Friday, March 20, 2015

Immigration, Children, and America: The Dreams of Hispanic Youngsters

In college, my friends and I started an after school pre-k literacy program for Hispanic children.  Because Hispanic children in the United States face major obstacles standing in between them and their own dreams.  Our current immigration laws refuse to give immigrant Hispanic children citizenship and continue to break up Hispanic families.  This economically (and arguably morally) jeopardizes our nation’s promise of opportunity--our American Dream--for any child who works hard.  Here’s why.

Introduction to Academic and Economic Issues Facing Hispanic Children
Compared to all other ethnicities in the US, hispanic children have the highest high school dropout rates in the country1, and they academically underperform their white peers at every grade K-122.  Consequently, as adults these children can expect to be unemployed, earn low-incomes, and struggle as they straddle the lines between struggling and living3,4

Source of Academic and Economic Gaps
These children’s gaps in academics and economics are the result of their cognitive and noncognitive skills deficits that began in and grew larger since their early childhood4.  Their mothers, who raise them and who, on average, come from disadvantaged backgrounds with little formal schooling, know they should invest in developing their children’s skills--but they don’t know how and their children’s skill deficits reflect that lack of knowledge6

Almost half, 46%, of all Hispanic children in 2010 had mothers who had not graduated from high school (8% for Whites)--and 20% of them had mothers with an education below the 8th grade; and among immigrant Hispanic families, the percent of a Hispanic children with a mother without a high school education rises to 54%; the percent with a mother’s education below 8th grade, up to 29%! 

Unfortunately, these mothers do not read to their children as frequently as more educated mothers do; do not use and expose their children to vibrant, expansive language and vocabularies as frequently; and they do not enroll their children into high quality preschool and early childhood programs that develop their children’s skills where they, the mothers, cannot5,6.  These children lack these investments, and this lack of investment causes them to develop skills deficits that open up early in their lives, widen over time, and predict academic achievement gaps and adverse life outcomes according to their finances and health.

These children also largely live in immigrant homes where Spanish is the dominant language in the household.  This linguistic isolation makes learning in the American classroom all the more difficult, as English proficiency is a major predictor of academic success for Hispanic children5.

1.  Child defined as child aged between 0 and 8 years of age.
2.  All percentages in following statistics are taken from footnotes 5 and 6

Why Do These Gaps Matter?  The Development of and Interaction Between Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills
The first 5 years of a child’s life are critical for their success as adults in the labor market.  Within these first few years of life (and even before birth), children develop most of their cognitive and noncognitive skills that determine the rate at which they learn and the size of the positive impact that schooling has on their lives.  Cognitive skills are the “smarts” of a child.  Being able to do math problems immediately and solve equations and puzzles.  The non-cognitive skills, also termed their social and emotional skills, are their “soft skills,” their ability to motivate themselves, to be patient, to persevere, and to sit down to study for long periods of time.

According to James Heckman, University Professor at the University of Chicago, children with larger amounts of non-cognitive skills develop their cognitive skills faster.  They learn faster.  When they realize this, they in turn invest more in their non-cognitive skills too because they realize the complementary benefits of investing in both skills. This is dynamic complementarity:  it is a virtuous cycle.  And the more a child already knows, the easier it is to learn new skills!  This is self-productivity.

Simply put, a child that can study for long periods of time and remain motivated to learn is going to learn faster than another child that does not.  And the more the child continues to learn, the more the child will be willing to study longer, making learn even easier over time.  Lastly, the more a child already knows, the easier it is to learn something new!

Most importantly, there is a critical window in time in a child’s life where these skills first develop and are easiest to develop.  These are the years from birth to age 5.

The Future if We Don’t Act
As Hispanic immigration trends remain constant for the foreseeable future, as largely  disadvantaged and uneducated Hispanic mothers and families immigrate from Mexico and Central America to raise their children in the US, these children will continue to drop-out of school at the nation’s highest rates; they will continue to academically underperform;  and they will continue to struggle economically in the labor market5

This means we’re going to have high rates of poverty, violence, incarceration, high school dropouts, and civil-strife—we’ll have a big chunk of the nation living in horrible conditions; and we’ll have increasing inequality across racial and class lines that will only fuel racial and class violence.

What this all means if we do nothing:
Simply put, Hispanic families tend to be, on average, poor, uneducated, and linguistically isolated.  Families expressing these characteristics, unfortunately, provide suboptimal early childhood environments for their children causing their skills deficits which lead to adverse life outcomes, including lower educational attainment and poverty.  It is also well documented that families expressing these characteristics also express higher fertility rates: this leads to a vicious cycle of intergenerational, adverse early childhood environments and therefore intergenerational poverty.

Immigration, Children, and America
These children have dreams.  They live in the United States; they grow up under the American flag; they make friends with American children--and they are American in every way except for their parents’ immigration status (or their own). 

And 70% of them end up in only 10% of our schools, and usually they’re the worst we have. 

Instead of giving them our immigrant Founding Fathers’ promise of opportunity, we stack the odds against them.  Instead of helping their mothers get an education, we send them back to their native countries--leaving their child to grow up without a parent, without an advocate, without someone to invest in their human capital--their cognitive and noncognitive skills.

We exacerbate their skills gaps and then deride them for their poor performance in our schools and their performance in our labor markets--even though they pick our vegetables, fruits, and crops at dirt-cheap wages so we can eat them at dirt-cheap prices.

We endanger our country’s promise of opportunity for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Why My Friends Decided to Teach
If we actually invested in our Hispanic children, kept their families together, provided education to their mothers, these children would go to college, earn higher incomes, raise their employment rates, and--instead of allegedly draining our economy--would make our economy and nation grow faster, grow more resilient, and grow closer to our Founding Fathers’ vision of our nation as the home of opportunity.

That’s why my Hispanic friends decided to teach.  Because everyday that we focused on investing in these children’s human capital--in their cognitive and noncognitive skills--the closer we get to tearing down one obstacle in front of them: their skills gap.  If we could at least tear this obstacle down, we have then gotten these children one step closer to their American Dream.  Whatever that may be for them.  To be a doctor, a mechanic, a teacher--anything. 

Because they deserve the same shot, like every child in America, at their own American Dream.


1.  United States. Institute of Education Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Statistics, US 
Department of Education. Fast Facts: Dropout Rates. US Department of Education, 
2013. Web. <>.

2.  Reardon, S. F., & Galindo, C. (2006). Patterns of Hispanic students math and English literacy test 
scores in the early elementary grades: A report to the National Task Force on Early 
Childhood Education for Hispanics. Tempe, AZ: National Task Force on Early Childhood 
Education for Hispanics. Retrieved November 28, 2007, from

3.  United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor. Employment Projections:

Education and employment rates by educational attainment. Washington, DC: BLS, 2013. 

4.  Heckman, James (2008), “Schools, Skills, and Synapses,” Economic Inquiry, 46(3): 289-324.

5.  Understanding the language development and Early Education of Hispanic Children.  Eugene

Garcia and Erminda, 2012.

6.  Risley, Todd, and Betty Hart. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young

American Children.  York, Pennsylvania: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co, 1995.