By Martha Cecilia Bottia (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
It is a difficult time for immigrants around the world, particularly in the United States. Being an immigrant myself, I know it from personal experience. Regardless of citizenship status, reasons to migrate, educational background, ethnicity, fluency in the English language, and legal status, immigrants are currently under attack. But in the face of the myriad challenges they face, millions of immigrants and their children must make decisions about where to attend schools and where to live.
People appear to forget that migration is part of the natural development and advancement of humanity. Migration has offered opportunities for millions of people worldwide to create safe and meaningful lives abroad and it has helped improve people’s lives in both origin and destination countries (International Organization for Migration, 2018). The history of immigration in the United States dates to the beginning of this nation. According to Martin (2013), U.S. immigration has occurred in waves, with peaks followed by troughs. The first wave of immigrants, prior to 1820, was of mostly English-speakers from the British Isles. Irish and German Catholics dominated the second wave, between the 1840s and 1850s. The third wave, between 1880 and 1914, brought over 20 million European immigrants to the United States. The fourth wave began after 1965, and has been marked by rising numbers of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Throughout these years, the proportion of immigrants as a percentage of the U.S. population across the years has oscillated between a low of 4.7% during the 1970s and a high of 14.8% around 1890. Currently, approximately 14% of all U.S. residents are international migrants (United Nations, 2017). This means that although the share of immigrants in the U.S. today is high, it is not as great a proportion of the U.S. population as the peak of U.S. immigration during the 1890s.
Key Facts about Immigrants
There are certain terms that are used widely to refer to immigrants and will be used in this article. These include: foreign-born or a first-generation immigrant is anyone who is not a U.S. citizen at birth; native born is anyone born in the United States, Puerto Rico, or a U.S. Island Area or those born abroad of at least one U.S. citizen parent; second generation immigrant is anyone who is a U.S. native with at least one foreign-born parent; and third-and-higher generation immigrant is a U.S. native with both parents native born.
Immigrants in the United States are an extremely heterogeneous group who differ in characteristics such as country of origin, educational levels, occupation, legal status, and reasons for leaving their home country. Today, over 80% of immigrants originate in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, or the Caribbean—the rest come from Europe or North America. The United Nations Population Division and Pew Research Center reports that as of 2017, the top three countries of origin for immigrants in the U.S. were Mexico, China, and India. Fifty-five percent of all first-and second-generation immigrant children are of Hispanic origin, while Asian children make up 17 percent of all first- and second-generation immigrant children in 2014 (Child Trends, 2014).
Immigrants have very different levels of education and skills. Some immigrant parents are among the most educated people in the nation, while others have low levels of education and gravitate to sectors of the U.S. labor market that rely on low-skilled workers (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2015). Most immigrants in the U.S. currently live in California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey. In fact, California, Nevada, New York, and Florida are the states with the highest percentages of immigrants, ranging between 20 and 27% of the state population. More recently, many immigrants are moving rapidly to growing states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The percentage of first-generation immigrants is the highest in the Western regions of the U.S. (42%), while the highest percentage of second-generation immigrants is in the South (35%). Suggesting that many immigrants arrive to Western states in the U.S. and then with time and as they settle they tend to move to Southern states.
While most of the migration to the U.S occurs legally via a valid visa, green card, refugee status, or asylum seeker status, it is estimated that 6.9% of U.S. students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade during 2012 had parents who were unauthorized immigrants (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). The realities for these children are vastly different from those of children whose parents are legally in the country. Families’ reasons to leave their countries of origin are also very diverse and differentially impact immigrant children’ lives. While some families might migrate to the U.S. for better employment or educational opportunities, others come for political asylum and/or to escape imminent danger in their home countries. In general, immigrant children face barriers linked to their socioeconomic, legal, and English learner status, such as hostility from the native population and a weak understanding of the U.S. education system. Furthermore, immigrant youth experience segregation by race, poverty, and language at schools and neighborhoods.
We are interested in the role that segregation has on the life of immigrant children in part because immigrant students’ education and well-being is strongly related to the future of the U.S. (Suárez-Orozco, C., Abo-Zena, & Marks, 2015). First- and second-generation immigrant children in the United States makeup one-fourth of all U.S. children (Ornelas & Perreira, 2011) and are the fastest-growing student population in the United States. They are also more likely to be poor, live in urban areas, experience residential mobility, and live in overcrowded housing than native-born children. Frequently, these children experience unique stressors associated with their migration (such as possible exposure to traumatic events preceding or during migration) and acculturation processes (Potochnick & Perreira, 2010) and are later affected by the composition of the schools they attend and the neighborhoods where they live.
Intergroup Contact Theory, proposed by Allport (1954), helps understand the link between school and residential segregation and immigrants’ outcomes. This theory indicates that positive contact experiences are important to reduce self-reported prejudice. Contact theory emphasizes the importance of contact situations between immigrants and natives to induce positive affect and to reduce anxiety. Contact or interaction increases the quantity and quality of knowledge that natives have about immigrants’ lifestyle and therefore fosters important affective ties through enhanced empathy and reduced anxiety (Aberson and Haag, 2007; Vezzali et al., 2018). School and/or residential segregation of immigrants might reduce the possibility of contact between immigrants and non-immigrants and therefore might have important consequences for the shared experiences of immigrant and non-immigrant youth and for the future of American society.
Schools have a particularly important role in the development of immigrant children. According to Laosa (2001), for many students, schools could be the only influential point of direct experience with a “mainstream” socializing institution, it could also influence their active civic participation in early adulthood, and it becomes an essential part of their adaptation process and crucial to their successful integration (Callahan et al., 2008).
Immigrant youth are experiencing school segregation by race, poverty, and linguistic isolation (Suarez-Orozco et al., 2008, 89), but it appears that economic and racial segregation is most acute for Latino immigrant children: while approximately 37% of Hispanic immigrant students attend schools with more than 50% of 10th graders receiving free lunch, only 22% of Asian immigrants and 11% of white immigrant students attend schools with high concentrations of poverty. These data are consistent with data on school segregation of Latino children generally—with nearly 38% of Latino children attending schools that are 90-100% minority (Orfield & Lee, 2005). Latinos who attend segregated minority schools are also very likely to attend poorer schools where they have fewer educational resources and lower student outcomes. Relatedly, calculations using data from the Educational Longitudinal Survey (2002) show that while 32% of students whose native language is not English attend high-poverty schools (those with over 50% of 10th graders receiving free lunch), only 12% of native English-speaking students attend these schools.
Increasingly, immigrant students report that they experience racism in their school environments, teachers with lower expectations for them, and direct and indirect messages and behaviors that negatively affect their self-identify (Viramontez Anguiano & Lopez, 2012; Verma, Molney & Austin, 2017). Importantly, school segregation is most distinct in large metropolitan areas where immigrants are concentrated.
Segregation at schools refers to the separation of students based on some social, cultural, academic, or racial condition, such as immigrant status (Dupriez, 2010). There are two main types of school segregation, between school segregation and within school segregation. Between school segregation refers to the differences in the student body composition across different schools, while within schools (or in classrooms) refers mainly to differences in the student body within schools due to tracking practices that allocate educational resources and opportunities proportionate with students’ prior academic achievement, ability, and interest, and with course availability (Mickelson, 2001).
While many studies find that concentration of immigrant students are detrimental to their educational outcomes (Rao, 2014; Moody, 2001; Janmaat, 2015; Shaq & Myers, 2014; Conger, 2005), others determine that immigrant segregation has some mitigating effects (Conger, 2005; Goldsmith, 2003; Goldsmith, 2004). Findings of research on the effect of school segregation on immigrant children are divergent due to the immense diversity that exists within immigrant children and differences in methodology. School segregation of immigrant students is linked to negative effect on grades for immigrants (especially for Latinos), limited opportunities to develop friendships outside their ethnic group, lower academic achievement for ESL students and higher levels of prejudice and intolerance towards immigrants. Other studies also find potential mitigating effects of school segregation, which may be related to helping new immigrants develop networks of mutual support that help children succeed in the other areas, or facilitating the provision of specialized services to English learners. Nevertheless, any positive impacts are likely undermined if immigrant children are concentrated in high poverty schools.
Residential segregation has important effects on the social contexts of schools, communities and families of immigrants that can limit the success of these individuals’ labor and educational experiences and outcomes (Teranishi 2004; Lee, 2009; Gandara & Contrears, 2008; Logan et al., 2002; Zhu, Liu & Painter, 2014).
Immigrant children are over-represented in urban areas that tend to be very racially segregated and have very high levels of poverty. Levels of segregation are much higher for black immigrants than for Asian, Hispanic, and white immigrants (Williams & Collins, 2001). For example, suburban Dominicans and Haitians live in higher poverty residential areas than most other immigrant groups (Firebough & Farrel, 2016); and Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans experience extremely high levels of neighborhood inequality. As well, foreign-born immigrants are more segregated from native-born non-Hispanic whites than are their U.S.-born co-ethnics (Iceland & Scopililiti, 2008). This occurs in part because foreign-born Hispanics and Asians tend to have (on average) lower levels of income, lower ability in English language, and lower homeownership rates (Iceland & Scopililiti, 2008).
The causes of immigrant residential segregation are many. The main reasons include housing discrimination, and government housing and land use policies that limit access to wider housing markets (Zhu, Liu & Painter, 2014). Additionally, some immigrants may prefer to live—and find housing more easily—in locations with other immigrants or communities of similar ethnicity.
Evidence on the relationship between residential segregation and immigrants’ outcomes is not definitive. While most studies report higher levels of residential segregation as an obstacle to adaptation, upward mobility, and educational advancement, other research recognizes some advantages that living in an area with a higher number of immigrants might have on their employment status, earnings, health, and commuting behaviors (Zhu, Liu & Painter, 2014). Immigrant residential segregation discourages immigrants from interacting with natives and therefore limits immigrants’ possibilities to better adapt to the American culture, cuts their chances of upward mobility, and truncates their opportunities of educational advancement. Research also finds that residential segregation negatively affects health outcomes such as higher risk of obesity, higher depressive symptoms, and lower levels of physical activity. Residential segregation is also linked to a worsening of economic outcomes for adults if they lived in neighborhoods with a high concentration of poverty as children. As in the educational context, some studies also identified potential mitigating effects of immigrant residential segregation. For example, segregated immigrant communities may have higher access to ethnic networks that may improve labor market outcomes in the short term. This may also help cope with the stress when immigrants are experiencing discriminatory experiences. However, these positive outcomes are more likely undermined when they are combined with the high rates of residential poverty that often accompanies places where many immigrants are segregated.
Although the situation of immigrants in the United States has been studied extensively in the past, the need to understand the relationship between immigrants’ educational and residential contexts only increases with time. The demographic composition of the United States has experienced dramatic changes and immigrants and minorities make up a larger share of the population every day. Most of the findings summarized here highlight the negative outcomes for immigrants resulting from segregated schools and residential contexts, such as lower academic achievement, lower diversity acceptance, difficulties to broaden perspectives, difficulty in the adaptation into the American culture, etc. Yet, studies also identify some potential mitigating effects of segregation for immigrants—though whatever advantages appear related to attending school and residing in segregated contexts are probably offset by the higher levels of poverty in those locations. These findings suggest that school and housing integration for immigrant children is best implemented where there is a critical mass of fellow immigrants, drawing on both the benefits of integration and group cohesion.
Immigrants and their children make up a large share of the population in the United States. Therefore, immigrants’ education and labor market outcomes will play a very important role in determining the nation’s future (Iceland & Wilkes, 2006). In a country that claims to advocate for equality and fairness, there is a need to fight against immigrant school and residential segregation, but also the need to ensure housing choice for immigrant families.
Martha Cecilia Bottia (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Research Associate Professor of Sociology at UNC Charlotte. She is also an American citizen who immigrated to the US in January 2005 from Colombia.