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Immigrant Children Exceed Expectations; Studies Show That Immigrant Children Are Assimilating
by The American Immigration Law Foundation

A recently published study by sociologists Ruben Rumbaut of Michigan State University and Alejandro Portest of Princeton University indicates that millions of immigrant children have higher grades and sharply lower dropout rates than native-born American children.1 In addition, the study shows that immigrant children prefer English to the native languages of their parents.

Immigrant children positive towards US

A study released by the Russell Sage Foundation in March of 1998 measured the attitudes of children whose parents immigrated to the United States or, in some cases, immigrated to the United States themselves at a very early age.2 The study found that school age immigrant children overwhelmingly prefer to speak English rather than their parent's native language, and that education is linked to their achieving success.

Better grades among immigrant children

According to the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), immigrant high school students have uniformly higher grades than their native-born classmates and drop out one half to one third less often.3 They also do far more homework compared to other kids their age, spending an average of two hours per day, in contrast to the national average of about 30 minutes.

The CILS report also found that immigrant children living in poverty are most likely to drop out; however, most earn above-average grades. A vast majority of those interviewed believe that hard work and accomplishment can triumph over any prejudice they've experienced and feel there is no better country than the United States.

Ruben Rumbaut of the CILS study points out that virtually all of the students participating in the study are adapting linguistically. Although nine out of 10 speak another language at home, by the end of high school 88 percent of immigrant children prefer English. Rumbaut claims "English is winning. This generation is going to switch to English even faster than the European immigrants of a hundred years ago."

He also proposes that there is a close association between immigrant generation and proficiency in English and that English proficiency is an important predictor of success in at least some aspects of schooling for most racial/ethnic groups.

Trends point to assimilation

Stephan Thernstrom, an American social history professor at Harvard University, argues that we should be asking only whether these young people are becoming more successful than their parents. He proposes that in educational attainment, income, occupation, and rates of homeownership there is strong and clear-cut evidence of generational progress.4

According to Thernstrom, no one imagines the climb will be easy for newcomers, but in the long run most scholars see little reason to be concerned. "Not everyone arriving today is going to assimilate as fast as the Jews," suggests Thernstrom. "But think about the Italians or the Poles or the Slovaks. Like the poorest of today's immigrants, they too came from rural, peasant backgrounds, and though it took them a few generations, they eventually integrated."

A permanent immigrant underclass is a myth

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute points out in his research that many scholars who study the second generation now say that the pessimism towards them of the early 90s was overblown.5 There is no question that some groups of immigrants are invariably earning top grades in school. Even so, in today's booming economy, even the least educated find work.

Harvard Sociology Prof. Rodger Waldinger maintains that the prediction that many immigrants will assimilate into a "culture of poverty," is exaggerated.6

"Let's not confuse their lifestyle choices--their taste in clothes and entertainment--with real underclass behavior like criminal activity or dropping out of the labor force," argues Philip Kasinitz of the Russell Sage Foundation. "Eating junk food, watching TV, doing less homework, a loosening of family ties--that isn't `ghetto,' that's America, and for all its problems, America is still a strong, vibrant society. I don't see how you can say we're doomed just because many immigrant children are becoming more like us than their parents have."

Immigrant born children make up the future

Unlike adult immigrants who can return to their countries of origin if unsuccessful, their children are U.S. citizens and most are here to stay. Professor Waldinger states that immigrant children of later generations do substantially better than their parents both economically and academically. He says that the second and third generations patterns are almost the same as the native-born pattern.


Research has shown that the present influx of immigrants to the U.S. is bringing hardworking children who can compete academically at the same levels as native children in schools. Many scholars agree that the next generation of immigrant children will be an asset rather than a hindrance to the United States, and that today's immigrant children are on track to assimilate faster than the immigrant children who proceeded them.

Prepared May 2001


1 Rubin G. Rumbaut, "Legacies: The Stories of the Immigrant Second Generation." University of California Press. May 2001

2 Alejandro Portes, "The New Second Generation." The Russell Sage Foundation, May 1996

3 Rubin G. Rumbaut, "Achievement and Ambition Among Children of Immigrants in Southern California." February 1998.

4 Stephan Thernstrom,

5 Tamar Jacoby, "Second-Generation Question Mark." The American Enterprise. December 2000.

6 Roger Waldinger, "Second generation decline? Children of immigrants, past and present-a reconsideration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. January 1998.

About The Author

The American Immigration Law Foundation was established in 1987 as a tax-exempt, not-for-profit educational and service organization. The Foundation's mission is to promote understanding among the general public of immigration law and policy, through education, policy analysis, and support to litigators. AILF is governed by a Board of Directors and a Board of Trustees.

Working closely with leading immigration experts throughout the country, AILF has established three core program areas: the Legal Action Center, the Public Education Program, and an Exchange Visitor Program. Through these programs, the Foundation sponsors numerous awards programs, publishes policy reports, engages in impact litigation, and provides policymakers and the public with complete and accurate information about the benefits of immigration.