, and want to go to college or join the armed forces - those who would qualify for relief under the DREAM Act.

 

As explained in the Future of Children's Immigrant Children volume and policy brief,  the DREAM Act, first introduced in Congress in 2001, would give certain undocumented students the opportunity both to attend college and to become cit­izens by following a two-step process. The first step gives undocumented youth a conditional legal status that allows them to work or attend school without fear of deportation. To qualify, youth must be enrolled in a two-year or four-year college or in trade school, have a high school diploma or General Educational Development credential, have been in the United States continuously for at least five years, have good moral character, and meet a few other requirements. Then, in the second step, youth would have up to six years to apply to upgrade their status to legal per­manent resident (LPR), which in turn would allow them to apply for citizenship. To upgrade their status to LPR and eventually citizenship, immigrant youth would be required, among other things, to maintain good moral character and complete at least two years of college, trade school, or military service. During the second step, the youth would be eligible for fed­eral student loans and some other benefits, but not Pell grants (the major source of federal grant funds for low-income college students) or welfare benefits.

 

In 2010, the DREAM Act's most recent congressio­nal run, it passed the House but was defeated in the Senate, when supporters could not muster the sixty votes needed to end a filibuster. The major argu­ments against the act are that it would reward illegal behavior (unauthorized entry to the United States) by granting what opponents call "amnesty," allow "crimi­nal aliens" to become citizens, cost taxpayers money by allowing some federal and state funds to be spent on undocumented immigrants and thereby deprive some citizens of educational benefits, and allow aliens granted LPR status the right to bring their relatives to the United States. Opponents also argue that by rewarding unauthorized entry, the act would encour­age future illegal entry to the United States.

 

Perhaps the two strongest arguments in favor of the DREAM Act are that giving people a chance based on academic achievement and good behavior is the American way and that the act will help immigrant youth by boosting their education and will help the nation by allowing it to recoup the investments it has made in their K-12 education.

Under the new initiative outlined in the Times, the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, can provide relief, on a case-by-case basis, to young people who are in the country illegally but pose no threat to national security or to the public safety. Although not nearly as comprehensive as the DREAM Act or other legislative immigration reform, this policy could ease fears for undocumented immigrant youth who are pursuing productive education and employment, and contributing positively to the country's wellbeing, while also strengthening the country's focus on those illegal immigrants who pose real security threats.

Today the Washington Post highlighted the benefits of bilingualism for children. For parents, it is better to speak to young children in a native tongue than in a recently acquired language. Researchers who spoke at the Education Research Section's practitioners' conference, "Enhancing Practice for English Language Learners," which presented findings from the Future of Children's Immigrant Children volume, agreed.

 

As summarized in Melanie Wright's coverage of the event, in addition to noting that English literacy needs to be taught early and taught well, researchers recommended that schools also show respect for a child's native language and culture. One way to do this is by supporting the use of the native language at home. McGill University Professor Fred Genesee explained that this is not only important for socio-emotional development, but it is also important for enhancing second language acquisition. In fact, Genesee suggested that English language learners are actually able to learn English more quickly if they are literate in their native tongue. Instead of trying to get parents with limited English skills to speak English at home - which may hurt family communication - he recommended supporting their use of the native language in ways that push their children toward literacy. Multilingualism is a valuable asset that should be preserved and developed.

 

Second, the timing and quality of English language education was a non-controversial but oft-repeated theme. Princeton Professor Marta Tienda stressed the need for early English mastery in the opening talk, and RAND economist Lynn Karoly described linguistic and socioeconomic disadvantages that immigrant children face when they enter school. Both noted that intervention in the early years is both critical and achievable, as 78 percent of current English language learners are born in the United States. University of Texas Professor Rob Crosnoe stressed that the return on investment of teaching younger children is much higher, as building language skills becomes more difficult and costly with age and is less likely to result in fluency. While the need for quality education seems intuitive, speakers noted that many current approaches to teach English language learners miss the mark by assuming children "soak up language like a sponge." This, Genesee declared, is a myth.   

 

Third, speakers addressing professional development issues advocated making language learning a school goal rather than the purview of just English language learning teachers. To aid students, schools should integrate language education into their lessons, ensuring that students have the vocabulary and language skills needed for their content areas. Incorporating language themes into other school settings reinforces the lessons from English instruction. A key way to do this, according to Jennifer Himmel from the Center of Applied Linguistics, is to have teachers in "content areas" such as math and science set language goals for their students, something that can benefit the literacy development of native English speakers as well as those learning the language. Along with these recommendations, speakers also suggested ways to offer support and resources to the teaching community that can help them achieve these aims, from professional development to increasing collaboration between teachers and their administrations. Another component of fostering unity in a multilingual setting is reaching out to parents who may not speak English.

 

Finally, presenters addressed assessment issues. Professor Sandra Barrueco of the Catholic University of America stressed the importance of using multilingual measures that have been properly validated. She identified some frequent errors in the field (such as conducting one's own translation or selecting other language measures out of convenience, familiarity, or because they appear adequate in English) and explained how these potentially lead to negative consequences, including misdiagnosis, program defunding, or inappropriate policy decisions. She and other speakers also discussed assessment issues in the classroom and broader school contexts.

This outreach event followed the release of the Future of Children's latest volume, Immigrant Children, and was co-sponsored by the Future of Children and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

 

For more information about the conference as well as power point slides and videos, please visit http://www.futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/events/enhancing-practice-with-e/index.xml.

 

 

The Faces of Immigration

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On June 22, 2011, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote in the New York Times about his experience as an undocumented immigrant. Recently, NPR featured a 16 year-old rookie reporter who chronicled her experiences as an American citizen born to undocumented immigrant parents. Both stories put faces on the findings of a recent Future of Children Immigrant Children volume, which show that:

 

--Immigrant children, particularly those born to undocumented immigrant parents, are less likely to access key services such as early education and health care, than their native born peers.


--Performance of immigrant children in K-12 education varies by generational status and national origin. Immigrant youths, even some from economically disadvantaged families, often outperform their native peers in school. Poor parental education, poor-quality schools, and segregated neighborhoods, however, pose risk factors for immigrant children generally; and

--Barriers to postsecondary education are especially formidable for youth who lack legal status despite having attended U.S. elementary and secondary schools and having qualified for admission to college. Even when undocumented youth do attend college, they face substantial barriers to entering the workforce.

Nearly a quarter of schoolchildren in the United States are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Evidence shows that three policy reforms--increased attendance in quality preschool, improved instruction in English, and increased attendance in postsecondary education--would improve their school achievement, lift their economic well-being as adults, and increase their economic and social contributions to American society.

An Uneducated Underclass? Obama Revives Immigration Reform

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On April 20, the Future of Children and Brookings Institution hosted Immigrant Children Falling Behind: Implications and Policy Prescriptions, which highlighted key findings from the Future of Children's Immigrant Children volume, and engaged leaders from across the political spectrum in a debate about the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

 

The press picked up on one key warning following the event: that the United States will risk creating a new Hispanic underclass unless it improves immigrant children's access to and quality of education. One in five pupils comes from a Hispanic background, and among children in kindergarten, the figure is one in four.

 

In December 2010, the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrant students, passed in the House but was blocked by the Senate, after which it seemed it would lie dormant for the foreseeable future.

 

But on Tuesday, April 19th, President Obama met with immigration reform advocates from around the nation to talk about how to revive stalled efforts to fix the country's broken immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship for immigrant children.

 

At the Princeton-Brookings event the following day, proponents of the DREAM Act mentioned the economic benefits of giving those students who have proven to be assets to the country the ability to rise and contribute fully to the country's productivity. Opponents argued that providing a path to citizenship would encourage future migrants to enter the country illegally.

 

Both agreed that creating better incentives for legal immigration, continuing border enforcement, and providing children who come here illegally, but identify as Americans, a way to become citizens without creating incentives for illegal entry, could benefit the United States. Additionally, all agreed that a well-educated population was critical to the country's advancement and ability to compete in a global economy.

 

With so many divisive issues currently facing Congress, could immigration reform resurface as one of the few that has a middle ground?

 

If this happened in conjunction with continued (and potentially increased) support for education, the threat of a new underclass could be avoided. Not only that, but we might even capitalize on the many talents and abilities that children of immigrant families bring to our country.

 

To read more about Immigrant Children, read the journal online and view other articles and blogs featuring its findings.

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