Immigrant Kids, Adrift
By MARCELO SUÁREZ-OROZCO and CAROLA SUÁREZ-OROZCO
THE alleged involvement of two ethnic Chechen brothers in the deadly attack at the Boston Marathon should prompt Americans to reflect on whether we do an adequate job assimilating immigrants who arrive in the United States as children or teenagers.
In 1997, we started a large-scale, five-year study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., and the San Francisco Bay Area. Our participants came from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean; many fled not only poverty but also strife, in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti. Over five years, we interviewed more than 400 students, as well as parents and teachers. We gathered academic records, test scores and measures of psychological well-being.
The two brothers accused in the Boston bombings — Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed on Friday, and his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, who was captured later that day — were around 15 and 8, respectively, when they immigrated. Both attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin, that city’s only public high school. They were not part of our study, but they fit the demographic profile of the subjects of our research: birth to families displaced by war or strife, multiple-stage (including back-and-forth) migration, language difficulties and entry into tough urban environments where gangs and crime are temptations.
When asked “what do you like most about being here?” an 11-year-old Haitian boy in Cambridge told us, “There is less killing here.” His response was notably succinct, but not unique.
A Salvadoran 10-year-old whose family had narrowly escaped death squads recounted intense loneliness. When a firecracker was set off in his working-class Cambridge neighborhood, he plunged into the arms of a stunned researcher.
A 12-year-old girl whose family fled chaos in Guatemala for the Bay Area similarly turned inward. She lamented being “encerrada” (locked in) because of gang violence in her new community.
Not surprisingly, students from strife-torn areas were more likely than others to report psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression and trouble concentrating and sleeping.
Many newcomer students attend tough urban schools that lack solidarity and cohesion. In too many we found no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants. Only 6 percent of the participants could name a teacher as someone they would go to with a problem; just 3 percent could identify a teacher who was proud of them.
When asked what Americans thought about immigrants of their national origin, 65 percent of the students provided negative adjectives. “Most Americans think we are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts, that only come to take their jobs away,” a 14-year-old boy in the Bay Area told us. We also found that many educators, already overwhelmed by the challenges of inner-city teaching, considered immigrant parents uninformed and uninvolved.
Having just one friend who spoke English fluently was a strong predictor of positive academic outcomes. Yet more than a third of the students in our study reported that they had little or no opportunity even to interact with native-born students, much less make close friends.
Our research also confirmed that kids who arrive during their high school years, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev did, face bad odds, especially if they experienced interrupted schooling, family instability and traumatic dislocations back home. ...
Taking in what Emma Lazarus called the “wretched refuse,” including asylum seekers like the Tsarnaev brothers, without providing a scaffold of support undermines the promise of America.
America as the trash dump of the world.