The children of immigrants overwhelmingly prefer English to their parents’ native tongues and have higher grades and lower school dropout rates than other American children, according to the largest survey ever conducted of immigrants’ offspring, who now account for almost one in five American children.
While a majority of survey respondents, who were predominantly Latino, Asian and black adolescents, said they had personally experienced discrimination, an even larger majority said they still believed that the United States is the best country in the world to live in.
The lead researchers on the study describe these findings as reassuring indications that the children of immigrants are unlikely to form a new multiethnic underclass, as some experts fear, cut off from the mainstream by academic failure and an inability to speak English.
But the researchers say it is an open question how well these young people will do in college and the job market, a caution shared by other experts.
The researchers said the survey brought into sharp relief the extraordinary diversity of the children of immigrants, not only by national origin, but by social class. It reaches from the offspring of Chinese and Indian couples from highly educated, upper-middle-class backgrounds to Mexicans and Dominicans from the humblest origins.
“What can certainly be predicted now is that the destinies of these youths will diverge,” said sociology Professor Ruben Rumbaut of Michigan State University. “Some will go up and some will go down.”
Educators and students in San Jose were not surprised by the survey.
Daisy Nguyen, a ninth-grader at Silver Creek High School, said children of immigrants are more likely to work hard because they are less likely to grow up in economic comfort. They see education as their best chance at achieving a better standard of living.
“They see how their parents have struggled,” said Daisy, whose parents came to the United States from Vietnam with just $20 in their pockets. “It inspires them to take advantage of their education.”
Dax Bryson is principal of J.W. Fair Middle School, where 55 percent of the students are Latino and 33 percent are Asian. A substantial number, he said, are children of immigrants.
“A lot of them have very hard stories, a lot of them live in very crowded apartments,” Bryson said. “Yet these kids come to school and make excellent grades and study very hard.”
A lucky break
Carolyn Tran, a ninth-grader at Silver Creek, said she and her Vietnamese friends feel lucky to be living in the United States. If she were in Vietnam, Tran said, she probably would have had to start working very young and never would have finished school.
But Junior Seranillo, whose parents came to the United States from the Philippines, cautioned that not all children of immigrants thrive here.
“They get in trouble, too,” he said. “Some of them just don’t care.”
The survey, which shows that the children of immigrants outperform their American peers and that those from more advantaged backgrounds do better than poorer children, will inevitably become fodder for the larger debate about immigration policy.
Supporters of the current high levels of immigration will cite the achievements of these young people, while critics may find reinforcement for their view that national policy should be tilted to favor more highly skilled and educated immigrants.
The research team, led by Rumbaut and Professor Alejandro Portes, a sociologist at Princeton University, first interviewed 5,200 youngsters in Southern California and South Florida in 1992 when the youths were in the eighth or ninth grades, and then tracked down 82 percent of them for a second interview in 1995 and 1996, when most were high school seniors.
The number of children who are either immigrants or the American-born offspring of immigrants grew to 13.7 million last year, from 8 million in 1990, making them the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population under the age of 18, according to a new analysis of census data by Rumbaut.
The $1 million survey of the children of immigrants was financed by the Russell Sage, Andrew W. Mellon, Spencer and National Science foundations. The researchers provided their findings to the New York Times.
Spanish at home
Among the most striking findings of the bicoastal survey of children from San Diego and Dade and Broward counties in South Florida have to do with the contentious issue of language. While nine out of 10 of the youths surveyed spoke a language other than English at home, almost exactly the same proportion, 88 percent, preferred English by the end of high school.
Rumbaut pointed to the ascendancy of English as evidence of the irrelevance of the June California ballot initiative Proposition 227 to end bilingual education, which has been depicted as an impediment to the acquisition of English. “English is triumphing with breathtaking rapidity,” he said.
When the researchers analyzed how the children of immigrants were faring by national origin, they found that levels of scholastic success diverged sharply. Generally, children whose immigrant parents had better educations and jobs and who came from stable, two-parent families were more successful, with a few startling exceptions.
Among those exceptions were the children of Southeast Asian refugees, who came from the most impoverished backgrounds and whose parents were among the least educated. Those children were among the least likely to drop out of school and had above-average grades, largely because they studied more and watched television less than many of the other children of immigrants, the study found.