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WHO are immigrant origin children and youth?

For nearly three decades now, immigrant origin children and youth have been the fastest growing child population in the United States as well as in many high-income countries. Today, these children make up 27% of the under age 18 population and roughly one-third of the young adult population in the United States.

They are defined as those who have at least one foreign-born parent. They include both the first-generation who were born outside the U.S. and the second-generation who were born within the country and whose parents were born abroad.

Several key intersecting social identities (and the accompanying social barriers that accompany them) provide important lenses with which to understand the immigrant origin child experience. Generation is certainly one, as is multilingualism, varying documentation statuses, and diverse racial and ethnic origins.

intersecting identities

Many, but not all, immigrant-origin children are native speakers of a language –or multiple languages– other than English. Many, but not all, immigrant-origin children will need support at school to learn English. Students who are identified as needing English learning support at school are designated in the U.S. as “English learners” following federal guidelines, as specified in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended by the ESSA, Section 8101(20) (p. 393). The English learner designation, however, does not apply to all IO children, neither does it accurately or comprehensively describe the experience of English-learning IO children. Not all IO children are English Learners. Some IO students enter school as native English speakers (e.g., most IO children from the Philippines, Jamaica, India) or as multilingual speakers already fluent in English. Most importantly, while language learning is an important aspect of the immigrant experience for many IO children and their families, the language learning aspect of IO children does not fully capture the complexity of their experiences. (Im)migration involves managing losses of relationships and family separations, negotiating acculturation, holding hybrid identities, and forging pathways to belonging among many other complex facets.

Immigrant-origin children and youth are ethnically and racially highly diverse. In the U.S. context they hail predominantly from Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa and more than three-quarters of immigrants today are individuals of color.

Immigrant-origin children and youth embody a range of legal immigration statuses. Most are U.S.-born citizen children but many live in mixed-status immigrant families, defined as a family in which at least one member has undocumented immigration status. Some live in families who have regularized permanent statuses, others are unauthorized, yet others live in families who are seeking asylum or other protections and remain uncertain about their future status.

The Immigration Initiative at Harvard seeks to advance and promote interdisciplinary scholarship, original research, and intellectual exchange that unpacks the intersecting identities and complex realities of these children and youth.

Note: The numbers and demographics included above and throughout the IIH site draw on a variety of nonpartisan sources that use various methodological approaches to approximate statistics, specifically in the context of noncitizens in the U.S. To learn more about the main approaches, you can visit the methodological approach pages for Migration Policy Institute and/or the Pew Research Center.

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Recognizing RISKS while taking a RESILIENCE perspective

As immigrant families transition to their new homelands, they often encounter a number of challenges of varying degrees before, during, and after the migratory journey.

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Before| Pre-Migratory Voyage

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During | The Migratory Voyage

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After | Post-Migration

These challenges can present a variety of stresses and accumulated traumas to immigrant families. In addition they face the well-recognized acculturative challenges of learning the ways of a new land. While adults (e.g., parents and caretakers) are slower to negotiate these changes, children and youth long to belong and are quick studies which may lead to varying degrees of acculturative stress (see, Bornstein, 2017).

Despite these challenges, a resilience perspective considers the many ways in which immigrant children and youth demonstrate resilience. Indeed, there is evidence that immigrant origin children and youth demonstrate advantages in some domains while struggling in others. A pattern termed the “immigrant paradox” (see Marks, Ejesi, & García Coll, 2014) has pointed to a puzzling general trend–while immigrants often reside in the least resourced neighborhoods with less than optimal schools, nonetheless newcomers tend to demonstrate better health outcomes, demonstrate lower levels of participation in acts of delinquency, and have better grades than their more acculturated peers. There are nuanced and complex variations in this data, however, depending upon what outcomes are measured, how they are measured, for what groups, and in which contexts (see Marks, Ejesi, & García Coll, 2014; Suárez-Orozco, Abo-Zena, & Marks, 2015).

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OUTCOMES to Consider

As we consider the adaptive success of immigrant origin children & youth, several metrics should be kept in mind. How is the child meeting the developmental and psychological tasks of normal development? And, in addition, how are they juggling the particular challenges that immigration brings to growing up? (see Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018).

Markers of Healthy Development

Too often, studies have compared the behavior and achievements of immigrant-origin children and youth to that of their non-immigrant-origin peers. This practice can lead to deficit views and stereotyping of immigrant origin children and youth either as less than in a particular domain (e.g., achievement tests) or conversely as model minorities. Such approaches to the study of immigrant origin children and youth adaptation is deeply problematic; instead, the adaptation of immigrant-origin children and youth should be examined in its own right (see Garcia Coll, Akerman, & Cicchetti, 2000). To do this, the assessment of the quality of immigrant-origin children and youth’s adaptation needs to be differentiated by domain using measures that are culturally and linguistically apropos (for discussion see Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2017; Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018).

As illustrated in the above figure, a variety of developmental tasks reflect the expectations and standards for behavior and achievement that adults (e.g., parents, teachers) and societies set for individuals over the life span in a particular time in history in specific cultures. During childhood, developmental tasks include, among others, developing self-regulation skills (e.g., around eating, sleeping, playing, and doing homework) and forming positive attachment to others. Key developmental tasks in the adolescent years include doing well in school, having close friends, being accepted and not rejected by peers, further developing self-control and responsibility (e.g., complying with rules of the family when no one is monitoring), forming a cohesive and secure sense of identity, civic engagement, and preparing for labor market and professional participation (see Masten, 2014).


Another indicator of adaptation for all children and youth is psychological adjustment. Indices of perceived psychological wellbeing versus distress (see Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2017), such as the presence of self-esteem and life satisfaction and the absence of emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression, are common markers of psychological wellbeing used by both developmental and acculturation researchers.

Acculturative Tasks: Additional Developmental Tasks of Immigrant Origin Children & Youth

acculturative tasks pexels ron lach 8733940Notably, immigrant origin children and youth who live and grow between at least two cultures are often faced with the conflicting values and developmental goals of their parents and host culture. Thus, they contend with acculturative challenges as they address developmental tasks (see Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2017 & Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018). Growing up across multiple cultural contexts present children with many tasks of acculturation (i.e., the process of adopting cultural and social patterns of the receiving community) while also engaging in enculturation (i.e., the process of practicing cultural and social patterns of the family’s culture of origin). Importantly, the varying contexts of socialization may demand conflicting developmental task standards to which immigrant origin children and youth must adapt.

The development of cultural competence, (bi/multi)lingual language acquisition, (bi/muti)-cultural identity negotiation, and establishing a sense of belonging are all inter-related and critical developmental tasks of immigrant origin children that fall broadly under the umbrella of acculturative tasks. Research from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. support their saliency (see Bornstein & Cote 2013; Umaña-Taylor et al, 2014).

    • Cultural competence–The acquisition of the knowledge and skills of both culture of origin as well as the receiving community’s culture –is a critical developmental challenge for immigrant origin children and youth. Culturally competent immigrant origin children and youth are able to communicate effectively in ethnic and national languages, have friends from both their family’s and other ethnic groups, know the values and practices of both groups, code-switch between languages and cultures as necessary, and bridge cultures (both host and home).
    • Multilingual competencies–To successfully make their way in the host society, children of immigrants need to develop social and academic competency in the host language. While social language typically takes 3 to 5 years, academic language takes 4 to 7 years to acquire (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). Research demonstrates that scaffolding upon students native languages leads to better learning outcomes (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). While learning the new language, in order to optimize family communication, children should also maintain their own family heritage language (though home language attrition can be rapid).
    • Bi/multi-cultural identity negotiation–The construction of ethnic and racial identity (ERI) has been found to be an important developmental milestone for youth of color with implications for psychosocial, academic, and health risk outcomes among ethnic minority adolescents (Rivas-Drake et al, 2014). Much of this work has been well articulated for racial minority youth but less well for immigrant origin youth who straddle ethnic AND racial minority identities (Cross et al, 2017). For example, while findings are fairly consistent for Black youth in the U.S., they are somewhat less so for Latine/Hispanic and much less so for Asian youth (Cross, et al, 2017). Clearly, negotiating and managing a healthy identity that values both family of origin and host society identities has important implications for “feeling good, happy, and proud.”

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  • Negotiating belonging in the face of exclusion–The need to belong is a core human drive (Baumeister & Leary, 2017). As social animals we are hard-wired to search for belonging and indeed social rejection is physiologically distressing in similar ways to physical pain (Kross, et al, 2011). Immigrant children and youth enter their new societies, longing to belong, in search of spaces of belonging. Lamentably, they too often face active social and structural exclusions across the settings. Over the last decade, they are encountering evermore exclusionary immigration laws and a systematic deportation machinery (MPI, 2020) and a Federal stalemate in coming to any comprehensive immigration reform. Concurrently, they are facing a hostile media and environment, political scapegoating, and growing xenophobia and racism (Chavez, 2013; Crush & Ramachandran, 2010). Hence, a primary challenge for immigrant origin children and youth is to negotiate belonging in the face of these exclusionary attitudes and concurrent policy environments.
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SETTINGS: An Ecological Perspective

Like all children, immigrant-origin children’s experiences are a result of interactions between themselves, their experiences, and their environments. Put simply, all children grow up within contexts that will shape them into their future selves. So, how do settings matter for immigrant-origin children? Like all children their experiences are influenced by the more visible and obvious proximal contexts (like their families, schools, and neighborhoods) as well as more distal contexts like social, economic, and political, and economic contexts.

Let us begin by considering some of the most salient distal influences on immigrant origin children and youth’s lives before moving to proximal levels of influence. By superimposing an ecological framework (see Brofenbrenner & Morris, 2006) upon a risk and resilience perspective allows us to frame ways to understand how these systems interact and how we might seek to intervene. (see Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018).

Taking and Ecological Perspective