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Immigrant Communities and Social Mobility

Immigrant Communities

Generally, assimilation is the process by which immigrants or their children learn the language and culture of the receiving society that is, the process by which they become Americans. In the past, the idea was that a homogeneous process which they will all go through the same, in a sense, path and eventually join the great American mainstream. But what we observe is that the process is segmented.

One in every four Americans is an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. Some experience what may be called upward assimilation? And others actually, unfortunately, experience a downward assimilation in which they assimilate, but they assimilate often into the culture of drugs and gangs. Then it becomes very difficult to climb up.

The question that we face today is not that children of immigrants will assimilate into American society but to what segment of that society they will assimilate. What we did was ask that question by taking a large sample of immigrants or children of immigrants and those that were not, at random, in the eighth and ninth grades in about 50 schools in southern California and southern Florida. They interviewing them about their backgrounds, their ambitions for future, and then following them until the time that they graduated from high school at average age 18 and then further until the time that they enter young adulthood about age 24.

It was possible to say not only how they were doing in early adult life. Vocationally, occupationally, in terms of their identities and so on but also what had been the forces leading some toward success and a university career and others in the opposite direction to have dropped out of school or even been in prison by age 24. We were able to determine that there are three major determinants of different paths of adaptation in the second generation.

Parental education and occupation that is what we call human capital. The family structure whether the family stays together and so on and the context of reception. That is defined by the policies of the government toward that group, the attitudes of the general public positive, negative, or indifferent and the strength of the existing community of their same ethnicity. Some groups are positively received. They are seen as “model” minorities, or they are doing relatively well and they come with legal status.

Others, on the other hand, because of reasons of color they may be black immigrants or by reasons of a large component of undocumented immigrants, they tend to be seen with suspicion. In that sense, they are subject to discrimination official and not official. A sense of racism makes it difficult for them to adjust successfully. I think that it’s possible to summarize it in three paths.

  1. The first path occurs when the parents themselves, they may even have parents themselves that have generally high levels of education that allows them to access good positions like engineers, doctors, and so on. Most of that immigration to the United States comes from Asian countries. They have the means to move up, and this is path number one.
  2. The second path in which parents are not that educated and so, but they have very cohesive families and cohesive communities that support the parents so that in a sense they supplement the absence of human capital with a lot of social capital. Those support the parents and the kids in their quest to stay in a school and move upwards.
  3. The third path is the one where there are not high levels of education, and their communities are relatively weak and often are discriminated against. They experience, the parents and the kids, a negative context of reception. That translates into a greater likelihood of abandoning school, joining gangs or doing other things that at an early age set a course that is exactly the opposite of being successful assimilation.

About 15% to20% of the children followed over this time has experienced downward assimilation. It’s a minority, but it’s a very sizable minority. It is not the fact that that the parents are Mexican, Chinese, Filipino. What matters is that these nationalities tend to be associated with different levels of the three key factors that we saw before. Because of the segmented path and the path that we have seen, there are some that are doing very well. They don’t need any kind of external support and so on.

Paths one and two will lead to success stories. But those that are following the third path are very much in need of assistance. In every case that we saw of this kind of overcoming disadvantages by age 24 and getting an education, there was either a voluntary program that came to those bad schools and took the kids to trips and to college. Some voluntary programs work.  Second, somebody, we call it significant others, somebody a teacher, a counselor, an older sibling that took an interest in the child and guided him or her to things that the parents couldn’t do.

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