Bilingualism, Undocumented Immigrants, and the American Dream

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Rick Perry is at it again. A month ago, Perry, the governor of my home state, enlisted 1,000 National Guard members to help shore up the 1200 mile border Texas shares with Mexico. Two days ago, the New York Times reported that Perry’s administration has since hired game wardens, generally responsible for enforcing boating, hunting, and fishing regulations, to help make arrests and deportations of illegal immigrants. The Times also reports that Texas has spent $500 million in the last ten years on immigration policy and enforcement.

Immigration, particularly from Mexican and Central American citizens, presents an interesting ethical conundrum. What do we do when destitute internationals escape national poverty and violence, cross our borders (with or without appropriate documentation) and seek to participate in the “American Dream”? Do we accept these people with open arms and help them acculturate? Is the U.S. even structurally capable of accepting millions of immigrants a year when it struggles to provide consistent employment and adequate housing and healthcare for many of its own? I disagree with the process by which Governor Perry enforced his solution, but at least he presented a solution, something many in border states claim Washington has been arduous in providing. I don’t envy Perry’s position, as his state hosts approximately 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, accounting for around 7% of the population and 9% of Texas’ labor force.

Governor Perry’s cries about immigration have recently been the loudest (surprise), but many states have been affected by a recent influx of immigrants. Massachusetts, for instance, has around a million residents that were born outside of the United States, approximately 17% of which are undocumented. Governor Deval Patrick has offered to host thousands of Central American children, leading to a recent protest at the State House, where hundreds of Bostonians held up signs such as “Americans before Illegals”. While it’s easy to blame President Obama’s administration for recent border woes, in reality, as the above chart, presented by The Migration Policy, suggests, the current immigration anxieties seem to be a culmination of a 40-year long trend. In the 1990s, for example, approximately 12 million immigrants (the above chart assesses for both documented and estimated undocumented immigrants) arrived in the United States, so that by 2000, over 10% of American residents were born outside of the U.S., a number that’s increased a few percentage points this millennium.

Many policy conversations seem to center around how to stop the bleeding by sealing up the borders or increasing deportation, After all, as Reuters reports, approximately 70% of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants will take away American jobs, beliefs, and customs. (There haven’t been studies done on one’s ability to distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants, though I hypothesize that many Americans tend to lump them, particularly Latin American immigrants, together, especially recently.) Few policy conversations have discussed long-term care and development for immigrants.

Immigrants utilize their strengths and cultures to participate in the U.S. job market. Immigrants begin families in the U.S. Anna Brown, analyst at the Pew Research Center, reminds us there were approximately 800,000 more Latino births than deaths in 2012. The median age for Asian immigrants falls close to the national average (late 30s), while the median age for Latinos is 28. (Note: Undocumented immigrants provide statistical challenges for researchers. Brown analyzed data from the Census Bureau, which only counts documented citizens. We can only provide estimates for undocumented immigrants, which range between 12 and 20 million. Nevertheless, these people start/relocate families into the United States, creating second-generation immigrants, or people born in the U.S. to immigrants.)

How can we create policy and social structures that ensure that immigrants attain and maintain a high quality of life, with successes passed through generations?

Family research provides a wonderful venue for assessing how current immigrants describe their sense of self and ability to succeed. Dr. Meifen Wei, professor of psychology at Iowa State, and her student, Stephanie Carrera, gave approximately 240 Latino/a university students, 63% of whom were second-generation immigrants, and 70% of whom were Mexican, a diversity of assessments regarding their personal and familial acculturation process, differentiation (the ability to separate and live interdependently from one’s family of origin with limited anxiety), and depression levels. In “Bicultural Competence, Acculturative Family Distancing, and Future Depression in Latino/a College Students”, published in July’s Journal of Counseling Psychology, Wei and Carrera discovered that Latino/a students with low risks for/levels of depression were more likely to come from bicultural families, families that lived comfortably within two cultural groups without sacrificing the beliefs and values of their original culture, while families that struggled with biculturalism were more likely to produce young adults who struggle with depression and anxiety.

Biculturalism seems to play a significant part in a Latino (and potentially other recent immigrant populations) child’s success. In the next post, we’ll think a little bit more about attaining biculturalism, including how undocumented immigrants and families may struggle to attain it. But for now, I want to return to the current immigration conversation. Acculturation decisions lie mainly in the hands of immigrant families–which language is to be used at home, how homogenous a family’s social network is, etc. I’m curious about the effect of our current conversation about immigration, specifically the process by which some are having it, on immigrant families. If biculturalism is a key to success for immigrant families, what role do American nationals (including myself) play in helping immigrant families achieve it?

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