The Immigrant Kids Are Not All Right

A new report by the Migration Policy Institute reviews the lasting scars of growing up in an anti-immigrant environment.

Students arrive to participate in JCPenney's "In Honor Of Hispanic Heritage Month," which spotlighted Monica Gonzalez and her Gonzo Soccer Academy for Girls, Houston, Texas, September 30, 2014. (Bob Levey AFP/Getty)

All summer, presidential hopefuls have been stepping over each other to say ridiculous, demeaning things about immigrants. As ignorant and inaccurate as their perceptions are, this type of treatment isn’t new. Immigrants encounter offensive judgments probably every day. For their children, navigating this environment of insults, stereotypes, and low expectations can have long-lasting repercussions.

A new report by the Migration Policy Institute explores the psychological, social, and academic scars such ill-treatment leaves on immigrant kids. Here’s how the report summarizes its conclusions:

From the existing research, it is clear that immigrant children recognize discrimination from peers and teachers at least by middle childhood (around age 8), and at the institutional or societal level by adolescence. Discrimination affects the psychological well-being of immigrant children, their academic outcomes, and their social relationships.

Studies reviewed by the report’s author, Christina Spears Brown, present a grim picture of life at school for children of immigrants. Even in elementary school, kids report being insulted verbally, excluded from group activities, and being threatened and physically hurt by classmates because of their language, ethnicity, or immigrant status. The report quotes fourth-graders in Los Angeles, for example, who describe frequent racial name-calling.

“In P.E. class, a lot of kids called me a 'beaner,'” one young Mexican immigrant told researchers.

Adults don’t always know any better. In school, teachers sometimes add to the problem. Immigrant children report that their teachers often grade and punish them unfairly, discourage them from joining advanced-level classes, and don’t call on them to participate. Outside school, too, kids notice that their families are often treated differently from other customers in stores or given worse service at restaurants.

All this stays with them. Peer-to-peer discrimination can lead to depressive symptoms, high anxiety, low self-esteem in kids, and make them more likely to engage in aggressive and delinquent behavior. While immigrant children are more likely to go to schools that aren’t very well-resourced—because they’re more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods—low expectations from teachers tend to discourage them from enjoying school and succeeding at schoolwork, and it makes them more likely to drop out.

Here’s the MPI report again:

Because of the consistent links between discrimination and negative academic outcomes, some have pointed to discrimination at school as an important contributor to the well-documented achievement gap between immigrants and their nonimmigrant peers.

Given that children with immigrant parents make up the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s child population, perhaps it’s time to look out for them, instead of spewing poisonous rhetoric that encourages discrimination against them and their families.

Reprinted with the permission of CityLab. The original version can be found here.