Campus & Community

Suarez-Orozcos Focus on the Youngest Immigrants

8 min read
Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco are looking into the ways children respond to their new world. “Either they do very well — many valedictorians are the children of immigrants — or they slip through the cracks too quickly.” Photo by Kris Snibbe.

Most Americans think that we are “Garbage” was the response of a 14-year-old Dominican boy when asked to complete a survey sentence by Harvard immigration experts Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco.

Many other immigrant children finished the sentence in similarly devastating fashion, using words like “bad,” “useless,” “thieves,” and “drug addicts.” Only a few completed the sentence with neutral or positive words.

Too many immigrant children in the United States are staring into what the Suarez-Orozcos call “a toxic mirror” that seriously compromises the self-image of children who will grow up to be part of American society.

The husband-and-wife team, who co-direct the Harvard Immigration Project, believe it’s time for society to remake the image in that social mirror. The two are working to reshape a national immigration dialogue that they feel has been focused too long on immigration levels and on economic costs and benefits.

“When it comes to immigration, the U.S. is the only post-industrial democracy in the world where immigration is both its history and its destiny,” said Marcelo, who is also professor of education at the Graduate School of Education. “Our position is that immigrants are here to stay. We really need to focus on the long-term adaptation of children and families.”

The children of today’s immigrants will be our teachers, our police, and our business and political leaders, say the Suarez-Orozcos. In short, America is and will continue to be what it always has been – a country of immigrants.

The Suarez-Orozcos base their conclusions on decades of work with immigrants and on preliminary results from a longitudinal study of 400 immigrant children, the largest interdisciplinary comparative and longitudinal study of its kind.

The study, currently halfway through its scheduled five years, is the first to follow a specific group of immig rant children and track their development as they adjust to life in their new land. This kind of study is important, according to the Suarez-Orozcos, because most studies are cross-sectional – looking at the whole community at a particular point in time – and don’t consider the long view, as their research does.

In addition, some data, such as self-reported literacy in census studies, are suspect, Carola said. Knowing enough English for everyday conversation is a very different thing from being able to read and write English well enough to function academically and professionally.

“The point is the stakes are very high, so we feel we need higher-quality data,” Marcelo said. The pair’s data suggest that while many immigrant children are thriving, others are facing serious odds.

Two Images of Immigrants

Carola and Marcelo describe their initial findings in the book, Children of Immigration, scheduled to be published later this year by the Harvard University Press. In Children of Immigration, the Suarez-Orozcos combine their own research findings with those of others in the field to look at the pressures and opportunities that both foreign- and U.S.-born children face in immigrant-headed households.

And they see two images.

One image is of highly successful immigrants. Immigrant children are represented in large proportion in the ranks of high school valedictorians, in admissions to prestigious schools, and in the ranks of prestigious national award winners. This mirrors the accomplishments of many of their successful parents, many of whom head thriving businesses and some of whom fill out the ranks of American Nobel Prize winners. In fact, the Suarez-Orozcos say, never have so many immigrants done so well so quickly in the history of our country.

But even for the successful children, life isn’t easy. Many report facing discrimination and hostility from native-born children who believe they are ta king honors and positions that would otherwise go to them.

As difficult as life can be for successful immigrants, however, it can be even more difficult for less successful immigrants, those who work in low-paying, dead-end jobs, as well as for their children.

For the children in this second image, Carola and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco see a world of hope and light that – all too often – gradually deadens to one of despair and hopelessness. Newly arrived immigrants and their children tend to be ready and willing to work hard to realize their part of the “American Dream.” But that willingness and hope runs up against hard economic reality, discrimination, and negative stereotypes in modern America.

“The kids come in dreaming, wanting, desiring, and working hard to do well,” Carola said. “Either they do very well – many valedictorians are the children of immigrants – or they slip through the cracks too quickly.”

Today’s economic reality is even harsher than it has been in the past. A century ago, during the last great wave of immigration, a large percentage of Irish children dropped out of school. Those dropouts, however, were able to make a decent living on their factory wages or in another of the many jobs that unskilled workers could perform.

In today’s knowledge-based economy, high school dropouts have a very bleak future, Marcelo said, and are often relegated to service sector jobs, where the average male Hispanic dropout earns just $14,000 per year. The average female Hispanic dropout does even worse, making just $9,500 per year.

Because their study is not yet complete, the book doesn’t include policy suggestions, the Suarez-Orozcos said. Instead, it seeks to paint a picture of the lives, opportunities, problems, and challenges facing children of immigration in the United States today. The book is targeted to teachers, social workers, pediatricians, and other professionals who come in contact with these childr en.

Immigration Happening Worldwide

The Suarez-Orozcos view immigration as a global, rather than American, phenomenon. There are approximately 130 million immigrants around the world, with 30 million in the United States.

The magnitude of the current wave of immigration into the United States is enormous. Since 1965, more than 20 million immigrants have arrived on these shores, with one million arriving each year during the 1990s. In the U.S., a common pattern is repeated: an adult immigrates and later sends for his or her family.

The effects of this wave are being felt throughout the country. One in five U.S. children are either foreign-born or born to immigrant parents. Nearly half of schoolchildren in New York City schools come from immigrant-headed households. Those households speak 100 different languages.

Though the Suarez-Orozcos are seeking to shift the focus away from economics, immigration is indeed economically important in America, Marcelo said. But that’s not because it’s a problem that we need to fix, he explains. Rather, immigration is responding to a labor shortage here and in other industrialized countries such as Switzerland and Germany.

“Everybody’s caught in the same dilemma. They’re addicted to foreign workers,” Marcelo said. “But as a society we do not necessarily want to deal with the children of these needed workers. Yet we must. They are a key part of our future.”

In today’s mobile, global economy, which fostered the purchase of 1.5 billion airline tickets last year, it is proving difficult to restrict the international flow of workers and their children while still promoting the international flow of goods and money, he said.

Though the book doesn’t present policy suggestions, it does present evidence that children who do best tend to come from families that maintain cultural traditions from the “old country” and which are headed by parents who are adept at s traddling the two cultures.

Parents who cling too tightly to the old ways, perhaps failing to learn English, risk a role-reversal with their children, in which the children become the parents’ guides in the new land. This can result in a lack of respect for the parents, who in turn can feel they’re losing their children to the new culture.

“Maintenance of the culture of origin acts as a powerful buffer in mediating the entry of the child into mainstream culture,” Marcelo said. “Communities that keep children close provide them with a protective frame of reference.”

The United States is a nation of immigrants — but what does that mean for our future? Who gets in and what happens when they get here? Carola and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco are among the Harvard scholars researching and writing about one of the nation’s thorniest political debates. Please see the other stories in our special section: “Harvard Dialogues: Immigration.”