Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, who founded and codirected the Harvard Immigration Project, are now codirectors of Immigration Studies at New York University. Their most recent book, Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, won the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize, awarded annually by Harvard University Press to an outstanding book on education and society.
Like the proverbial old drunk leaving the bar, we are at a loss in finding a way out of our self-created immigration maze. During the course of the last four administrations, immigration to the United States grew at a dizzying pace. Barack Obama is now presiding over a country with a foreign-born population soon to surpass the 40 million mark—more than the entire Canadian population.
The uninterrupted immigration flow of the last generation has created an unprecedented demographic echo. Nearly a quarter of all children in the United States today originate in immigrant households. The children of immigrants will account for the majority of the country's population growth. A new report by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that some 4 million American children have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant. Another report released on April 21 by the College Board shows that an additional 1.5 million children are unauthorized immigrants--65,000 of them will graduate from high school this spring only to face an uncertain future.
Ideally, this massive immigration wave would have taken place within a coherent policy framework synchronized to ease the lawful, orderly, and humane transition of millions of new arrivals to education, the labor market, and to citizenship. That was not to be. Instead we find ourselves in immigration vertigo. The system that gave us 4 million citizen children and another 1.5 million unauthorized children with illegal parents is broken and perhaps beyond repair. Fixing it maybe more than an Obama administration that likes to think big will be able to manage, but we urge the administration, for once, to begin small. That is, to think about our youngest new Americans.
Pass the DREAM Act now.
There is no sign that most of the estimated 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants—especially those with 5.5 million children in the United States—are going back en mass to their countries of birth. Policies currently in place are creating a permanent underclass of marginalized, poorly educated, and low-skilled individuals, surviving in the shadows of society and facing overwhelming economic and social burdens. The status quo undermines the rule of law, basic American values, and the promise of American mobility. It is especially troubling and wasteful that some 1.5 million unauthorized children, American in spirit but not in law, are enrolling in U.S. schools but will not lawfully gain employment at the end of their education.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would make these students eligible to earn in-state college tuition benefits, state and federal financial aid, and, eventually, create a path to legal permanent residence. These benefits would generally be available to undocumented youth who were brought to the United States as minors, have continuously lived in the U.S. since childhood, attended and graduated from a U.S. high school, and have no criminal record along with demonstrated good moral character and will go on to college or the armed services. In addition to college access, students would benefit from the increased likelihood of financial productivity and improved job prospects that come with a college degree. Some 715,000 youth between the ages of 5-17 would benefit from the DREAM Act—in addition, there are over 360,000 students who already graduated from high school waiting in limbo. The bipartisan DREAM Act would be one step forward in improving the educational and work prospects of these undocumented students.
Teach s mart English.
Most children of immigrants are second-language learners, and the majority of them come from homes with parents who speak Spanish. In our research, we found that immigrant children say that their greatest impediment to getting ahead in the United States is learning English—over and beyond not having documented status. They are right: Acquiring academic language skills (not colloquial English) takes longer than impatient policy makers generally understand (five to seven years under optimal conditions). Students with limited literacy in their native language need even longer to solidify their academic skills in a new language.
Our schools—unlike schools in other countries with large immigrant populations like Canada, Australia, and Sweden—do not have systematic or consistent bilingual or second language acquisition policies and practices, thus placing our English Language Learners (ELLs) at a disadvantage. We must correct this problem. Effective educational strategies for immigrant students should include: 1) placing ELLs into progressive and systematic programs of instruction that identify each student's incoming literacy and academic skills; (2) consistency of instruction, since frequent transitions place ELLs at considerable disadvantage; 3) high-quality English instruction accompanied by transitional academic supports—like tutoring, ongoing second language instruction, homework help, and writing assistance— as English language learners become integrated into mainstream programs; 4) annual assessment including portfolio assessment and testing to measure progress and adjust further interventions.
Stop high-stakes t ests.
The current high-stakes testing creates unintended consequences for new immigrant students, which outweigh whatever benefits standardized tests may have. Immigrant students typically attend highly segregated and impoverished schools, are not exposed to optimal quality curricula, and undergo multiple school and programmatic transitions. Their performance on such tests is dismal. Not only are many immigrant youth tested before their academic language skills have adequately developed, a linguistic torture of sorts, but all too often their day-to-day educational experiences are shaped by instruction that teaches to elemental skills. An eye on the omnipresent "adequate yearly progress" is at the expense of advanced academic content knowledge.
The status quo is neither engaging on a day-to-day basis nor does it prepare these students for the higher order cognitive tasks required in today's ever more competitive global economy. High-stakes tests have become the de facto language policy—for too many immigrant students it leads to school disengagement, dropping out, and wasted potential.
What about the drunk? A friend leaving the bar sees him looking for something by the corner lamppost. "What are you looking for?" asks the friend. "I lost my keys," comes the slurred response. "You lost them here?" "No, in the bar. But it is dark in there." Like a disoriented drunk, we are not looking at immigration where it matters—the challenge of integrating the largest number of children of immigrants in history into the fabric of our nation.