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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Immigration and Adult Transitions
Ruben G. Rumbaut Golnaz Komaie


Immigration in the United States is quintessentially the province of the young. Six out of seven immigrants arrive in early adulthood or as children accompanying their young adult parents. Relative to natives, their youthful age structure and higher fertility have combined to produce a rapidly growing, U.S.-born second generation, with median ages still in the teens, who will enter adulthood by the millions in the coming decade. As this process plays out, the transition to adulthood will become more significantly a generational story—made more complex by the much greater ethnic diversity and social inequalities that exist among young adults. Social scientists who study this period of the life course must take these new dynamics into account.

Before the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the foreign-born population of the United States surpassed 40 million, an unprecedented total that reflected the evolution of a new era of migration since the 1960s. Fifty years ago young baby boomers, overwhelmingly of native stock, were beginning their transition to adulthood in a society undergoing rapid social change. Today as those baby boomers approach retirement, eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds are increasingly a foreign-stock population of diverse Latin American and Asian origins. Nationally, nearly 30 percent of American young adults already are of foreign stock—and that proportion doubles to 60 percent in key areas of immigrant concentration, notably in California, Florida, New York, and Texas. The transitions to adulthood of all these newcomers do not play out in the same way or in the same contexts.

Generational status matters. For the newcomers, adult status transitions—leaving the parental home, exiting (or prolonging) formal education, entering into full-time work, marriage, and having children—differ sharply between the first and second generations, and both differ in turn from conventional U.S. norms. Those patterns also vary by ethnicity and by socioeconomic and legal status. The new immigration has brought highly skilled professionals, labor migrants with little education, and refugees escaping harrowing circumstances. Some 1.5- and second-generation groups have made extraordinary strides in early adulthood, outdistancing middle-class natives both educationally and occupationally. But a significant segment of these young adult newcomers is falling behind. Most vulnerable—accounting for almost half of all young adult immigrants—are those who lack legal permanent residency.

The DREAM Act, a legislative initiative aimed at the most successful portion of that population, offers at best a partial policy remedy to a much larger social problem. That a divided Congress has allowed it to languish for nearly a decade, along with other measures aimed at comprehensive immigration reform, is shortsighted. As the native-parentage labor force continues to shrink in the United States in the coming decades—a process that will accelerate as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age—immigrants and their children are expected to account for most of the growth of the U.S. labor force, with the fastest-growing occupations requiring college degrees. California already lacks enough college graduates to meet demand.37 A key to the future of California—and to that of a nation being transformed by immigration—will be how the rapidly expanding generation of young adults of immigrant origin is incorporated in its economy, polity, and society. Virtually every aspect of that incorporation will be affected by their access to and attainment of postsecondary education and the manifold payoffs to that education. For a sizable proportion of the nation's immigrant population, that access is now blocked. The predictable result of political inaction—exacerbated since 2007 by a deep and prolonged economic recession—will be enduring ethnic inequalities among young adults.