Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Until recently, social inequalities among Americans (and among young adults in particular) have been seen through a prism of black-white differences. Although major socioeconomic differences persist between native whites and blacks, the social and economic divides between immigrant-origin groups, who are overwhelmingly Hispanics and Asians, are even larger. The ethnic diversity of contemporary immigrants pales in comparison with the diversity of their social class origins. By far the most-educated (Indians) and the least-educated (Mexicans) groups in the United States today are first-generation immigrants, as are the groups with the lowest poverty rate (Filipinos) and the highest poverty rate (Dominicans)—a reflection of the fundamentally different ways they enter the country: through regular immigration channels, without legal authorization, or as state-sponsored refugees. And their differing legal status interacts with their human capital to shape distinct modes of incorporation.
"Brain drain" professionals mainly enter under the occupational preferences of U.S. law, which favor the highly skilled and educated. Also found among the first waves of refugee flows, these professionals are more likely to become naturalized citizens and, usually within the first generation, home-owners in the suburbs. The undocumented consist disproportionately of manual laborers with less than a high school education, whose legal vulnerability makes them economically exploitable and likely to be concentrated in central cities. Their children in turn tend to grow up in neighborhoods and attend schools where they are exposed disproportionately to peer groups involved with youth gangs and intergroup violence. Indeed, an unauthorized status can affect virtually every facet of an immigrant's life—especially during the transition to adulthood.6 The size and concentration of this vulnerable young adult population is significant. By 2008, more than a quarter of the foreign-born population—an estimated 11.6 million people—were undocumented immigrants, by far the largest number and share in U.S. history. Half (49 percent) of the undocumented were young adults eighteen to thirty-four, and another 13 percent were children under eighteen.7 We turn now to examine generational and ethnic differences in the transition to adulthood and how adult transitions are affected by patterns of socioeconomic and legal inequality among immigrant-origin groups.