Immigrant Education: Contemporary Issues Essay

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The large-scale immigration to the United States following the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 has had a significant social and cultural impact on the education system, which has had to adapt to the demographic changes in the student population. Currently, 20 percent of the children in the United States are either first(foreign born) or second-generation (of foreign-born parents) immigrants. This rise in immigration has presented challenges to host communities that need to adapt to the changing demographics of their constituents. The successful social integration of these newcomers depends on how the host community, specifically policy makers and educators, respond to the increased presence of immigrants among them. This entry provides a brief look at recent immigration patterns and policy, then turns to specific educational issues: language, acculturation, and educational achievement.

Patterns And Policy

The amendments of 1965 eliminated the use of national immigration quotas and provided new opportunities for immigration through family reunification and skills based immigration, paving the way for dramatic cultural shifts in the immigrant population. From 1971 to 1980, the European proportion of the immigrant population dropped to 17.8 percent (from 52.7 percent in 1960), whereas Latin American and Asian representation increased to 40.3 percent (from 22.2 percent) and 37.3 percent (from 6.1 percent), respectively.

In 2003, the foreign-born category constituted 33.5 million people, or 11.7 percent of the U.S. population. The Latin American proportion comprised 53.3 percent of the total immigrant population, with Asia and Europe contributing 25 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively. The country with the highest representation was Mexico (30 percent of the total foreign born), followed by the Philippines (4.4 percent). Six states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey) continue to be the primary hosts of immigrants, although significant increases in foreign-born populations have been noted in Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia, and Colorado since 1990. Estimates of unauthorized immigrants (i.e., those who overstayed their visas and uninspected entries) range from 7 to 10 million.

Post-1965 immigration also included a rise in the unauthorized immigrant population, which emerged as a concern in the mid-1980s. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants, increased inspection and enforcement at U.S. borders, provided amnesty and temporary status to those who had lived in the United States continuously since January 1, 1982 and before, and extended a more lenient amnesty to farmworkers. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 represented a shift toward more stringent policy with a focus on deportation, border enforcement, increased requirements for sponsorship of immigrants, and reduced discretionary powers of immigration judges.

At the state level, concern about unauthorized immigration was reflected in California’s Proposition 187 (proposed in 1994 and deemed unconstitutional in 1998), barring undocumented immigrants and children from schools and subsidized medical and social services; Proposition 227 of 1998 against the use of bilingual education in public schools; and Arizona’s Proposition 200 of 2004 requiring proof of citizenship prior to voting or receiving public assistance.

Language Minorities

The 1965 immigration reform coincided with educational policies of the civil rights movement to yield a focus on language minority students. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols—that instruction provided in a language a student did not understand was a denial of the student’s equal opportunity for education— established the legal basis for bilingual education programs. Support for immigrant students was evident in the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, which ruled that a student could not be denied admission to a public school based on his or her legal status.

The increased representation of immigrants in public schools led to the development of ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) programs and lent impetus to multicultural education programs that valued culturally responsive pedagogy. However, the post-1965 openness to linguistic diversity shifted toward priority for English-language acquisition in 2001 as indicated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Current debates on immigration have led to the stagnation of immigrant student-friendly legislation in the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would allow high school graduates who are not legal residents to apply for conditional residency in order to attend college.


The model of assimilation that characterized the experiences of the immigrants of the early twentieth century did not apply to post-1965 Latin American and Asian immigrants, who, unlike their European predecessors, were not able to blend in to the social fabric of the Caucasian mainstream. Studies of these immigrants have yielded new insights for understanding, analyzing, and providing equitable education for immigrant students.

Margaret Gibson’s notion of additive acculturation acknowledges the bicultural or transnational identities of new immigrants and offers educators a new model for facilitating the integration of immigrants. It highlights the need for the acculturation process to include the acquisition of knowledge and skills to participate successfully in the U.S. mainstream while maintaining native skills within the context of the family, both in the United States and abroad.

The concept of segmented assimilation advanced by Alejandro Portes and Ming Zhou challenged the assumption of inevitable assimilation to the mainstream, especially in the context of a racially stratified society where immigrants’ human and social capital determined differential social tiers to which they would ultimately assimilate. The role of education in failing to circumvent this process has been documented in negative teacher and peer biases; cultural discontinuities; and inhospitable school climates that contribute to subtractive schooling, academic underachievement, and adversarial identities among students.

Herbert Gans identified the “second generation decline” that typically occurred among children of immigrants compared with their parents’ or foreign-born peers’ U.S.-based academic achievements. This challenged the traditional assumption that the longer an immigrant spent in the country, the more “Americanized” he or she became, and that such Americanization was desirable. Ruben Rumbaut’s classification of children of immigrants as the 1.25, 1.5, 1.75 generations, based on their age of arrival, provided insight into the complexity of intergenerational acculturation. Intergenerational conflict is often caused when children’s cultural and linguistic acculturation outstrips their parents’, leading to adult–child role reversals.

Diverse Achievement

Although aggregate statistics of immigrant students demonstrate comparable educational achievement with the native-born population, there is variance among diverse immigrant groups. The disproportionately high academic achievement of Asian students has earned them the title of the “model minority,” a stereotype that has had deleterious academic and social consequences. Variance in educational achievement can be linked to educational background and socioeconomic status. Asian immigrants had the highest rates of school completion and college education and were second to Europeans with the lowest representation of families in poverty among immigrant groups.

Approximately 28.5 percent of all foreign-born children under the age of 18 (compared to 16.2 percent of natives) lived below the poverty level in 2002. Poverty is also linked to the need for students to work while attending school, lack of health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and underfunded schools. The unique success of Vietnamese students, who arrived as refugees and whose parents had limited education, demonstrates that poverty and parental education are neither predictive of nor the only factors that affect immigrant adaptation.

Individual factors such as age of immigration; time spent in the United States; educational aspirations of student and family; sociocultural factors such as anticipatory socialization; “push” versus “pull” factors that determined immigrants’ reasons for leaving; educational factors such as school climate, teacher quality, and curricular relevance; and community factors that include levels of hospitality versus hostility toward immigrants all interact to contribute to (or detract from) the successful integration of immigrants. Educators will have to recognize and address the social, cultural, political, psychological, and economic complexity that is immigrant education in the twenty-first century.

Contemporary immigration policy has reflected the divergent perspectives of host communities toward these newcomers. The education system has not been immune to the social and political impact of such policy, but nevertheless has functioned historically as a crucial factor in the successful social and cultural integration of immigrant students. As the numbers of immigrants continue to grow in the twenty-first century, the likelihood that all educators will encounter immigrant students in their classes is extremely high. How educators and policy makers address the increasing diversification of the population will ultimately determine the stability of communities in the future.


  1. Hirschman, C., Kasinitz, P., & DeWind, J. (Eds.). (1999). Handbook of international migration: The American experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  2. Mobasher, M. M.. & Sadri, M. (2004). Migration, globalization, and ethnic relations: An interdisciplinary approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Pedraza, S., & Rumbaut, R. G. (Eds.). (1996). Origins and destinies: Immigration, race, and ethnicity in America. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  4. Rumbaut, R., & Cornelius, W. (Eds.). (1995). California’s immigrant children: Theory, research and implications for educational policy. San Diego, CA: Center for U.S.– Mexican Studies.
  5. Suarez-Orosco, C., & Suarez-Orosco, M. M. (2001). Children of immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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