Steinhardt Researchers Make Case for Keeping Children at Forefront of Immigration Debate

The recent book Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society (Harvard University Press) is the culmination of a five-year interdisciplinary study-the largest of its kind ever funded by the National Science Foundation’s cultural anthropology division. Co-authors Carola Suárez-Orozco, professor of applied psychology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, University Professor of Globalization and Education; and psychologist Irina Todorova, based the book on a once-in-a-generation comparative and longitudinal data set examining the characteristics of 400 newly arrived immigrant youth in the greater Boston and San Francisco areas.

Recognizing the important role formal education plays in easing or complicating the transition of immigrant youth, Professors Suárez-Orozco chose education as the lens through which to examine the experience of immigrant youth. Focusing on immigrants from China, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central America, the study relies on field-based triangulated data, collected and analyzed by a community of bicultural scholars working at major research universities including Harvard, NYU, the University of California at Berkeley, and others. We recently sat down with co-authors Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, as well as Cristina Rodriguez, an associate professor at NYU’s School of Law and an expert on immigration law and policy, to discuss the book and the current immigration debate.

Describe the genesis of your book. How did it come about? Why did you chose to focus on education as a lens for understanding immigration? Carola Suárez-Orozco: Immigrant children are the fastest growing sector of the child population of the United States, constituting 22 percent of the child population. By 2040 they are projected to be one-third of the child population. Yet we know very little about their development. So we were interested in trying to understand some predictors of their well-being. We studied 400 immigrant children who came from 5 different regions: China, Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. They were all new-comer children, aged nine to fourteen. We interviewed them and their parents, we did ethnographic observations, we collected grades and behavior checklists from their teachers, we collected data about their language skills and achievement tests. We interviewed them every year to see how they were doing over the course of time.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco: Historically, the U.S. has used the logic of the market to manage the transition of its immigrant population. One-hundred years ago, when we were experiencing another huge wave of large scale migration, probably 80 percent of the Irish and Italians of the Lower East Side never graduated from high school. That history is now anachronistic. In the twenty-first century, institutions will play a much more relevant role in the transition of our immigrant-origin population into the narrative of the nation. Moving forward, schooling is going to be the most important mechanism for the transition of immigrant origin children.

How has U.S. law dealt with this current wave of immigration? Cristina Rodriguez: Marcelo’s focus on institutions is an important one because it explains a lot of the anxiety over immigration today. In states and localities, people feel like institutions, primarily the public education system, are being strained by large scale immigration. There are two legal principles that are driving the debate. One is the birthright rule of citizenship, the notion that anyone born inside the United States is an American citizen. That is a source of concern is because it means that children born of undocumented immigrants are automatically citizens. There’s a movement in some states to try to challenge that very basic rule of American citizenship, and I think that it would certainly be declared unconstitutional if it ever were to reach the court. The second legal principle stems from a court case called Plyler vs. Doe which was decided by the Supreme Court in 1982 in response to a Texas state law that would have denied access to immigrant children to the public school. The Court ruled that the law was a violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution. But some states are trying to challenge Plyler v. Doe as California did in 1994 with Proposition 187, which the courts immediately struck it down. But today, states are attempting similar things: introducing pieces of legislation that will deny kids access to schools or tactics that are harder to challenge legally, like making parents register their children in person and attest to their legal status at the school.

What are some significant findings of your study?

CSO: We were looking for common denominators of experience. How does poverty affect all groups? How do toxic schools affect all groups? When we did look at country of origin differences, Dominicans, Haitians, Mexicans and Central Americans had exactly the same trajectory performance. So, only one group, Chinese, looked different than the other four groups. So that was an interesting finding in itself. Another striking finding was the high proportion of children who were separated from their parents during the course of migration. We found that fully 85 percent of the kids had been separated from their mother or their father, or both, from anywhere from 6 months to 10 years. To be away from your child for 6 months is an extraordinary thought, never mind 10 years.

How does U.S. law treat family separations?

CR: Family reunification is definitely the preeminent value in the American immigration admissions system. There’s a belief that family stability provides social stability. And so there is commitment to at least reunifying nuclear families. In light of this book, one of the questions for people who are interested in improving the efficiency of the system is to figure out what are the legal and institutional barriers to family reunification. The most obvious one is that the current visa categories are very seriously backlogged. This not only has the effect of keeping families separated for a long time, but also has as a consequence the incentive for some people to enter the United States illegally. As Carola says, even six months is a long time to be away from a child. You write that “we should make normative multilingualism an education objective for all youth growing up in the global era, immigrant and native alike.” Why is this such an important objective?

MSO: There are two fundamental structures that define how the U.S. metabolizes the idea of immigration. One is immigration in relation to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The second piece is the English language. We are a people that originate in many regions of the world: what we have in common is the Constitution, the rule of law, and the English language. This regime of compulsive monolingualism has defined how we’ve thought about immigration. But the regime is working against our educational economic, diplomatic, and security interests. Everyone understands that Spanish today is an important language to know; Arabic, Chinese are important languages, for all sorts of claims, metacognitive, strategic, diplomatic, security. But current policies do not recognize that in the twenty first century, normative multilingualism is a skill that advantages all workers, all children.

CSO: The irony is that the elite goes to study abroad in Spain, or Buenos Aires, and yet we have working-class students who come here with those skills and their Spanish speaking skills have systematically been squashed. We’re worried that the immigrant speakers aren’t learning English and then were sending the elite out to study languages abroad.

What is wrong with the current debate surrounding immigration?

MSO: The elephant in the room is the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. We now have the largest number of undocumented immigrants and the largest proportion in the history of the country, probably over twelve million people including well over two million children. Yet we’re not having a conversation about them. We are having a superficial conversation about border controls that is simply irrelevant to the realities of large scale immigration in the global era. Countries that align their thinking with their labor market needs are doing a much better job of narrowing the difference between the immigrant-origin population and native populations.

What reforms would you like to see to current immigration policy?

CR: The immigration system is incredibly inflexible. It is extraordinarily difficult for Congress to actually pass comprehensive immigration reform precisely because I don’t think as a country we speak with one voice on the issue of immigration. One important aspect that needs to be in any sort of reform — whether it’s a legalization effort for the undocumented population or an attempt to create some kind of coherent integration strategy–is substantial impact aid for states and localities. Because those are the levels of government that most immediately have to deal with the process of absorbing immigrant populations. And so that sense of collaboration between the federal government and the public and private institutions that are doing the work of integration is something that really needs to animate reform.

CSO: Immigration is a reality in our lives. We romanticize it in the past, but in the present it creates tension and ambivalence, particularly in a moment of economic crisis. Forgotten in the debate are always the children. Immigrants are often workers; they are human beings with families. The children need to be part of the debate because they are real people, they will be in our schools, they will be the future of our society. I hope this book has shed some light on the lived experiences of these children.