Immigrant Communities and Social Mobility: Alejandro Portes

Immigrant Communities and Social Mobility: Alejandro Portes

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Generally assimilation is the
process by which immigrants or their children
learn the language and culture of the receiving society — that
is, the process by which they become Americans. In the past, the idea was that
that was a homogeneous process which they will all go through
the same, in a sense, path and eventually join the
great American mainstream. But what we observe is that
the process is segmented. One in every four
Americans is an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. Some experience what may be
called upward assimilation. And others actually,
unfortunately, experience a downward
assimilation — in which they assimilate,
but they assimilate often to the culture of
drugs and gangs. And then it becomes very
difficult to climb up. The question that
we face today is not that children of immigrants will
assimilate to American society but to what segment of that
society they will assimilate. What we did was
ask that question by taking a large sample
of immigrants or children of immigrants and
those that were not, at random, in the eighth
and ninth grades in about 50 schools in southern
California and southern Florida — interviewing them
about their backgrounds, their ambitions
for their future, and then following
them until the time that they graduated from high
school at average age 18, and then further until
the time that they enter young adulthood — about age 24. It was possible to
say not only how they were doing in
early adult life — vocationally, occupationally,
in terms of their identities and so on — but also what
had been the forces leading some toward success and a
university career and others in the opposite direction
to have dropped out of school or even been
in prison by age 24. We were able to
determine that there are three major determinants of
different paths of adaptation in the second generation. Parental education and
occupation — that’s what we call human capital. The family structure —
whether the family stays together and so on. And the context of
reception. And that’s defined by the policies of the
government toward that group, the attitudes of the general
public — positive, negative, or indifferent —
and the strength of the existing community
of their same ethnicity. Some groups are
positively received. They are seen as
“model” minorities, or they are doing
relatively well. And they come with legal status. Others, on the other hand,
because of reasons of color — they may be black
immigrants — or by reasons of a large component of
undocumented immigrants, they tend to be
seen with suspicion. And in that sense, they are
subject to discrimination — official and not official —
a sense of racism that makes it difficult for
them to adjust successfully. I think that it’s possible to
summarize it in three paths. The first path occurs when
the parents themselves, they may even have parents
themselves that have generally high
levels of education that allows them to access good
positions — engineers, doctors, and so on. Most of that immigration
to the United States comes from Asian countries. They have the means to move up,
and this is path number one. The second path in which parents
are not that educated and so, but they have very
cohesive families and cohesive communities
that support the parents, so that in a sense
they supplement the absence of human capital
with a lot of social capital. And those support the
parents and the kids in their quest to stay in
a school and move upwards. And the third path is the
one where there is not high levels of education,
and their communities are relatively weak and often
are discriminated against. They experience, the
parents and the kids, a negative context of reception. And that translates into
a greater likelihood of abandoning school,
joining gangs or doing other things that
at an early age set a course that is exactly
the opposite of being successful assimilation. And about 15% to
20% of the children followed over this
time have experienced downward assimilation. It’s a minority, but it’s
a very sizable minority. It is not the fact
that that the parents are Mexican, Chinese, Filipino. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that
these nationalities tend to be associated with
different levels of the three key factors that we saw before. Because of the segmented path
and the path that we have seen, there are some that are
doing very well, thank you. And they don’t need any kind
of external support and so on. Paths one and two will lead
into successful stories. But those that are
following the third path are very much in
need of assistance. In every case that we saw
of this kind of overcoming disadvantages by age 24
and getting an education, there was either a
voluntary program that came to those bad
schools and took the kids to trips and to college — and
some voluntary programs work– and second, somebody, we call it
significant others, somebody — a teacher, a counselor,
an older sibling — that took an interest in the
child and guided him or her to things that the parents could
not do — how to do the SATs, when to apply for
college, and so on. There are things that can
be done at this point, but they require
external assistance, in the sense of detailed
interest in the child, and a continuation and
expansion of voluntary programs in the poorer schools
in our country. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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