Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1996 Issue »

    Transformations and California's Immigrant Children

    Transformations: Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation among Latino Adolescents
    by Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco.

    Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995. 266 pp. $45.00; $16.95 (paper).

    California's Immigrant Children: Theory, Research, and Implications for Educational Policy
    edited by Rubén G. Rumbaut and Wayne A. Cornelius.

    San Diego: University of California Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 1995. 272 pp. $21.95.

    Today, immigrant children are creating challenging problems for many U.S. public schools. Challenging because educators now, more than ever in this country's history, face a growing and highly diverse group of children. In the 1980s, for example, California's immigrant student population rose by 150 percent; the state is currently home to one-third of this country's 20 million immigrants (Rumbaut & Cornelius, 1995). During a recent three-year period in New York City, the public schools enrolled approximately 120,000 immigrant children from 167 different countries (Ungar, 1995). These shifts inevitably raise structural, curricular, administrative, and social issues regarding the integration of America's newer arrivals into the public school system.

    In contrast to the earlier part of this century, when immigrants were predominately from Europe, those who migrated to this country after World War II have been mostly from the developing nations of Asia and Latin America. A combination of structural changes in the U.S. economy and tumultuous world events has resulted in people traveling from far and diverse corners of the globe to seek refuge, opportunities, and a better way of life in the United States. Even the patterns of migration across U.S. borders has shifted. In the 1950s, for example, more immigrants came from Canada than from Mexico, whereas during the 1980s, immigrants from Mexico outnumbered those from Canada by a factor of ten (Heer, 1996). The sheer number of immigrants, together with the shift in their demographic profile, has evoked much debate and public controversy. Many in the United States believe that immigrants are draining the country of its social resources, such as health care, housing, employment, and education.

    In the realm of public education, a microcosm of society at large, anti-immigrant sentiment runs especially high. In November 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, also known as the "Save Our State" initiative. Voters in that state, claiming that they faced economic hardship as a result of illegal immigrants, took action to protect their social resources. A large component of the proposition was an attack on educational programs that were seen to benefit illegal immigrant children. Fueled by media semantics that often blur the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, the passage of Proposition 187 has expanded public controversy in other states with high immigrant populations (such as New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey). The hostility and anti-immigrant sentiment among many Americans is creating a charged social context that interferes with and jeopardizes a coherent and logical investigation by educators into the needs and experiences of immigrant children. Rather than visualizing the benefits that various immigrant groups could bring to their schools, the general public's impression of immigrants is negative — that they are a burden on the public schools.

    Research on this problem has steadily increased over the past few years, raising questions such as: How do these immigrant children fit into U.S. schools? What problems do the children and schools encounter? How do various immigrant cultures interface with U.S. schooling? What role do public schools play today in the socialization of immigrant children? What factors contribute to the achievement or failure of immigrant children in public schools? Examples of current research in this area are the focus of these two recent books, Transformations: Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation among Latino Adolescents by Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, and California's Immigrant Children: Theory, Research, and Implications for Educational Policy, edited by Rubén G. Rumbaut and Wayne A. Cornelius, which grapple with these questions about immigrant children.

    The issues raised by these books bring to mind my own experiences as a child immigrant in the early 1970s, when my eldest brother, whose coarse English our family relied on, enrolled me in P.S. 174 elementary school in Queens, New York. Having arrived in the states in mid-year, I was introduced to the class by the teacher, who described me as being from "I-ran." The class burst into laughter with comments like "who ran?" This is a familiar story to most immigrant children who enter U.S. public schools, eager to embrace the life and culture there, but find themselves pushed back as "outsiders." At the end of my first year in school, the report card I took home to my parents was completely blank — a tabula rasa. My parents were told that, because their daughter didn't speak English, there was no way to determine what she knew and what she didn't. Twenty years later, teaching kindergarten in a private elementary school, I encountered a situation reminiscent of my own experience: one of my students, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Russian Armenia before their son was born, ran up to me crying. He declared pitifully, "I don't have an accent," and, pointing to a group of giggling kids in the corner of the room, said, "They say I have an accent." His experience and my own are reflective of the ignorance and lack of understanding immigrant children experience in this country — a lack of understanding that the authors of these two books aim to clarify.

    Why is it important to understand the educational experience of immigrant children? Marcelo Suárez-Orozco (1991) argues that recent immigrants are shaping a new "socio-geographical landscape" and that they ultimately affect the future of our society, both socially and economically (p. 38). The lack of knowledge in public schools regarding the experience of immigrant children further exacerbates the challenge facing this nation: the less educators know about meeting the needs of these students, the more likely these students are to drop out of school and become the "burden" society claims them to be. It is this lack of public knowledge about recent immigrants that propelled Rubén Rumbaut and Wayne Cornelius, the authors of California's Immigrant Children, to research immigrant children's educational experience and progress, as well as their adaptation to public schooling. The thirteen contributors to this volume bring their knowledge about various immigrant groups together around one central problem — "educating a large, new, highly diverse wave of immigrant children, in resource-short public schools that are, in general, poorly prepared to understand and respond effectively to the special needs of such students, within a political and public opinion context that has become overtly hostile to immigrants and their offspring" (p. 1).

    These two books complement one another in an interesting way. On the one hand, California's Immigrant Children draws a general picture of immigrants' educational needs. The reader is able not only to understand how a multitude of issues relate to the education of immigrant students, but also to comprehend how varied the issues are among different immigrant student populations. Transformations, on the other hand, focuses on Mexican students, thus providing a more in-depth understanding of one particular immigrant group (though the title implies the broader category of "Latino Adolescents"). While the emphasis of the former is on breadth and the latter is on depth, the common dimension between these two books is their attention to California, the most immigrant-populated state in the country. The reason for this point of convergence is aptly stated by the authors of Transformations: "California reflects the national mood writ large" (p. 29). Nevertheless, despite their concentration on the state of California, these books can help further our understanding of other educational contexts.

    Though California's Immigrant Children encompasses a wide range of issues facing California's public schools, the various sections are anchored by Rubén G. Rumbaut's chapter in which he reviews current research findings related to immigrant students in California. Rumbaut's synthesis of research projects and their findings provides useful insights into common predictors of educational progress for immigrant students. Rumbaut also presents two statistical profiles: one on the sociodemographic characteristics of the foreign-born population, including national origin and numbers — both in the United States and in California, specifically — as obtained from the 1990 census; the other is a profile of the language-minority student population enrolled in California's K-12 public schools.

    While Transformations focuses on Mexicans in the state of California, the authors place their study in a much wider context — the global context. This perspective is one of the book's most insightful features, as it resonates with global issues of migration — adjustment, loss, hope, and solidarity. Because the authors situate immigration-related issues in the United States within the international scene, the reader is able to disentangle the particularities of this country's concerns from those of European countries. The common dimension on both sides of the Atlantic, we learn, is that immigrants are viewed as an economic drain on the nation-state; that they are robbing the country's citizens of their welfare programs; that they are not able to shed their ethnic proclivity or are unable to assimilate; and that they are the major contributors to high crime rates. In essence, immigrants have become "powerful symbols of economic decline and sociodemographic upheaval" (p. 14).

    Transformations identifies five general areas of concern in the debates regarding the influx of new immigrants into the United States. According to the authors, one concern is that the increasing number of immigrants entering the country, coupled with reports that these new immigrants have higher fertility rates than White Americans, threatens to "overwhelm" the dominant groups in U.S. society. Second, claim the authors, some U.S. citizens feel that the new immigrants are a stark contrast — culturally and ethnically — to their European predecessors (the idealized and romanticized notions of immigrants in this country, the authors point out, have been Eurocentric; European immigrants were White, while recent immigrants are not). Third, immigrants are often associated with crime — the semantic links made between legal and illegal immigrants only reinforce the perceived connection to crime. Fourth is the common public sentiment that immigrants are a burden on our economy. The fifth and final concern the authors mention, which relates directly to their research, is the fear "that the new immigrants and their children do not seem to `assimilate' into the institutions of mainstream society in the way previous waves of European immigrants did" (p. 27). These areas of concern among some Americans give rise to a social milieu that Orozco and Orozco refer to as "paranoid fear" (p. 38), a mien that interferes with meeting the needs, particularly the educational needs, of immigrant children.

    brings forth two distinct but entwined polemics. One, as mentioned above, is the issue of the immigration debate and how it is promulgated in today's society; the second is the more specific insight into the family and school lives of Mexicans.

    Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, the husband-and-wife authors of Transformations, used an interdisciplinary approach integrating anthropology, psychology, and education in their three-year study of the experiences of Mexican immigrants. They explain that "it is not possible to tell from existing studies how Mexican immigrants in the United States differ from Mexicans in Mexico, and how these groups, in turn, differ from second-generation Mexican Americans and `mainstream' Americans" (p. 6). Identifying these as four distinct groups, they investigate issues of family and academic orientation as they relate to the immigrant experience. This recognition of differences within an immigrant group is crucial, since immigrants are often perceived as monolithic, and it is in keeping with Marcelo Suarez-Orozco's (1989) earlier study, in which he recognized heterogeneity among Central American refugees and explored more specifically the educational needs and experiences of different populations of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans.

    Yet Transformations, I believe, achieves something greater than Orozco's earlier works. Implicitly illuminated in Orozco and Orozco's research in Transformations is one of America's social paradoxes: mainstream society brutally rejects immigrants, yet concurrently blames them for not being able to adapt. Thus we should ask, Are the new immigrants failing to adapt, or is the mainstream failing to accept? The declining prospects for current immigrants — the majority of whom live in decaying inner-city environments with mediocre public schools — provides little incentive or opportunity for them and places them in a precarious position to assimilate American ways. Thus, these conditions form a tension for immigrants in both their desire and opportunity to assimilate. This dynamic of resistance and rejection poses a relatively new dilemma for those studying immigrants in today's society. Researchers and educators can no longer assume that immigrants will adapt to "mainstream" American ways along the lines of the classical hypothesis of immigrant adaptation — that longer residence in the United States paved the course for economic progress and obliterated the differentials with those born in the United States.

    This dilemma is also discussed by Alejandro Portes, in his chapter in California's Immigrant Children:

    The question today is, to what sector of American society will a particular immigrant group assimilate? Instead of a relatively uniform "mainstream" whose mores and prejudices dictate a common path of integration, we observe today several distinct forms of adaptation. One of them replicates the time-honored portrayal of growing acculturation and parallel integration into the white middle class. A second leads straight in the opposite direction to permanent poverty and assimilation to the underclass. Still a third associates rapid economic advancement with deliberate preservation of the immigrant community's values and tight solidarity. (pp. 72–73)

    Calling these various trajectories by which an immigrant might adapt to American ways "segmented assimilation," Portes illustrates that assimilation is no longer linear and no longer predicated on a White mainstream culture.

    The intricacies and the tensions between these different "paths" of integration become evident in Orozco and Orozco's comparison of recent Mexican immigrants with U.S.-born Mexican Americans (second generation) in Transformations. According to Orozco and Orozco, first-generation immigrants often possess a "dual frame of reference," an alignment of their previous life before migration to their current life. Such a frame of reference enables recent Mexican immigrants to feel that their life in the United States is markedly better than the life they left behind. Children of immigrants, not having access to a dual frame of reference, do not see their current status as one of being "better off"; rather, they see themselves as the marginalized group compared to the dominant culture. They become caught between two worlds, as Orozco and Orozco explain:

    The children of Latino immigrants become the repositories of the parents' anxieties, ambitions, dreams, and conflicts. They are frequently vested with responsibilities (such as translating and caring for siblings) beyond what is culturally expected for children at their stage of psychosocial development. Because they speak little English, many Latino immigrant parents are unable to help their children with their schoolwork. This may bring about further anxieties and a sense of inadequacy and shame. (p. 65)

    This dual frame of reference, which first-generation immigrants possess but the second generation lacks, can often create psychological differences between the two generations. Kenji Ima, whose chapter in California's Immigrant Children discusses at- risk Southeast Asian refugee students, emphasizes how current insidious portrayals of model Asian students mask the psychosocial tensions these children face, which ultimately creates dissonance between children and their parents. As Ima states:

    Because immigrant and refugee children tend to adapt more easily than do their parents to the new language and culture of the host country, a generation gap is opening in newcomer families. Many parents undergo role reversals when they are forced to depend on their children to act as interpreters in communication with outsiders. Many Asian parents, overcome with a sense of helplessness, have given up parenting their children. In conjunction, immigrant and refugee children are increasingly alienated from their parents. Some are embarrassed by their parents' lack of English proficiency and are losing their respect for adult authority. (p. 195)

    The cultural dissonance that immigrant children feel may often lead to what Orozco and Orozco term "defensive identity" (p. 69). Defensive identity can take two opposite paths: one is to look to gangs for a sense of identity, while the other is to become a high achiever. Transformations draws from the autobiographies of two high-achieving Latino students, Richard Rodriguez and Ruben Navarrette, to illustrate the complexity of cultural dissonance for immigrant children. Despite preconceived notions that only wayward Mexican immigrant students feel a sense of disorientation with their parents/families, the authors illustrate how high-achieving Mexican immigrant students also struggle with the same psychological pressures.

    The psychosocial tensions of immigrant students is the focus of another chapter in California's Immigrant Children, as Amado M. Padilla and David Duran criticize the literature on immigrant children on two fronts: one, for rarely examining the psychological impact of migration on children; and two, for being heavily qualitative and therefore limited in its generalizability. These authors then examine three quantitative studies that address the magnitude of psychosocial problems faced by immigrant students, explaining that these studies illustrate that immigrant youths are affected in varying ways by their immigration status. Students who have a support network of parents, friends, and teachers were found to be more "resilient or invulnerable to the stressors associated with immigration" (p. 152). Conscious of current frugal fiscal times, Padilla and Duran offer several recommendations to the educational community based on their findings, such as providing psychological services to meet the needs of "vulnerable immigrant students" (p. 152).

    The varied use of research methodology in both Transformations and California's Immigrant Children is worthy of mention here: Orozco and Orozco collect data using a variety of methods, including ethnographic interviews, naturalistic observations, and projective and objective tests; the research pieces presented in California's Immigrant Children employed still other methods, such as surveys and secondary data analysis. However, more important than the methodology in these studies is the attention these researchers have paid to studying a topic as precarious as "culture." Culture, after all, is a concept that is difficult to isolate, to freeze, or to study under "scientific microscopes." Culture is prone to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Being critically aware of the complexities inherent in conducting cross-cultural research, Orozco and Orozco are wise to comment that such research is "at best descriptive rather than explanatory" (p. 92).

    With these cultural considerations in mind, perhaps the most interesting of Orozco and Orozco's findings are those relating to second-generation Mexicans: "Mexican Americans operate in two cultural realms and are preoccupied with many of the issues that concern adolescents in both cultures" (p. 187). For this reason, they call these youth "the children of two worlds." Two worlds because some elements of their Mexican heritage are maintained while others are not discernable. For example, the authors found that the level of family orientation is very similar between Mexican-born youth and their Mexican American peers. However, in terms of authority and schooling, Mexican American youth revealed identification with the "dominant American paradigm of adolescent ambivalence" (p. 188). Invariably, they found that Mexican youth in Mexico and recent Mexican immigrants are comparatively more achievement-oriented than second-generation Mexicans and White American adolescents. Does integration into U.S. society correlate with poorer academic performance for children of Mexican immigrants? Orozco and Orozco's finding seems to suggest so.

    Yet Orozco and Orozco's findings, taken together with the various research findings of California's Immigrant Children, such as those that have found a positive association between school performance and ethnic identity, emphasize the need to disentangle immigrant groups and to pay closer attention to each of their particularities. Rumbaut suggests that "the specific nature, content, and the style of the minority groups' perceptions and adaptive responses to their specific social and historical contexts" (p. 66) needs to be considered for each immigrant group. Certainly this needs to be one of the steps in understanding the educational experience of immigrant children — to go from the general to the specific and to compare the two as we move this field of knowledge forward.

    In today's emotionally charged public context, California's Immigrant Children and Transformations are two books that open a dialogue on this topic and fill some important gaps in our comprehension of immigrants and their education. The information presented in these two works provokes educators, researchers, and policymakers to take a hard look at how we are educating immigrant children. How we educate these students is more than a short-term dilemma; it is a process by which we will ultimately shape this country's future.


    Heer, D. (1996). Immigration in America's future. Colorado: Westview Press.

    Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (1991). Immigrant adaptation to schooling: A Hispanic case. In M. A. Gibson & J. U. Ogbu (Eds.), Minority status and schooling: A comparative study of immigrant and involuntary minorities (pp. 37–61). New York: Garland.

    Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (1989). Central American refugees and U.S. high schools: A psychological study of motivation and achievement. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Ungar, S. J. (1995). Fresh blood: The new American immigrants. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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    Fall 1996 Issue


    (Li)Ability Grouping
    The New Susceptibility of School Tracking Systems to Legal Challenges
    By Kevin G. Welner and Jeannie Oakes
    Cultural Constellations and Childhood Identities
    On Greek Gods, Cartoon Heroes, and the Social Lives of Schoolchildren
    By Anne Haas Dyson
    Teacher-Researcher Collaboration from Two Perspectives
    By Polly Ulichny and Wendy Schoener
    Troubling Clarity: The Politics of Accessible Language
    By Patti Lather
    "How Come There Are No Brothers on That List?"
    Hearing the Hard Questions All Children Ask
    Kathe Jervis
    Multiple Discourses, Multiple Identities
    Investment and Agency in Second-Language Learning among Chinese Adolescent Immigrant Students
    By Sandra Lee McKay and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong
    Dominance Concealed through Diversity
    Implications of Inadequate Perspectives on Cultural Pluralism
    By Dwight Boyd

    Book Notes

    The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film
    by Frank Javier Garcia Berumen

    Contending with Modernity
    By Philip Gleason

    Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis
    By Eben A. Weitzman and Matthew B. Miles

    The Male Survivor
    By Matthew Parynik Mendel

    In Over Our Heads
    By Robert Kegan

    Technology Education in the Classroom
    By Senta A. Raizen, Peter Sellwood, Ronald D. Todd, and Margaret Vickers

    By Louisa Cook Moats

    A Sense of Self
    By Susannah Sheffer

    An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America
    By Vaughn Davis Bornet

    The Deluxe Transitive Vampire
    By Karen Elizabeth Gordon

    Inside the Writing Portfolio
    By Carol Brennan Jenkins

    Edited by Emily Cousins and Melissa Rodgers

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.