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To dream or not to dream: what are the effects of immigration status and parental influence on Latino children’s access to education?

Much has been written about the potential of immigration reform to level the playing field for unauthorized children and youth in the United States. Research shows that in addition to, or perhaps ahead of, advocacy for immigration reform, including passage of the DREAM Act legislation in every state of the Union, there is a real need to work with Latino immigrant families on realizing the relationship between levels of formal schooling of immigrant children and parents, and their employment on the one hand, and upward mobility prospects on the other. Those concerned with better educational outcomes for Latino children and youth must also work on improving educational levels and attitudes towards education of their parents.

Jamie’s story illustrates my point well. Jamie was born in the United States to an undocumented mother, who since gained US citizenship. His stepfather is still undocumented. Jamie’s mother owns several businesses and is doing quite well, and has the financial means to contribute to her children’s education. Luckily Jamie’s younger brother, Juan, received a full scholarship to an Ivy League university, and graduated last year without needing his mother’s financial help. Jamie was not so lucky. Nevertheless he did enroll in a public university in upstate New York. First he wanted to major in engineering because he thought it would be a marketable degree, but while in college he discovered his love of writing and switched to English. After three years in New York, Jamie decided to transfer to the University of Maryland, because he could live at home and save money. Unfortunately he still owed New York tuition, so Maryland told him he could not transfer until all of his financial obligations were resolved. Jamie moved back home and was taking classes at Montgomery College while working for tips in his mother’s restaurant; she would not pay him wages. Later he got a job as a cook in an upscale restaurant and stopped taking classes. He works hard and takes every possible overtime shift to pay his student loans. His mother told him how glad she is that “he is following in her footsteps.” I checked in with Jamie recently and indeed he is not in college, and is being groomed by the restaurant owner to become a head chef.

Compare that with Alejandro, an undocumented child, who dropped out of school in 9th grade. He was lucky to have the counsel of his aunt. On her advice, he went to the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) and got connected with the Next Step School. He did very well there and received his GED within a very short time. In addition, he got certified in Microsoft, and during the summer of our first interview he was teaching a computer class at LAYC. Alejandro is committed to furthering his education. He didn’t understand how undocumented youth can pursue higher education and on what conditions, but he trusted that his counselor at LAYC would help him figure things out. I checked with Alejandro recently and indeed LAYC successfully helped him apply for DACA. Alejandro is interested in becoming a medical examiner.

Jamie’s and Alejandro’s stories demonstrate the importance of family in supporting—financially and emotionally—Latino youth as they pursue educational goals. Jamie’s mother did not fully understand the importance of higher education. She did not want to contribute to Jamie’s university tuition. She also discouraged her oldest daughter, Elena, from accepting a scholarship to a women’s college because she feared that Elena would not find a husband in an all-women’s college. Elena did not want to enroll against her mother’s wishes. After a very tumultuous adolescence in a female gang and single motherhood, Elena realized that she needed a college degree to support herself and her toddler daughter. Currently, Elena is studying nursing and working part-time.

library books shelves-student by StockSnap. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Parental engagement with their children’s school—a positive predictor of academic achievement, higher self-esteem, and higher rates of high school completion and college enrollment—is often a challenge for immigrant families. While many of the immigrant parents I interviewed had high educational aspirations for their children, few had the resources to realize these goals. Employment pressures—many parents worked more than one job or worked graveyard shifts—also contributed to parents’ increasing inability to actively engage with their children’s education. Research conducted suggests that parents’ engagement with schools decreased as the children got older. Latino parents of small children are eager for their children to succeed in school and meet developmental and educational milestones. However, with few exceptions, parents of high school students were not interested in their children’s achievements or problems at school. It seems that parents who have limited education themselves aspire for better education for their children, but that does not necessarily mean a lot more formal education: finishing primary or middle school seems sufficient. Jamie’s mother who supported her children throughout primary and secondary school thinks her role ended there.

Resilience and perseverance in pursuing educational goals are shaped not only by relationships with caring and supportive parents; approval of extended family is also important. Maria is a case in point. Maria, a young local community leader, went to college and graduated with a BA in anthropology. Maria is working for a non-profit organization helping Latino immigrant families in Northern Virginia. Her uncles constantly barrage her mother that she raised such “a lazy girl.” They consider Maria to be lazy because she does not “work with her manos [hands].” Maria’s professor would like her to come back to school to get a master’s in applied anthropology; she promised to help Maria secure financial aid. Maria said: “I would love to go back to school, but I am sure that would enrage my uncles even more and they would take it out on my mother.”

A professional Latina in the DC government also spoke about the lack of understanding of the value of education among her extended family. She said: “Even my mother-in-law with whom I have a very good relationship could not understand why my husband and I mortgaged our house to put our two daughters through college.”

Speaking about the wider Latino community in the area, she added: “By and large the Latino parents in this area do not appreciate education, because they themselves have little formal schooling. Educational loans are not even on most immigrants’ radar screen; it has less to do with poverty and more to do with valuing education.”

Factors such as poverty, parents’ class and formal education levels, and family strategies favoring employment over schooling are much more tangible in the lives of unauthorized Latino children than legal status per se. The family’s unauthorized status is often hidden from the child’s conscious experience. Many Latino children find themselves in what Roberto Gonzales calls “suspended illegality” through late adolescence. In kindergarten, primary, or even middle schools, they did not have to face full on the consequences of their immigration status. However, once they entered high school, particularly in senior year, when their peers are applying to college, unauthorized children start realizing the effects of their immigration status on their future after high school.

There is an urgent need to work with immigrant parents to better understand the educational system, and the necessity to complete high school and go on to college in order to ensure upward mobility in the labor market and life satisfaction.

Featured image credit: graduates graduation cap and gown by stevensokulski. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Steve

    Not that today’s native college educated younger education is woefully unemployed and underemployed….

    We need more foreign nationals to compete…. But I thought that immigration was needed for our llow skilled workforce that native are supposedly too good to do…

  2. Don Honda

    See what happens when Illegal Alien student leave a State: Test scores improve.


    Better schools or different students? Immigration reform and school performance in Arizona

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