Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

The Adaptation of Migrant Children
Alejandro Portes Alejandro Rivas


The rapid growth of the immigrant population in the United States is one of the most important demographic and social trends confronting this society. Close to 13 percent of the U.S. population today is foreign-born. In 2008, 1.11 million immigrants were admitted for legal permanent residence; another 72,000 as refugees and asylees.1 Although the flow of unauthorized immigration slowed in the wake of the economic crises beginning in 2007, the resident unauthorized population approaches, according to the best estimates, 12.5 million.2

Among the most important social consequences of this large immigrant flow are the reconstitution of families divided by migration and the procreation of a new generation. Unlike adult immigrants, who are born and educated in a foreign society and whose outlook and plans are indelibly marked by that experience, the children of immigrants commonly become full-fledged members of the host society with outlooks and plans of their own.3 If their numbers are large, socializing these new citizens and preparing them to become productive and successful in adulthood becomes a major policy concern.

That is the challenge facing the United States today. The rapid growth and diversity of this young population have naturally sparked worries and questions about its future. We review in the next section the various theoretical perspectives that researchers have advanced on the question of how young immigrants are adapting to life in the United States and shaping their futures, but first it is necessary to make some important preliminary distinctions. Although public discourse and some academic essays treat this young population in blanket terms, the truth is that the term migrant children conceals more than it reveals because of the heterogeneity of its component groups.

First, there is a significant difference between children born abroad and those born in the host society. The former are immigrant children, while the latter are children of immigrants—the first and second immigrant generation, respectively. Research points to major differences in the social and cultural adaptation of the two groups.4 Another distinct group, the "1.5 generation," includes children born abroad, but brought to the host society at an early age, making them sociologically closer to the second generation.

These young immigrants also differ by their countries of origin and their socioeconomic background. It turns out, though, that the two characteristics overlap to a large degree because immigration to the United States has divided into two streams. One is made up of highly skilled professional workers coming to fill positions in high-tech industry, research centers, and health services. The other is a larger manual labor flow seeking employment in labor-intensive industries such as agriculture, construction, and personal services.5 Professional migration, greatly aided by the H1-B temporary visa for highly skilled workers that was approved by Congress in 1990, comes primarily from Asia, mainly from India and China, with smaller tributaries from the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Manual labor migration comes overwhelmingly from adjacent Mexico, and secondarily from other countries of Central America and from the Caribbean. To the disadvantages attached to their low skills and education are added those of a tenuous legal status, as the majority of these migrants come surreptitiously or with short-term visas.6

To the extent that migrant workers, either professional or manual, return promptly to their countries of origin, no major consequences accrue to the host society. In reality, however, many of them, both professionals and manual workers, stay and either bring their families or create new families where they settle. Over time, the divide in the major sources of contemporary migration has given rise to two distinct pan-ethnic populations in the United States—"Asian Americans," by and large the offspring of high-human-capital migrants, and "Hispanics," the majority of whom are manual workers and their descendants. 7 Vast differences in the human capital origins of these populations and in the way they are received in the United States translate into significant disparities in the resources available to families and ethnic communities to raise a new generation in America. Naturally, the outcomes in acculturation and social and economic adaptation vary accordingly.

The research literature has focused on these differences, although it has been largely oblivious of their historical origins, treating "Hispanic" and "Asian" as almost timeless, immanent categories. In examining research findings about the adaptation of migrant youths from these distinct groups, it is important to keep in mind that adaptation is not a process that happens to a child alone. Rather, it entails constant interaction with others. Language and cultural learning, for example, involve not just the individual but the family, with parents and children commonly acculturating at different paces. Similarly, self-esteem and future aspirations are not developed in isolation or even under the influence of families alone. And many circumstances (including, for example, age of migration) shape the varied types of social interactions that migrant children will have in the host society.