School-Age Children in Immigrant Families: Challenges and Opportunities for America’s Schools
by Donald J. Hernandez, Nancy A. Denton & Suzanne E. Macartney - 2009
Background/Context: By the year 2030, when the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964 will be in the retirement ages, 72% of the elderly will be non-Hispanic Whites, compared with 56% for working-age adults, and 50% for children. As the predominantly White baby boomers reach retirement, they will increasingly depend for economic support on the productive activities and civic participation of working-age adults who are members of racial and ethnic minorities and, in many cases, children of immigrants. To prepare these young people for lives as productive workers and engaged citizens, we need to pay more attention to creating conditions that will foster their educational success. The profound shift taking place in the composition of the school-age population has implications for schools.
Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study: This article presents a demographic overview of school-age children in immigrant families and compares them with their peers in native-born families. After tracing the shift in the national origins of children of immigrants that has taken place over the past century, we consider the new challenges and opportunities presented to the education system by the socioeconomic, cultural, and religious diversity of this new and growing population of students and by their presence in a growing number of suburban and rural, as well as urban, communities.
Population/Participants/Subjects: This research uses data from Census 2000 to study children in immigrant families who have at least one foreign-born parent compared with children in native-born families who were born in the United States to U.S.-born parents.
Research Design: This research is a secondary analysis of data from Census 2000.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Immigration is transforming the demography of America. In less than three decades, a majority of children are likely to belong to race-ethnic minorities who are Hispanic, Black, Asian, or another non-White race, mainly because of immigration and births to immigrants and their descendants. The educational success achieved by immigrant groups, and their subsequent economic productivity, is important not only to the groups themselves but also to the broad American population because these groups will compose an increasingly important segment of the U.S. labor force during the next few decades; this labor force will be supporting the predominantly White baby boom generation throughout their retirement years. As we increasingly become a nation of minorities, with no single race-ethnic group in the majority, the educational success of all children, especially the rapidly growing population of children in immigrant families, merits increasing attention from teachers, school administrators, and public officials.
In the year 2000, a fifth of all children in the United States were either born abroad or had at least one immigrant parent. Although this is not the first time that American schools have faced the challenge of teaching such a large number of children of immigrants, todays cohort differs in important ways from those of the past. Drawing on new analysis of the 2000 census, this article presents a demographic overview of school-age children in immigrant families and compares them with their peers in native-born families. This analysis was conducted by the authors using the 2000 Census Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) 5% microdata file prepared by Ruggles et al. (2004).1 After tracing the shift in the national origins of children of immigrants that has taken place over the past century, we consider the new challenges and opportunities presented to the education system by the socioeconomic, cultural, and religious diversity of this new and growing population of students and by their presence in a growing number of suburban and rural, as well as urban, communities.
THE CHANGING ORIGINS OF IMMIGRANT FAMILIES
In many ways, the turn of the 21st century mirrors that of the last. In 1910, as the result of a massive wave of migration in the preceding decades, 28% of all U.S. children lived in immigrant families. The percentage is only slightly lower today. But the children of immigrants growing up in the United States now differ in important ways from their predecessors (Hernandez & Darke, 1999a). In 1910, nearly all children of immigrants had parents who came from Europe (87%) or Canada (10%). Half were from Northern and Western Europe, specifically Germany (20%), Scandinavia (11%), Ireland (10%), and the United Kingdom (9%), and a smaller proportion were from Southern and Eastern Europe, including many children from Italy (9%), Poland (7%), and Austria (6%). Russia and Hungary each accounted for an additional 3%. Researchers have identified another 7%, mostly immigrants from Russia, as Jewish on the basis of their speaking Yiddish or Hebrew as their mother tongue (Watkins, 1994).
Although most children of immigrants were from countries with predominantly White and Christian populations, like contemporary immigrants, the new arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe were generally perceived as distinct in culture and race and therefore seen as presenting a challenge to the cultural and national identity of the United States. A massive government study, the Joint U.S. Immigration Commission (known as the Dillingham Commission), drew sharp distinctions between the old Northern and Western European immigrants and the new Southern and Eastern European immigrants (U.S. Immigration Commission, 1911). Anthropologists, scientists, and policy makers shared with the public the view that the new immigrants posed problems because they were likely to dilute the cultural and racial purity of native-born Americans whose origins were mainly Northern and Western European.
These fears proved ungrounded. A thorough assessment using 1980 census data found that although White ethnic groups had maintained some distinctive patterns, many differences had disappeared, including differences in fertility and family size and in socioeconomic indicators such as educational attainment. High levels of intermarriage among White ethnic groups reflected, and also contributed to, a high degree of cultural assimilation (Lieberson & Waters, 1988), leaving some researchers to conclude that for this cohort of immigrants, ethnic identity had become optional (Alba, 1990; Waters 1990).
After World War I broke out in 1914, immigration fell precipitously, to an average of 357,000 persons per year between 1915 and 1930. The Great Depression and World War II brought a further decline: Between 1931 and 1945, fewer than 50,000 immigrants entered the United States each year. Although immigration subsequently rose to 240,000 a year between 1946 and 1965, not until after 1965 did it return consistently to levels of more than 300,000 a year (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975). The post-1965 increase reflected the abolition of national origin quotas that, since 1924, had favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe and curbed immigration from the Southern and Eastern parts of the continent.
National quotas did not, however, apply to the Western Hemisphere, and the demand for agricultural workers during World War I brought immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines. The Bracero Program, which lasted until 1964, effectively encouraged Mexican immigration, including undocumented immigration (Pedraza, 1996; Rumbaut, 1996). As a result of this change in major sending countries, by 1960, the proportion of children in immigrant families from Europe had declined to 56%, with another 15% from Canada, whereas the proportion with origins in Latin America (mainly Mexico) had jumped from 2% to 18% between 1910 and 1960, and the proportion with Asian origins expanded from 1% to 7% (Hernandez & Darke, 1999b).
The number of immigrants soared during subsequent decades, and the number of children living in immigrant families rose from only 6% in 1960 to 20% in 2000. The shift in immigrant origins away from Europe also continued, and by Census 2000, immigrant families were mainly from Latin America (62%) and Asia (22%), with another 2% each from Africa and Canada. Meanwhile, between 1910 and 2000, the proportion from Europe and Canada plummeted from 97% to 14%. This continental shift has dramatically increased the diversity of race-ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of the immigrant population.
Most Latin American immigrants come from countries with predominantly Christian (mainly Roman Catholic) populations, but they are primarily Spanish speaking and often visibly distinguishable from the native White population. Meanwhile, immigrants from Asia and Africa come from countries with populations that are clearly not White and who may be Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, Taoist, or Zoroastrian and who speak a stunning variety of languages. Language and religion overlap and intersect in complex ways. People speaking the same or mutually intelligible languages (e.g., Hindi and Urdu) from the same or neighboring countries (e.g., India and Pakistan) may practice different religions (Hinduism and Islam), whereas persons practicing the same religion (Buddhism) may come from different countries with quite different languages (e.g., Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan).
The census does not ask about religious preferences, but we do have information about race-ethnicity, country of birth, language spoken at home, and a wide away of socioeconomic variables. Next, we draw on these data to sketch a picture of this new, diverse cohort of children of immigrants and the challenges and opportunities they present to education systems responsible for assuring that they acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the U.S. economy and society.
Results are presented for school-age children 517 years old in immigrant families, for a total of 30 distinct national, regional, or ethnic immigrant origin groups, and in native-born families for 9 race-ethnic groups. After reviewing the socioeconomic status of the families in which the children grew up, we discuss differences in access of young children aged 3 and 4 in immigrant and native-born families to early education programs that can promote school readiness and educational success, differences in educational outcomes for young adults aged 2024 in various groups, and the implications of immigration for race-ethnic diversity. The article closes by discussing the wide dispersion of major immigrant groups across the United States, and reviews indicators pertaining specifically to immigrant circumstances, such as duration of residence in the United States, language spoken at home, and English fluency.
Parental education is a strong predictor of childrens educational attainment for many reasons (Featherman & Hauser, 1978). Not only do highly educated parents generally earn more and have more resources to invest in their childrens education, but they are also in a better position to help their children with homework and to offer advice on problems at school. They are also generally better informed about available educational options and able to work with teachers and administrators on behalf of their children.
Because immigrants to the United States include both uneducated labor migrants and highly educated skilled workers and professionals, overall, the educational profile of immigrant parents is much more diverse than that of native-born parents (Table 1). Children in immigrant families are almost as likely as children in native-born families to have highly educated parents. Twenty-three percent of children of immigrants have a father with at least a bachelors degree, compared with 27% of native-born children. For mothers, the gap is a little wider: 18% of children of immigrants and 23% of native-born children have mothers with a BA.
Table 1. Parental Education
However, children of immigrants are much more likely than the native born to have uneducated parents who have not graduated from high school (40%41% vs. 12%). Even more striking, 24% of children in immigrant families have a father or mother who has completed only 08 years of school, compared with a tiny 2% for children in native-born families. Thus, one fourth of children in immigrant families have parents who have not entered, let alone completed, high school.
There is considerable diversity in parental educational attainment by race/ethnicity within both the immigrant and native populations. For example, the percentage of children in native-born families whose fathers have a college degree ranges from 43% for Asians and 31% for Whites to only 13%17% for other major race-ethnic groups, including Blacks and Hispanics. But again, there is greater diversity among immigrant families. Among some groups, the percentage of highly educated parents is higher than among native-born Whites: 50%80% of immigrant fathers from Africa (both Black and White), Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Pakistan/Bangladesh, and Iran are college graduates. Although the educational systems in these countries may be different from that of the United States, these parents are nonetheless in an advantaged position when it comes to guiding the education of their children. Among other groups, very few parents have a college degree: Only 4%10% of children with origins in Mexico, Central America, Cambodia, and Laos (including the Hmong) had college-educated fathers.
At the lowest educational levels, differences between the immigrant and native groups are even more striking. It is very rare5% or lessfor native-born parents of any group except Island-born Puerto Ricans to have less than 9 years of schooling. This is also true of immigrant parents from many regions, including Africa (Blacks and Whites), the Caribbean (Jamaica), East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines), West Asia (India, Pakistan/Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel/Palestine), and Europe. But a much higher proportion of immigrant parents from certain countries have less than a high school education: 21% of those from the Dominican Republic, 27% from Thailand, 30%35% from Central America, Cambodia, and Laos, and 44%48% from Mexico and among the Hmong. Because several of these countries, particularly Mexico, are responsible for a high percentage of all migration to the United States, this means that a great many children are growing up with parents who have little formal education themselves and who are at a disadvantage when it comes to helping their children. Other groups, such as the Hmong, may be small in numerical terms, but they are often geographically concentrated, with the result that particular schools or districts will also face the challenge of engaging parents who have little experience of education and providing their children with a good education.
ECONOMIC NEED: OFFICIAL AND BASIC BUDGET POVERTY
Children in poor families often lack resources, including decent housing, food, clothing, books, and other educational resources. And they often cannot afford good child care, early education programs, or adequate health care. It is not surprising that children in low-income families tend to be less successful in school and to have lower overall educational attainment than children in more prosperous families (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; McLoyd, 1998). Parental income, in fact, has a greater influence on childrens cognitive ability and academic achievement than mothers education level or living in a one-parent family (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Thus, schools with large numbers of poor children confront special challenges in assuring the educational success of their students.
Although everyone agrees that poverty is important, it is hard to measure precisely, and the official poverty line has been subject to increasing criticism. It has been updated since 1965 for inflation but not to account for increases in the real standard of living, and critics argue that it underestimates the real level of poverty in the United States. An alternative measure is often cited, which sets the poverty threshold at 200% of the official level, and major public programs for children are increasingly setting eligibility criteria at higher levels (Hernandez, 2004). However, neither of these measures takes into account the local cost of living, which varies greatly across the United States and between metropolitan and rural areas (Citro & Michael, 1995; Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2007). Most important for our purposes, the official poverty measure does not take into account the local cost of early education, which can promote childrens school readiness and educational success (Haskins & Rouse, 2005; Lynch, 2004).
To address these problems, we present not only estimates of economic need drawing the line at 200% of the official poverty threshold but also Basic Budget Poverty rates developed by the author based on work by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., which take into account federal taxes and the local cost of various goods and services (Bernstein, Brocht, & Spade-Aguilar, 2000; Boushey, Brocht, Gundersen, & Bernstein, 2001; Hernandez et al., 2007). Because the Basic Budget Poverty rate takes account of the local cost of living, it is particularly helpful in determining poverty rates among specific immigrant groups that tend to be concentrated in particular geographical areas.
Even if we use the official measure, poverty rates among both immigrant and native-born families vary considerably. Among the native born, children in White and Asian families have much lower poverty rates (7%8%) than those of other race-ethnic groups (19%34%). Some immigrant groupsnine in our samplehave similar official poverty rates to Whites, and another five are only a little higher, as high as 15%. But official poverty rates among children in immigrant families from Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, as well as most Indochinese groups, Pakistan/Bangladesh, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, and Blacks from Africa, are 34 times greater (20%32%) than for Whites. Official poverty reaches the extraordinary level of 36%42% for children in Hmong and Cambodian immigrant families. Because poverty is especially high among some of the largest immigrant groups, including Mexicans (who account for 39% of all children of immigrants), the overall official poverty rate for children of immigrants is more than 50% higher than among children in native-born families (20% vs. 13%).
Poverty estimates for particular groups based on 200% of the official threshold are generally 23 times higher than those indicated by the official measure, and results based on the Basic Budget Poverty measure are similar or slightly higher than the 200% measure. Overall, the Basic Budget Poverty rate, which includes early education/child care, is much higher for children in immigrant families than for those in native-born families (46% vs. 30%). It is not surprising that the lowest rates of 17%25% are found among groups with high parental educational attainment, children in native-born families who are White or Asian, children in immigrant families from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Iran, Europe, and Whites from Africa.
But Basic Budget Poverty is also very high (41%48%) for some immigrant groups with comparatively high parental education attainment, including Blacks from Africa and immigrant families from Pakistan/Bangladesh and the former Soviet Union. Basic Budget Poverty rates are in a similar range or higher for children in an additional 15 immigrant and 4 native-born groups. Severe rates of poverty (50%61%) are experienced by children in immigrant families from Central America, Haiti, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Afghanistan, and by native-born families who are Black or mainland-origin Puerto Rican. However, the children most likely to be poor are in immigrant families from Mexico and the Dominican Republic (64%65%), or Hmong (78%).
As a result, although the range is larger among immigrant groups, overall, children in immigrant families are nearly 75% more likely to be poor than children in native-born families. The groups with the highest poverty rates are often, but not always, those with especially low parental educational attainments and also include some of the biggest immigrant groups. Their children merit special attention from educators because of the confluence of major risk factors, although children in groups with high parental education but high poverty rates also are likely to have needs that exceed those of more affluent students.
In general, the presence of more adults in a childs life is beneficial, providing not only additional financial resources but also emotional support, supervision, and guidance. Previous research has found that children living with only one parent tend to be less successful in school than children living with two parents, although the difference is not enormous (Cherlin, 1999; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994), and scholars have recently begun to consider the role of other kin, particularly grandparents, in supporting childrens educational attainment.
Although school-age children of immigrants often live in poor families and have parents with little education, they often have the advantage of growing up with both parents. Whereas only about three quarters of native-born children had two parents in the home, 83% of children of immigrants did so (Table 2). For two thirds of the groups studied here, the proportion of children of immigrants living with one parent is lower than among native-born Whites (7%16% compared with 18%), and there is not a direct relationship between poverty and single-headed households. Many immigrant groups in which parental educational attainment is low and poverty rates are high have low rates of single parenthood, including the Hmong and immigrants from Mexico, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan/Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the former Soviet Union.
Table 2. Poverty, Family Composition and Parental Employment
The proportion of children in one-parent families rises to 21% for the native Asian group, and 25%39% for the other native groups, with the exception of Blacks (54%) and mainland-origin Puerto Ricans (50%). Only six immigrant groups fall near or within this range, including Blacks from Africa (27%) and those with origins in Cambodia (26%), the English-speaking Caribbean and Haiti (32%33%), and Jamaica and the Dominican Republic (37%38%). Thus, children in immigrant families from most countries, including most of those with low parental education and high poverty rates, are advantaged relative to their native-born peers in being more likely to have two parents available in the home to provide for their social, emotional, and economic needs and thus foster their success in school.
Other family members can also be important in helping to raise children. In particular, many children in immigrant families have grandparents in the home to nurture and supervise them. This is quite rare among native-born White families: Only 7% of school-age White children have a grandparent in the home. In contrast, at least 13% of children of immigrants from 20 of the 30 countries/regions studied had a resident grandparent. This includes all the countries with low parental education or high poverty rates, except Afghanistan and Blacks from Africa, among whom 6%8% have a grandparent in the home (Table 2).
On the other hand, although the presence of more people in the home can be beneficial, large families can also strain resources. Children in immigrant families from countries with low parental education and high poverty rates also tend to grow up in larger families (with four or more siblings) and sometimes other relatives or nonrelatives in the home. Parents and other working relatives must then provide food, clothing, and other necessities for a greater number of children and also pay for early education and other school-related costs. Overcrowded housing conditions may also make it difficult for students to find a quiet place to study. The proportion of school-age children living in overcrowded housing (more than one person per room) is more than 40% in immigrant families from Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Indochina, Pakistan/Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, and among Blacks from Africa (Table 2).
PARENTS AND OTHER WORKERS IN THE HOME
Immigrant families generally come to the United States with the intent of working hard to build a better future for themselves and their children. Reflecting this commitment, immigrant parents have high rates of labor force participation, with little difference across groups (Table 2). Almost 90% of school-age children of immigrants whose fathers live with them have fathers who are employed. In only a few cases is the employment rate lower, among children from Indochina (71%81%), Afghanistan (87%), Iraq (84%), and the Dominican Republic (86%). Most school-age children also have mothers who are employed: 60%80% for most countries/regions of origin, but slightly lower (53%56%) for children with origins in Mexico, and some Indochinese and West Asian regions (Table 2). Many children in immigrant families also have an additional worker in the home, particularly children from those groups that tend to have additional relatives or nonrelatives living with them (Table 2). Sixteen percent of White school-age children in native-born families live in homes with an additional worker, and this climbs to 24%33% for children with origins in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Indochina. To the extent that these additional workers share their income, children in these families may have more resources available to them.
At the same time, many children of immigrants experience the economic insecurity associated with having a father who is not able to find full-time year-round work. Only 16% of Whites in native-born families have fathers who do not work full-time year-round, but this climbs to about 20%25% for school-age children in immigrant groups and to 30%46% for those with origins in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Indochina. The proportions are equally high for school-age children from Afghanistan, and the former Soviet Union, and among Blacks from Africa.
Thus, many school-age children in immigrant families live with two parents in hardworking families, and many include additional workers beyond the parents. The presence of more working adults helps to bring more resources into the household and exposes children to a strong work ethic that may encourage them to succeed in school. At the same time, however, the lives of children in many immigrant families are punctuated by the economic insecurity resulting from the erratic employment of their fathers. The anxiety and disruption that this causes may undermine the ability of children to concentrate on their schoolwork and may also lead to frequent school changes if the parents need to move in search of work.
ENGLISH AND OTHER LANGUAGES IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
As we have seen, immigrant families are very diverse in terms of their socioeconomic status. Many children of immigrants, including the majority of those in large immigrant groups such as Mexicans and Dominicans, grow up in poor families. But others, including many of those with parents from East and South Asia, have parents whose educational level and income equal or surpass those of native-born Whites.
The way in which children of immigrants most often differ from their native-born peers is not in their socioeconomic status but in the area of language. Although some immigrants, mostly West Indians, come from English-speaking countries, most do not. The majority of immigrants now come from Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America, with the others speaking a wide array of Asian, African, European, and other languages.
Many children in immigrant families (26%) have limited proficiency in English, which can present substantial challenges for students and teachers, especially in schools with English-only curricula. However, a much larger proportion of children (46%) are potentially bilingual because they speak English fluently while speaking a language other than English at home (Table 3). Only among Hmong children is the proportion (45%) speaking English very well smaller than the proportion (51%) with limited English proficiency. Even children in the groups with the highest Basic Budget Poverty rates are more likely to be fluent in English (42%66%) than to be limited English proficient (27%38%).
It is particularly noteworthy that among the largest group of children in immigrant families, those with origins in Mexico, more than half (53%) are potentially bilingual, speaking English very well and also a mother tongue, whereas 38% lack proficiency in English. Among other groups, children who speak a mother tongue at home and speak English very well predominate: The proportions of those who are possibly bilingual and those who are English language learners are 51% versus 33% for children from China, 49% versus 23% for Hong Kong, and 60% versus 20% for Taiwan. The same is true for children with origins in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, among whom 51%66% are English fluent, compared with 13%23% who are limited English proficient.
Overall, between 10% and 40% of children in most immigrant groups are limited English proficient, which can pose special challenges to schools they attend. At the same time, nearly half to two thirds of children in most immigrant groups speak English very well and also speak in their parents language. If they can maintain and develop their bilingual skills, these children represent an enormous potential resource for building connections throughout the world, including regions where the United States has important economic and geopolitical interestsperhaps most notably, Latin America, China, and the Arabic-speaking and Persian-speaking nations of West Asia. Education policies fostering bilingualism among children in immigrant families could provide a valuable competitive edge as the United States seeks to position itself in the increasingly competitive global economy.
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS IN THE UNITED STATES
Much attention has focused on undocumented immigration, and it is estimated from the Census Bureaus Current Population Survey that about 1.8 million children are unauthorized immigrants, and an additional 3.1 million are American citizens because they were born in the United States but live in a family in which the head or spouse is unauthorized (Passel, 2006). Altogether, about 25% of children in immigrant families live with an undocumented adult, and 10% are themselves undocumented. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that undocumented children cannot be denied access to public elementary and secondary education (Plyer v. Doe, 457, U.S. 2020, 1982), children who are undocumented or have undocumented parents may experience unique difficulties that can impact their educational progress. Undocumented parents are likely to have less well-paid and stable employment, and parents or children may also be ineligible for important public programs, such as food stamps, even if they meet other eligibility criteria such as a low family income.
Most immigrant families are nevertheless rapidly putting down deep roots in the United States. Parents are connected through their children. Over three quarters of all children in immigrant families are citizens by virtue of birth, as are nearly two thirds (63%) of those whose parents are undocumented (Table 3). For two thirds of the groups we studied, the proportion of children in immigrant families who are U.S. citizens by virtue of birth exceeds 70% (Table 3); for only three groups does the proportion fall below 60%, at 55% for Pakistan/Bangladesh, 49% for Thailand, and 28% for the former Soviet Union.
Immigrant families also have high levels of home ownership. Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) children in immigrant families live in homes owned by their parents or other relatives (Table 3). This is only 15 percentage points lower than (73%) children in native-born families. This high level of commitment to home ownership among immigrants is especially striking when one considers that, depending on whether the official or basic budget rate is used, children of immigrants are 13%20% more likely to live in poverty than children in native-born families.
Home ownership is common among most immigrant groups. The proportion falls below 50% for only 6 of the 30 groups in Table 3, and then only to the high level of 43%45% for the remaining groups except one. Only among Dominicans, who are concentrated in the very expensive New York metropolitan housing market, does the home ownership rate drop to 26%. These high levels of homeownership indicate that most immigrant families are making long-term financial investments in the local communities where they live.
Of course, some children in immigrant families have parents who arrived in the United States fairly recently and are therefore especially likely to be unfamiliar with the education system and other American institutions. Overall, 26% of children in immigrant families have at least one parent who has lived in the United States for less than 10 years, and the range for 25 of the 30 countries/regions of origin in Table 3 is 20%35%, with only two exceeding 40%, at 45% for Pakistan/Bangladesh and 62% for the former Soviet Union. Thus, one fifth to one third of children in immigrant families from most countries/regions have parents who have been in the country less than 10 years and may be unfamiliar with the education system.
Table 3. Immigrant Situation and Language Proficiency
EARLY EDUCATION: OPPORTUNITIES FOR A STRONG START
Experience with formal education begins prior to kindergarten for many children. Early childhood education programs lead to improved emerging literacy skills, cognitive development, and school readiness, as well as higher school achievement, grade retention, and social adjustment. Such programs can help to offset the disadvantages faced by children who have less educated parents and fewer resources at home, although of course the quality of early education programs that children attend varies greatly (Barnett, 1995; Gormley, Gayer, Phillips, & Dawson, 2005; Magnuson & Waldfogel, 2005; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Takanishi, 2004; Zill, Collins, West, & Germino-Hausken, 1995). Census 2000 did not measure the quality of early childhood education programs, but it did ask whether young children were enrolled in pre-K/nursery school. Our analyses show that many immigrant groups who are advantaged in having highly educated parents and low family poverty rates also have comparatively high pre-K/nursery school enrollment rates, whereas the opposite is true for nine groups with less advantageous family situations. Thus, family circumstances that foster or impede childrens educational success tend to be compounded for many groups by enrollment, or nonenrollment, in pre-K/nursery school.
At age 3, for example, children with enrollment rates of at least 40% included those in immigrant families from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe (other than the former Soviet Union), China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, and Israel/Palestine (Table 4). Enrollment rates were much lower for children in immigrant families from the Dominican Republic (33%), Iraq (25%), Indochina (24%), Central America (25%), and Mexico (18%). Similarly, children in immigrant families from the mentioned countries/regions with comparatively high enrollment rates at age 3 showed a jump in total enrollment to at least 69% at age 4, whereas the others (except the Dominican Republic) were in the much lower range of 44%52%.
Although preferences among some immigrant groups for family care may contribute to lower participation rates, recent research indicates that, particularly for children in immigrant and native-born Mexican families, socioeconomic circumstances such as low income and lack of affordable preschool programs, as well as lack of local access to such programs, lead to low rates of enrollment in pre-K/nursery schools (Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, in press). It also shows that Hispanic and Asian children are more likely to participate in such programs when the programs are offered in public schools (Takanishi, 2004). It is not surprising, then, that children in immigrant families from many countries/regions with parents who have very low educational attainment and high poverty rates also face additional constraints on school success because of low pre-K/nursery school enrollment rates.
To ease access to early education, six statesFlorida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, New York, and West Virginiahave established voluntary universal pre-K programs in which parents can, but are not required to, enroll their 4-year-old children. A study of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, school district has found that the proportion enrolling in pre-K programs among Hispanics at age 4 is essentially the same as the proportion enrolled in mandatory kindergarten at age 5, suggesting that both immigrant and native-born Hispanics enroll in early education programs at rates equal to other groups when such programs are voluntary, free, and high quality (Gormley et al., 2005).
Although a total of 43 states offer some form of pre-K under the auspices of public schools, and the federal and state governments provide support for early education programs under the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program (CCDBG), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) program, most eligible children do not receive assistance, and many are not enrolled in early education programs (Barnett, Robin, Hustedt, & Schulman, 2003; Mezey, Greenberg, & Schumacher, 2002). Thus, although children of immigrants with limited education and English proficiency may be especially likely to benefit from such programs, many are not enrolled because they lack access to affordable high-quality programs (Hernandez, 2004; Hernandez et al., in press; Gormley et al., 2005).
EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT AMONG YOUNG ADULT CHILDREN OF IMMIGRANTS
In this section, we examine how children of immigrants are faring in terms of some important measures of educational attainment, beginning with the most basic milestone of high school completion among young adults aged 2024. Because young adults are especially likely to be recent immigrants who may not have entered the U.S. educational system, we need to distinguish between first-generation immigrants born abroad, and the second generation born in the United States. If children still live with their parents, we can tell from the 2000 Census whether they are children of immigrants by looking at the parents country of birth. But after age 17, increasingly large numbers of youth do not live with parents, and there is no separate question about parents place of birth if they do not live in the household. Therefore, although we can tell the ethnic ancestry of young adults who live away from their parents, we cannot distinguish second-generation immigrants from those who are third generation or more. Fortunately, the Census Bureaus Current Population Survey (CPS) asks each person, including children, where both they and their parents were born. For this reason, we use CPS data rather than Census 2000 data for the analysis that follows, comparing the second generation with the third and later generations.
Table 4 shows the proportion of young adults aged 2024 who have graduated from high school separately for first, second, and third and later generations for specific groups. Because the CPS sample size is much smaller than Census 2000, we combine CPS data for 19982002 and report on a smaller number of race-ethnic and immigrant-origin groups. Among young adults from Mexico, 71% are first-generation immigrants, compared with only 26% among school-age children in immigrant families from Mexico. Thus, many first-generation young adults from Mexico immigrated during late adolescence or early adulthood. Because 8 years of education is standard in Mexico, few first-generation immigrants (40%) have graduated from high school (Table 4). These young adults should not be considered dropouts from the U.S. educational system because many probably never entered it. Education policies for first-generation immigrants with little or no experience in U.S. schools must address a very different set of issues than policies for immigrants who arrived at younger ages and obtained most or all of their education in the United States.
Table 4. Early Educationa and High School Graduationb
The second generation presents a mixed picture. On one hand, 77% of second-generation Mexicans graduated from high school, a much higher percentage than the 40% reported for the first generation. It is also encouraging that the second-generation graduate rate is similar to that (80%) of Hispanics in native-born families (other than Puerto Ricans; Table 4). At the same time, it is worrying that third- and later generation Hispanics have a high school dropout rate of 20%, which is more than twice the 9% dropout rate of third- and later-generation Whites, and similar to that of Native Americans (22%) and native-born Blacks (19%).
High school completion rates among first-generation Dominicans, Central Americans, and South Americans are higher than those of first-generation Mexicans, but still much lower than among the native White group, whereas graduation rates of young first-generation adults from Europe (other than the former Soviet Union) and the Philippines reach or exceed those of native Whites.
The second-generation high school completion rate for Dominicans is similar to that of Mexicans, and although Central Americans have a slightly higher graduation rate, it does not reach the level of native-born Whites. Second-generation immigrants from South America, Europe (other than the former Soviet Union), and the Philippines have very high rates of high school completion that reach or exceed the overall level of third- and later generation Whites. Although CPS samples are too small to report findings for smaller groups, other studies show that children of immigrants from China, Taiwan, and other Asian countries also have high graduation rates (Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, & Holdaway, 2008). These educationally successful immigrant groups often include high proportions with a U.S.-born parent (Europeans) or parents who are highly educated, fluent in English, or able to earn the income to keep their families out of poverty.
CHILDREN OF IMMIGRANTS ARE SPREAD ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Thus far, our discussion has been at a national level. Children of immigrants are not only quite diverse in their socioeconomic circumstances, but they are also widely dispersed across the country. It is well known that many immigrants live in the largest metropolitan areas, but it is perhaps less often recognized that many smaller metropolitan areas also have large and growing concentrations of immigrants and that immigrants represent significant student populations in the rural portions of most states as well. Table 5 presents data for the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas (CMSAs), and comparable data for the MSAs and rural areas of all the states is presented in the appendix.
Immigrants are still concentrated in large cities. Only about of quarter of school-age children in native-born families live in the 10 largest CMSAs compared with 54% of children in immigrant families. The proportion of children of immigrants is generally, but not always, higher in central cities than in suburban areas (Table 5). In the Los Angeles and San Francisco CMSAs, for example, 67% and 49% of children in central city areas are children of immigrants, but the percentage is also very high in suburban areas (51% and 41%, respectively). Many school-age children in the central cities of the New York CMSA also live in immigrant families (51%), whereas the proportion in the suburbs is substantially lower (28%). In several of the largest CMSAs (Chicago, Boston, Dallas, and Houston), the levels are lower still, but the pattern of high concentration in central cities continues to hold true; in others, the proportion of immigrant families is greater in the suburbs than in the central cities (Washington-Baltimore at 21% vs. 14%, respectively, and Detroit at 13% vs. 7%, respectively).
Many smaller metropolitan areas also have high percentages of children in immigrant families (see the appendix). They account for 30% or more of school-age children in the nonmetropolitan areas of California and in most metropolitan areas, with the exception of Sacramento (27%), Santa-Rosa-Petaluma (26%), Chico (19%), San Louis Obispo (19%), and Redding (10%). The proportion of school-age children who are in immigrant families also reaches 20% or more in Honolulu and rural Hawaii, as well as in Richland, Seattle, and Yakima, Washington; Portland and Salem, Oregon; Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada; Phoenix, Tucson, and Yuma, Arizona; 11 of the 23 smaller metropolitan regions in Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Bridgeport, Danbury, Stamford, and Waterbury, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Fort Lauderdale, Naples, Orlando, and West Palm Beach, Florida.
Many additional metropolitan areas have smaller proportions (10%15%) of school-age children who live in immigrant families, mostly states that are experiencing especially rapid expansion in their immigrant populations. Although 10%15% may seem small, it is important to remember that the average student/teacher ratio in public primary, middle, and high schools across the United States (excluding Massachusetts and Tennessee) is in the range of 1123 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Thus, in places where 10%15% of school-age children live in immigrant families, the average classroom will include at least one of them. Many of these children live in families with constrained socioeconomic circumstances, and, as we discuss, speak a language other than English at home and have parents who are limited English proficient.
Although the proportion of school-age children who live in immigrant families tends to be lower in the rural regions of many states, there are 23 states where at least 5% of school-age children in rural areas live in immigrant families, a number large enough that every other classroom will, on average, include a student who is a child of an immigrant (see the appendix). Or the average teacher might expect to encounter such a student every second year. This includes the rural regions of states often not thought of as magnets for immigrants, including Connecticut (11%), Delaware (7%), Georgia (7%), Idaho (10%), Kansas (8%), Nebraska (6%), New Hampshire (6%), North Carolina (5%), Oregon (11%), Rhode Island (12%), Utah (8%), and Vermont (6%). In fact, there are only three statesKentucky, Mississippi, and Ohiowith rural regions where fewer than 2.5% of school-age children live in immigrant families and where, therefore, the average teacher will have such a student in class perhaps only 1 year out of every 4.
LANGUAGE DIVERSITY IN LOCAL COMMUNITIES
Beyond the languages of Latin America, China, and West Asia, immigrants bring an extraordinary diversity of languages to the United States and to its schools. Using the language categories available in Census 2000, children in immigrant families in the United States speak a total of 77 distinct languages (not counting Native American languages). Although it is often reported that the number of languages spoken in major central cities is quite high, it is less well known that schools in many suburban regions, smaller communities, and rural areas also serve children who speak a large number of languages.
Children of immigrants living in the central cities of Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington-Baltimore speak as many as 39 different languages, and those living in central Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco-Oakland as many as 71 (Table 5). But the number of languages spoken is at least this high in the suburban regions of all 10 of the largest CMSAs and metropolitan areas, reaching 6062 in suburban Boston and Detroit, 65 in suburban Washington-Baltimore, and 6871 in suburban Los Angeles and New York (Table 5).
Table 5. Children Aged 517 Years: Select Demographic Indicators for the 10 Largest CMSAs, Central City and Suburbs
The number of languages spoken is nearly as high, at 30 or more, in more than three dozen smaller and more compact metropolitan regions, including Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Salt Lake City, and in several localities in Florida (Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach), upstate New York (Albany, Buffalo, Rochester), North Carolina (Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh-Durham), and Ohio (Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus). In fact, in more than 200 metropolitan areas, a total of 10 languages or more are spoken.
The diversity of languages is not confined to metropolitan areas. In the nonmetropolitan regions of only three states are fewer than 10 languages spoken by children of immigrants with various countries of origin, and in the nonmetropolitan regions of 32 states, 20 or more languages are spoken. Of course, not each of these languages will be spoken in every nonmetropolitan school district. But the large numbers of languages spoken in the nonmetropolitan regions of most states, in most small metropolitan areas, and in all suburban and central city regions of the nations largest metropolitan areas have clear implications for schools. Most school districts will at least occasionally have one or more students enrolled who speak a language other than English at home, and many school districts will regularly have children from many countries who speak a correspondingly large number of languages.
It is important to emphasize that localities with comparatively small immigrant populations usually also are ones with rapidly growing immigrant populations, a circumstance that brings its own challenges. For many school districts and local communities, it is only over the past 10 years that they have had to respond to the needs of significant numbers of children of immigrants, and they often lack the infrastructure to do so. It is extremely expensive to provide services for a few children at a particular grade level because the school cannot benefit from economies of scale in hiring teachers and other staff competent in non-English languages. The problems and the cost are magnified when the population of children in need of special services speak several different languages.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: IMMIGRATION, RACE, AND ETHNICITY
The future of America will be one in which non-Hispanic Whites are a minority of the population, and children are leading this demographic transformation. According to the Census Bureaus American Community Survey, in 2004, non-Hispanic Whites were 85% of the population aged 85 and over but only 69% of those aged 4044, and only 56% of children under 5. The upsurge in immigration from Latin America and Asia (and births to immigrants and their descendents) is responsible for most of this dramatic shift in the race-ethnic composition of the U.S. population.
According to Census Bureau projections, by the year 2030, when the baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, will be in the retirement ages of 6684, 72% of the elderly will be non-Hispanic White, compared with only 56% for working-age adults, and 50% for children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). As the predominantly White baby-boomers reach retirement, they will increasingly depend for economic support on the productive activities and civic participation of working-age adults who are members of racial and ethnic minorities and, in many cases, children of immigrants. To prepare these young people for lives as productive workers and engaged citizens, we need to pay more attention to creating conditions that will foster their educational success.
The profound shift taking place in the composition of the school-age population has implications for schools. As we have seen, children of immigrants are very diverse in their national origins and ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds. The majority have origins in Latin America and Asia, but others come from almost every country in the world. Not all children of immigrants are poor; many have highly educated parents from countries in Europe and South and East Asia. But children in immigrant families are overall more likely than children in native-born families to have parents whose educational attainment is quite limited, to live in poverty, and to suffer associated difficulties such as unstable employment and overcrowded housing. These factors place constraints on the resources available to immigrant families in supporting their childrens education.
But even children in poor immigrant families have some advantages. Their parents generally have high rates of labor force participation, and they are more likely than children in native-born families to have the benefit of living with two parents, as well as with grandparents and others in the home who also are available to provide for their social, emotional, and economic needs, and thereby foster their educational success. Immigrant families also show a strong propensity to put down strong roots in this country, and they have high home ownership rates considering that their incomes are often low.
Children in immigrant families bring unique challenges and opportunities to the education system. Nearly three fourths speak a language other than English at home, and about one fourth have a parent who has lived in the United States for less than 10 years and who may therefore have limited familiarity with American culture and institutions, most notably with the functioning of schools. A quarter of children of immigrant families have a limited knowledge of English themselves. These parents and children may face substantial barriers in getting information about the education system and effectively engaging schools, particularly when many schools lack the capacity to communicate in the home languages of immigrants.
Yet twice this proportion, nearly one half of children in immigrant families, speak a language other than English at home while also speaking English very well. If these children were to become fully bilingual, they would be a valuable asset to the United States in the increasingly competitive global economy, providing direct linguistic access to such important regions as China, Latin America, and West Asia. In fact, effective programs fostering bilingualism could also be an important resource for children in immigrant families who are limited English proficient, and, as in Europe, for children in native-born families, many of whom will be participants in the global economic enterprise. However, most U.S. schools do not have programs in place to accomplish this goal.
The impact of this demographic shift is not restricted to a few urban school districts. Increasingly, children of immigrants are dispersed across the country, not only in the central cities and suburbs of the largest metropolitan areas but also in many smaller metropolitan and rural areas, to which they often bring an unprecedented ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. Although they may have moved recently from thousands of miles away, many immigrant families are nevertheless putting down deep roots in their local communities, reflected in their decisions to bear and rear their children here. In fact, nearly three fourths of school-age children with immigrant parents were born in the United States.
Despite a strong commitment among immigrant families to their local communities and the high educational aspirations they hold for their children, many children of immigrants do not have access to early education programs that could foster their academic success. This is particularly true for several large immigrant groups, including Mexicans and Dominicans whose parents have limited English proficiency, low levels of formal education, and high poverty rates. Publicly funded voluntary prekindergarten programs could assure that all children, including and especially those in immigrant families who are most challenged by economic and other barriers, would have the opportunity to achieve the educational and economic success that motivated many immigrants to leave their homelands and begin new lives in the United States (Bogard & Takanishi, 2005; Takanishi, 2004).
Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, many who immigrate to the United States as young children or who are second-generation immigrants, particularly in groups experiencing high poverty rates and other educational barriers, do not graduate from high school. Other immigrants who arrive during late adolescence or early adulthood never enroll in U.S. schools and also are not high school graduates, limiting their lifetime economic prospects. A thorough review of education programs from prekindergarten through high school, as well as GED programs, could lead to new approaches that would better meet the educational needs of children, adolescents, and young adults in immigrant groups with limited educational attainment.
Immigration is transforming the demography of America. In less than three decades, a majority of children will belong to race-ethnic minorities who are Hispanic, Black, Asian, or another non-White race, mainly because of immigration, and births to immigrants and their descendants. The educational success achieved by immigrant groups, and their subsequent economic productivity, is important not only to the groups themselves but also to the broad American population because these groups will compose an increasingly important segment of the U.S. labor force during the next few decades, and this labor force will be supporting the predominantly White baby boom generation throughout their retirement years. As we become a nation of minorities, with no single race-ethnic group in the majority, the educational success of all children, but especially the rapidly growing population of children in immigrant families, merits increasing attention from teachers, school administrators, and public officials.
The authors wish to thank Hui-Shien Tsao for programming assistance and Jessica F. Singer for research assistance. The authors also acknowledge and appreciate support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (5 R03 HD 043827-02 ), and the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the University at Albany (5 R24 - HD 04494301A1). The authors alone are responsible for the content and any errors of fact or interpretation. The Census 2000 data file used in this research was prepared by Ruggles, Sobek, Alexander, Fitch, Goeken, Hall, King, and Ronnande (2004).
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