Keep your huddled masses

February 16, 1996

'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,' beseeches the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. It is a welcome many in the US would not extend to today's immigrants, whom they see as too poor and too alien to assimilate. But academics are increasingly challenging such oversimplifications by focusing on the progress of immigrant children. Tim Cornwell reports

Americans are worried about immigration. Last year nearly 60 per cent of Californians voted for Proposition 187, the so-called "Save Our State" initiative to deny healthcare, education and welfare to illegal immigrants. Long stretches of America's southern border with Mexico are guarded by walls and searchlights. Agents of the US Border Patrol, thanks to the Clinton administration, hunt the border-crossers with ground sensors and night-vision scopes in new Bronco four-wheel drive trucks.

Forty years ago, 70 per cent of US immigrants were Europeans. Today about 80 per cent come from Latin America and Asia. The old benevolent cliche of the immigrant was of the struggling family from Central or Western Europe who arrived by ship in New York. The parents worked their fingers to the bone to push their child into the good life: within a generation or two, the offspring were virtually indistinguishable from other Americans. The new alarmist cliche is of an illiterate mass of central Americans flooding north, swamping schools, health and social security systems.

It is this so-called new wave, particularly the large Mexican element, that has spawned restrictionist works such as Alien Nation, the 1995 book by Peter Brimelow. He claims that two to three million illegal immigrants enter the United States a year (far above the 300,000 estimated by the US authorities). "These newcomers are less educated, less skilled, more prone to be in trouble with the law, less inclined to share American culture and values, and altogether less inclined to become Americans in name or spirit," Brimelow writes.

It is this gross oversimplification that worries immigration experts such as Marcelo Suarez-Orozco of Harvard University. Professor Suarez-Orozco, himself an Argentine immigrant with a Swiss-French wife, points to the experiences of the Koreans. Koreans in Japan suffer the familiar derogatory labels attached to immigrants everywhere. "Korean kids [in Japan] have tremendous problems, very high drop-out rates, very high delinquency rates," he says. But in the US the Koreans are part of the "model minority", the Asian American overachievers. Go to Harvard, or the University of California, and the proportion of Koreans in higher education is very high compared with their population rate. It is a frequent complaint heard in American inner cities that the Koreans own all the local businesses - that they have, in effect, moved up the mobility ladder too fast.

Modern concern about immigration appears to hang on the fear not that immigrants steal jobs but that they challenge the dominant culture rather than blend into it - that Algerians in France, for example, remain Muslims first and French second. Or that in Florida's little Havana, Cubans can go from the cradle to the grave without speaking a word of English. But in an attempt to bring light rather than heat to a sensitive issue, academics are focusing new research on the children of immigrants - how they assimilate, and what they assimilate to. It is the second generation that will determine where these communities settle their cultural loyalties.

The children are the key - and it is they who are poised to suffer most from the anti-immigrant backlash. Late last year two Congress committees held hearings on proposals to deny US citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants born in the US, which would potentially create a whole generation of nationless youngsters. "English only" rules have been promulgated in the US on the assumption that immigrant children are not fitting in fast enough.

But academics argue that the sweeping generalisations being made about the new wave of immigrants are dangerously inaccurate. There is no single uniform path to becoming American for the children of, say, a war refugee from southeast Asia, a Filipina married to an American navy seaman, or a business professional from Britain with a masters in business administration. And the question usually asked in policy debates "Are immigrants still good for America?" is, say the academics, the wrong way round. Almost nobody is asking whether America is good for immigrants. The longer that school-age children of immigrants have been in the US, the longer the hours they spend watching television, and the lower their school grades. In their attitudes to schools, teachers, and careers, it appears they rapidly learn from their American peers the value of cynicism.

In 1992 Ruben Rumbaut, a Michigan State University professor, helped lead a survey of over 5,000 eighth and nineth grade schoolchildren, with at least one foreign-born parent, in three school districts in California and Florida. They were quizzed on their hopes and aspirations, on their level of education and English proficiency, and on their backgrounds. What leaps out is the great diversity of a group in which 77 nationalities were represented, not counting intermarriages between them. "It is absolutely useless to speak of immigrants as if they were a homogeneous lot," says Rumbaut.

There are huge differences in the family and social backgrounds of immigrant children. The 1990 census shows that among native-born American citizens, 20 per cent had college degrees. But among immigrants from India, Taiwan, and Nigeria, Rumbaut found fully 60 per cent of adults had college degrees, many of them advanced degrees; the children were the product of a brain drain to America. By contrast the adults from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, and Laos had rates of college completion of less than 5 per cent. Only a third of children of Mexican parents had hopes of gaining an advanced degree, compared to close to half for other nationalities.

Rumbaut and his fellow researchers have developed what they call "segmented assimilation" to explain the huge disparities among second-generation children and their progress to Americanisation. Immigrants occupy both the highest and the lowest positions on the education and poverty scales. Filipinos, for example, are the largest group of Asian origin, but they come in largely through intermarriage and from a country where English is the official language. They tend to be well-off, suburbanised and so rapidly integrated that they go almost unnoticed as a cultural group.

The case of the Hmong tribesmen is rather different. Some 100,000 of these Indochinese highlanders, recruited en masse by the CIA to wage secret war on the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, came to the USas refugees from 1979 onwards. The Hmong did not even have a written language until the 1950s, and college degrees were virtually unheard of. They arrived in the US at a time of peak unemployment and inflation - and seemed a prime example of immigrants destined to be a charge on the state. But while they still suffer from some of the highest poverty rates, the Hmong community is burrowing upwards. In Rumbaut's survey 62 per cent of Hmong children reported doing two or more hours of homework a day, considerably higher than any other ethnic group.

What troubles Rumbaut and others is the question of what it means for different ethnic groups to "Americanise". "There is no single thing out there called American that everybody Americanises to," he says, citing the immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica or the West Indies, who become drawn into the subculture of urban black youths dropping out of school and involved in gangs and drugs, though "their parents try to insist that they remain Haitian or Jamaican or whatever". In their cases becoming Americanised "is downward mobility, not upward mobility," he says.

A cultural anthropologist by training and now a teacher in human development and psychology, Suarez-Orozco set out to talk to the children themselves. He and his wife Carola, a research associate at Harvard, spent several years studying and comparing sample groups of schoolchildren at different stages of the journey from Mexico to America.

They started out with 47 pupils at a middle school near the city of Guanajuato, a Mexican state capital with a long tradition of sending young men to seek their fortunes in America. Then they surveyed 48 immigrant adolescents, born in Mexico but now at school in California. They found 47 more second-generation teenagers inside the US whose parents immigrated before their birth. And finally, their fourth sample consisted of 47 all-American white teenagers at schools near San Diego who openly described themselves as "mainstream" and "non ethnic".

The Harvard couple used some simple tests of attitudes towards work and learning. They asked the sample groups to complete sentences that began "My school is *****", and "The school principal is *****". Only 20 per cent of responses from white Americans were positive, in answers that described their schools as "cool", "fun", and "pretty nice". Many more called it "boring", "the worst", "stupid", and "Hell". They referred to their principal in terms like "mean and dorky".

By contrast 88 per cent of new immigrants were positive. "My school is the greatest thing I ever had," wrote one child. "The most beautiful school in the county," wrote another. They would describe their principal as "a good principal because he has done a lot to improve discipline," or "he is an exciting person". The second generation students fell somewhere in between. Some were already describing their principal as "racist" and "a big jerk".

The students were also asked to respond "yes" or "no" to the statement "to me, school is the most important thing". Fully 84 per cent of immigrants responded yes, 55 per cent of second generation students, and 40 per cent of white Americans. "Our data suggests kids bring in highly positive attitudes, they have a kind of faith, a kind of optimism," says Suarez-Orozco. But second-generation children lose their utopian vision, he says. If the common complaint made against Mexican immigrants is that they are not American enough, the process of Americanisation through these children is not a particularly pretty sight.

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