Monday, April 20, 2009

Downward Path Illustrates Concern About Immigrants’ Children

April 18, 2009

LANGLEY PARK, Md. — Growing up in this corner of immigrant America, Jesselyn Bercian saw herself as an ordinary Salvadoran-American kid. She dropped out of high school, hung out with gangs and identified with poor, streetwise blacks. To the extent she gave it any thought, she considered poverty a Latina’s fate.

How representative is she?

Among children of immigrants as a whole, she is not representative at all. They are an eclectic group, clustered at both ends of the economic spectrum, but on average more educated and less poor than children of the native born. Populations doing especially well include children of Indians, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, Nigerians and Russians. But among those who study the children of the poorest immigrants, Jesselyn’s downward path illustrates a major concern.

While poor immigrant families have found economic success in the past, many analysts say today’s generation faces steeper hurdles, especially because good jobs now require more education. The children of those with the least education — most notably Mexicans and Central Americans — are considered especially at risk.

Citing high dropout and incarceration rates, some scholars warn that a sizeable minority of these groups could join the domestic poor in a burgeoning underclass.

But other scholars, mining the same stacks of data, find reason for optimism. Even among the immigrant groups considered at risk, most children surpass their immigrant parents in income and education. And on some measures, including employment, they outperform native minorities.

A debate that began with warnings of “second generation decline” now includes scholars who see a “second generation advantage.”

“I think both sides of this scholarly dispute are right — it’s that they’re looking at slightly different parts of the elephant,” said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York, which has financed scholars on both sides.

“Although the picture is still mixed, the children of immigrants from many groups are faring better than we had originally feared,” Mr. Wanner said. “But there are still causes for concern, especially among some Mexicans and Central Americans.”

For a demographic overview, The New York Times asked the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research group, to analyze 2008 census data on immigrants and their children. Among the more encouraging trends was strong generational progress.

As a group, adult children of immigrants have more education and earnings than their parents and are much less likely to live in poverty. The poverty rate for children of immigrants (10.1 percent) is also significantly lower than it is among the children of the native born (12.1 percent).

“The good news here is that second generation adults are making significant progress — both compared to their parents and compared to their peers,” said Jeanne Batalova, the institute scholar who did the analysis. “The not-so-good news is that the progress is not uniform.”

Ms. Batalova also examined Mexicans — the largest immigrant group and one with especially low levels of education. About 56 percent of adult immigrants from Mexico lack high school degrees, and Mexicans account for about a third of all immigrant families. (Salvadorans, who are demographically similar, add an additional 3 percent.)

On average, Mexican-American children have higher incomes and more education than their parents. But a significant minority seem at risk. About 17 percent fail to finish high school (compared with 11 percent of native-born blacks). Their rate of nonmarital births is twice that of their parents. And other studies show them with high incarceration rates.

(On most measures, Ms. Batalova’s examined adults ages 18 to 40; for education, she examined those ages 25 to 40.)

Some scholars liken poor Mexicans to Italians, who were slower than other immigrant groups to reach the middle class but eventually found success. Others worry that their path may follow that of African-Americans, with a significant minority marginalized.

Fears of an immigrant underclass are endemic to ages of mass immigration, and they once applied to groups as varied as the Irish, Italians and Jews. After four decades of peak immigration, restrictions in the 1920s brought immigration to a trickle, but a watershed 1965 law set off a new surge — and eventually new fears.

Unlike their European predecessors, today’s immigrants are mostly Asian, African and Latin American, and some analysts fear that their darker skin will lead to more persistent discrimination. And unlike those in the earlier wave, many came illegally, which lowers their economic prospects and adds worries about deportation to family life. Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 55 percent of Mexican immigrants are in the country illegally.

In 1992, Herbert J. Gans, a sociologist at Columbia University, published an influential article warning that the children of poor immigrants were at risk of “second generational decline.” He feared that racial bias, and the lack of education, would leave them to “hustle or work in the underground economy” and swell “the so-called underclass.”

Mr. Gans’s piece was speculative — most children of immigrants were still quite young — but it coincided with the start of a major empirical study. Two sociologists, Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut, spent a decade tracking 5,200 youths in the metropolitan areas of San Diego and Miami-Fort Lauderdale and voiced similar concerns.

Traditionally, sociologists had talked of “straight-line assimilation” — the idea that successive generations move incrementally closer to middle-class norms. In their contrasting theory of “segmented assimilation,” Professors Portes and Rumbaut argued that different groups assimilate in different ways — some to the values and behavior of the inner-city poor.

“Americanization can be hazardous to your health,” said Mr. Rumbaut, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

Tracking children of Mexican immigrants in Southern California, Mr. Rumbaut found that 15 percent dropped out of school, 20 percent of the males were imprisoned, and 30 percent of the females became teenage mothers. The statistical profile resembled that of African-Americans, whom the professors warned the immigrants might join in “a rainbow underclass.”

About 18 million youths are immigrants or children of immigrants. If only the bottom fifth is at risk — and three-quarters of them succeed — that could still swell a “rainbow underclass” by nearly a million people.

“On average, the second generation is forging ahead,” said Mr. Portes, who teaches at Princeton. “But a sizeable minority is dropping out of school, joining gangs, and experiencing adolescent pregnancy — sizeable enough to warrant concern.”

Perhaps Mexican-Americans, like their Italian predecessors, simply need an extra generation to prosper. But one recent historical study found that achievement peaked in the second generation.

Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz, sociologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, tracked down descendants of Mexican immigrants surveyed in the 1960s. In their book “Generations of Exclusion,” they report that progress peaked with the immigrants’ children, with subsequent generations less likely to finish high school or college. Progress not only stagnates, they wrote, “it can even be characterized as backwards.”

Then again, Mr. Telles and Ms. Ortiz were tracking families who arrived a half century ago, into a society that did much less to promote minority advancement. Its predictive powers may be weak.

A more optimistic view recently emerged from a large study of New York City, which compared children of immigrants with children of natives of the same race: West Indians with native blacks; South Americans and Dominicans with Puerto Ricans; and Chinese and Russians with native whites.

Compared to racial peers, the children of immigrants were less likely to get arrested, go to jail, drop out of school or become unemployed, and more likely to graduate from college. The share of West Indians who finished college (28 percent), for instance, was nearly twice that of native blacks (15 percent).

“In every case, the second generation young people we have studied are doing at least somewhat better than natives of the same race,” wrote Philip Kasinitz, John H. Mollenkopf, Mary Waters and Jennifer Holdaway. Their findings were presented in their book “Inheriting the City.”

Having expected generational decline, the scholars found signs of the opposite — a “second generation advantage.” Exposure to dual cultures, they reasoned, may allow the children of immigrants to draw on the strengths of both.

As an example, Mr. Kasinitz cites the willingness of many immigrant children to continue living at home into early adulthood, which makes it easier to build savings or afford college. “In a place with a tight housing market, that’s a huge advantage,” he said.

The contrast between two major studies — one optimistic, one pessimistic, both financed by the same social science foundation, Russell Sage — raises questions over which is more representative.

Some critics argue that the New York study has an optimistic slant: the city is an immigrant-friendly place; the field work was done in the economic boom of the late 1990s; it omitted Mexicans (few lived in New York) and prison inmates.

“The study obscures what is happening at the bottom,” Mr. Rumbaut said.

But Mr. Kasinitz sees a compensating strength: his study examined young adults, while much of the Rumbaut-Portes data focused on the teenage years. A teenage focus “exaggerates the danger,” Mr. Kasinitz said, by potentially mistaking youthful turbulence — like Jesselyn’s — for long-term decline.

“Most people with harrowing adolescences don’t have bad lives,” Mr. Kasinitz said. “There are a lot of second chances.”

For Mexican and other poor groups, some scholars already speculate about the third generation. Mr. Rumbaut worries that it will fare worse than the second — as it becomes more fully assimilated to the inner city — and so does Ms. Batalova of the Migration Policy Institute.

She is especially concerned about the second generation’s low level of schooling.

“It’s a portrait of a lower working class, not an underclass — but the future of people with these characteristics is not very bright,” Ms. Batalova said. “It’s their children — the members of the third generation — who are much more likely to be forming an underclass.”

But with the second generation still young, Mr. Kasinitz declined to guess how their children will fare. “That’s the kind of prediction I’ll leave to meteorology or Nostradamus,” he said. “Thirty years from now, anything could happen.”

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