Education and Immigration

By Kao, G., Vaquera, E. and Goyette, K.

Polity (2013)

Review by Diana Pritchard

This clever book delivers on its label. Contextualised in a succinct overview of the trends and theories on immigration and education, it examines the education experience of children of immigrant families in the USA, identifying the factors which shape the distinct processes and outcomes. But it also does so much more than its brief dry title suggests. It engages with escalating debates about migration and, specifically, the role of education in the processes of 'Americanization' and assimilation. These are key policy issues given that over 38 million (13% of the US population) are immigrants, understood to be those who are 'foreign born'. They come to the USA from increasingly diverse countries of origin and a growing proportion originate from Latin America, particularly Mexico, and Asia and to a lesser extent from Europe and Africa.

The study compares the data and stories of the education of a sample of post-1965 immigrant families who represent an array of migration status, race, ethnicity and prior education backgrounds. The reasons why immigrant groups have better educational outcomes than others is explained in relation to an interaction of factors, namely, their country of origin, ethnicity, levels of professionalism and English proficiency, neighbourhoods settled in, and the racial classification assigned in the country.

The study documents how the education attainment of legal immigrants has become higher at the same time that undocumented immigrants have lower attainment levels. The authors emphasise the role of selective US migration policy which establishes who is granted legal entry to the country, in defining differences between groups. This is evidenced by comparisons with the children of a South Korean business manager entering the USA on a work visa with prior English language skills and who will have different experiences of education from  the children of Guatemalan refugees who fled violence, who arrived illegally in the USA and who remain undocumented in low-wage service positions. In such a way, even before arriving, immigrants have 'different opportunities to succeed educationally and economically' (p.22).

But differences are also perpetuated after immigration. The neighbourhoods where migrants settle, and the networks and social resources these imply, either provide opportunities or perpetuate barriers. At local schools children are 'racialised' – placed into perceived racial categories - by people in education services such that children of African immigrant families are assumed to share cultural backgrounds with children of Afro-Caribbean descent. Not all are treated alike. The effect of this 'model minority' stereotyping has a self-perpetuating effect, defining the responses to and setting levels of expectation and aspiration  among immigrant children.

In other respects this book effectively challenges assumptions and stereotypes. Its nuanced analysis reveals the importance of overcoming racial or ethnic stereotypes by showing that within broad immigration groups there are large variations. Hmong and Vietnamese are less successful than other Asiatic groups, but this is more a consequence of the agricultural origins of these immigrant families. Similarly, amongst the Latin Americans, the Cuban and Argentines have been accorded special immigration policies which ensure that amongst them are educated groups whose families reach high education outcomes. The authors conclude that racial groups should not be 'romanticised or demonised' and that simplistic cultural explanations are inadequate to explain educational outcomes.

Although Education and Immigration is about the USA and is aimed at university students, it has more general appeal, enhancing a more general understanding of the shifting nature of migration and the capacity of national education systems to overcome barriers to equality of opportunity. This reviewer was particularly interested in the findings about the consequences of new circulating migratory patterns. Some immigrant children, such as South Koreans, neither come with families who aspire to stay in the US nor necessarily want to be part of the middle class and mainstream US culture. In this regard the book provides a valuable contribution to the wider sociological debates about 'assimilation' in the U.S., highlighting where migration is a means to achieve socioeconomic stability and mobility, whereby migrants may opt to preserve identities with their country of origin and which span frontiers.

The ultimate merit of this study is perhaps how the findings contribute to busting myths on themes no less significant than the ideal and aspiration of the 'American Dream', the country's promise as a 'land of opportunity' and the role of education as a path to social mobility and assimilation. In this respect this is an exemplary piece of research (despite its lack of clarity about research methods and occasional leaps in the construction of logic) because it is present-focussed, empirical data that speaks to wider policy and international relations debates.


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