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Immigrants and their children make up almost a quarter of the population of the United States today, with children of immigrants and immigrant children the fastest growing segment of the American population. Some fear that today’s newcomers, rather than assimilating into the mainstream, may form a new underclass and become a burden on the country. Of special concern are Mexican immigrants—who constitute the largest source of immigration to the United States—not only because many arrive with very low levels of education, but also because many enter the country without authorization.

In their volume of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,“Exceptional Outcomes: Achievement in Educalejandro-portes.199.146.sation and Employment among Children of Immigrants,” Patricia Fernández-Kelly and Alejandro Portes point out the daunting challenges facing children of immigrants but focus on a small group that has beaten the odds.  They look at why some manage to get advanced degrees and high-paying jobs and ask what their success can tell us about the kind of policies that might help more children of immigrants match their achievement.

Patricia Fernández-Kelly and Alejandro Portes sat down with Annals Executive Editor Phyllis Kaniss for an interview about the volume on February 23, 2009. In the interview, the co-editors described how the combination of a strict upbringing and an a “very significant other”—an outside adult influence—was found to allow children of poorly educated immigrants to succeed in graduating from college. They also pointed up that the government can do more to bolsterpatricia-fernandez-kelly.199.146.s the availability of these outside adult influences

“Supporting these programs and expanding them is within the realm of policy, and I think, from our findings, we can wager they would have a significant role in reducing the exceptionality of the cases that we interviewed,” Portes noted.

The volume is based on the on third survey of the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), which followed a large sample of second-generation minority youth – from early adolescence into adulthood. From those children, about 1,500 were identified as living in the most difficult level of circumstances: coming from single-parent homes in impoverished areas, with parents with low levels of education and humble occupations, and representing members of a group that was negatively stigmatized.

Of those 1,500 children, about 50 eventually graduated from a four-year university. More of the children ended up in prison than graduated from a university.

“Most people don’t realize how significant circumstance is in shaping the fates of children – not just immigrant children, but native-born children as well,” Fernández-Kelly said.  She pointed out that in such circumstances, parents are unlikely to be able to guide their children on the pathway to college.

“The parents tried as hard as they could, as most parents do, to instill in their children respect for education,” Fernández-Kelly said. “But because they had, themselves, very low levels of education and had endured harsh experience, they often could not guide their children in a way that would result in successful navigation of the hazardous waters of successful educational achievement.”

The parents of the children in the study often did not know how to help their child sign up to take the SAT, fill out college applications, or study for higher-level courses.

“The parents often made terrible mistakes,” Fernández-Kelly said.

But the parents of the 50 exceptional children who graduated from college did something right. They enforced a strict upbringing, not allowing their children to associate too much with others.

“I am not saying this is an ideal form of parenting,” Fernández-Kelly said. “But it is, in the case of impoverished families, one effective way to reduce the extent to which their children will fall prey to the lures of peer groups.”

In addition, these exceptional children benefited from the influence of a “very significant other,” like a teacher or guidance counselor, who had the knowledge to guide the children toward higher education.

This factor in influencing the educational outcomes of immigrant children can be changed by “policy intervention,” Fernández-Kelly and Portes concluded.

“This kind of external assistance may be expanded, perhaps by creating incentives for school personnel, for teachers and counselors, to stereotype less and to provide these opportunities,” Portes said.

Even in the current economic recession, Portes said he is hopeful that the government will pay more attention to the educational needs of the children of immigrants.

“Sometimes crises bring great opportunities,” he said. “If out of this stimulus there is serious investment in education and some of those stimulus dollars are put in the direction of supporting schools and supporting voluntary programs and creating jobs for people at that level, it may be that the situation will not be as tragic as it was.”


Alejandro Portes is professor of sociology at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton Center for Migration and Development and Patricia Fernández-Kelly holds a joint position in the Sociology Department and the Office of Population Research at Princeton.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.
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