No Place to Call Home: The DREAM Act and what it would do for the 1.5 generation and the U.S

Each year in the United States, there are approximately 65,000 high school students who graduate and receive their diplomas, but find their options for their futures curtailed severely. Any aspirations these students may have to attend a four-year university, join the military, or find work are short lived the when reality sets in that these are not accessible to them. To any onlooker or researcher examining demographic data, the majority of these students are culturally American and indistinguishable from their peers. The U.S is their home.

These are the statistics and description given by the Immigration Policy Center regarding undocumented members of the “1.5 generation,” first generation immigrant children brought to the U.S at such a young age that they have been raised almost exclusively in the U.S (American Immigration Council 2011). For many students of this demographic, they are often just discovering their undocumented status as they attempt to fill out applications. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Plyler v. Doe, guaranteeing free and public K-12 education to all students, citizen or undocumented (Drachman 2006:91). By contrast, access to post-secondary education has several times been restricted at the national level.

IIRIRA and the Origins of DREAM

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), a piece of legislation intended make immigration laws and regulations stronger and more efficient. Section 505 of this act is particularly important in regard to these aspiring college students. It stipulates that undocumented students living within a state can only be charged the more affordable in-state tuition rates if the state they resided in also allowed for U.S citizens from other states to apply for in-state tuition (Barron 2011). A large portion of undocumented members of the 1.5 generation come from low-income families, as their parents are also undocumented and can only get low-income, unregulated work where employers don’t ask for Social Security numbers or other documentation. This, in combination with the fact that they themselves do not have the paperwork required to complete college applications or apply for work to pay tuition, means these undocumented students are, for the most part, are left without support in  the country they believed was their home. While individual states have passed laws in recent years circumventing residency requirements for in-state tuition application, it is far from being the national norm.


Figure 1 Source: National Association for College Admission Counseling.

In 2001, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, identifying this issue, proposed the first version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to Congress. The stated goal of this legislation was to “allow children who have been brought to the United States through no volition of their own the opportunity to fulfill their dreams, to secure a college degree and legal status” (Barron 2011). In order to do this, the DREAM Act would repeal Section 505 of IIRIRA, and provide a path to citizenship for those undocumented members of the 1.5 generation who had arrived in the U.S under a certain age and had been in the U.S for a certain number of years. From 2001 until 2011, the DREAM Act has been proposed, with some variation, each year since, often coming close to but never actually receiving enough votes to pass both parts of Congress. 

What the DREAM Could Have Been

In order to begin the path to citizenship under the 2010 DREAM Act, which became the 2011 DREAM Act with very few parts changed, an undocumented immigrant would have to have entered the U.S prior to age sixteen, and have lived in the U.S continuously for a minimum of five years. Upon completion of high school or a GED program, along with proof of acceptance into a post-secondary institution, they may then apply for “conditional nonimmigrant status.” In order to be approved, the individual’s background check must show a lack of any disqualifying factors (health risk, criminal activity, national security risk, etc.), and must also demonstrate that they are of the “good moral character,” as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act (Barron 2011). They retain this status for ten years. Nine years into this period, the individual may begin the application process for the status of “alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence,” which requires having earned either a degree from an institution of higher learning, completion of two years of a Bachelor’s program, or two years in the Armed Forces. After three years of having this status, the immigrant can begin naturalization procedures. Additionally, an individual with either status is allowed to work legally in the U.S, and also has access certain student loan programs and federal work study, but not affirmative grants such as Pell Grants, in order to support their post-secondary endeavors.

Not the Nightmare You Think It Would Be

Who Would Benefit from It

One of the biggest fears, and points of contention, regarding the DREAM Act which has prevented it from passing is the fear that it will somehow take away opportunities, seats, spots, positions, resources, etc. from American citizens and immigrants who are following the existing legal pathways to become citizens. In particular, the idea of rewarding “criminals,” so phrased, has been a major reason for reduced public support for legislation such as the DREAM Act. However, this is line of reasoning negatively generalizes all 1.5 generation students and members, when in fact it is very much a diverse and differentiated group. This generalization and stereotyping also extends to the type of economic impact they may have on the communities they live in, which is again far more complex and varied situation than is often purported.

The majority of the 1.5 generation youth and young adults who would be eligible for the DREAM Act, should it pass, are not undocumented through their own choice, and did leave one home country to exploit the U.S economy before returning. Rather, the U.S is their home country. Andrew Stevenson wrote, in regard to them, that “Because these youths had grown up and attended school in the U.S. since their early childhood, they felt almost no connection to their actual countries of citizenship” (2004:559). He uses the example of a community college student named Victor, who, having arrived here seven years prior with his family on a tourist Visa, has spent his formative years in the U.S, finished in education in the U.S, and even began post-secondary education here. However, because the Visa expires at age 21, his options were suddenly and severely limited. Without a legal visa, he would have to leave school, but also has little hope of being able to afford a new one, as without the documentation, he has no way of paying for new documentation, a crippling, paradoxical situation to say the least.

Victor’s story also serves as a prime example of another distinction that must be made regarding this generalized “immigrants” group. Edward Drachman (2006) in Peace Review writes that “Most undocumented immigrants do sneak across this country’s borders from Mexico or enter with fraudulent documents, but many others come here legally and overstay their visa (98)”. In addition to most being brought to the U.S involuntarily, many of these aspiring college students were admitted into the U.S legally and, for an extended period, were treated the same as legal citizens, at least until their expired visa status was discovered. Hence, for the most part, members of this 1.5 generation who would be eligible for the DREAM Act are not the border-hopping, document forging, “illegals” that has often been represented in public opinion pieces. Rather, they are almost-citizens who have been in the U.S for a large portion of their lives, and intend to stay here, work here, and contribute the same as any other citizen. What prevents this are legalities, not their own choice.

How the U.S Would Benefit from Them

Another of the major arguments against the DREAM Act is that it would place additional burden on tax-payers by forcing them to subsidize the education of undocumented students. From a sociological perspective, increases in this seemingly xenophobic view could be due to economic downturns in recent years. Addressing this argument, Stevenson cites several studies which indicate that “…the tax burden in subsidizing these students’ education may in fact be insignificant” (2004:573). Quite the opposite, immigrants paying taxes substantially adds to local and state tax revenue. In Illinois, Stevenson notes that, despite being confined to low-income jobs, immigrants contribute seventy million in taxes annually, a figure which can only increase should there be more legal, college educated immigrant-citizens created under legislation such as the DREAM Act. Sandy Baum, professor at Skidmore College, and Stella M. Flores corroborate this statement in their piece, writing that immigrants “…who attend college pay higher taxes and are less likely to depend on public support than those who do not. Their increased productivity in the workplace is reflected in more rapid economic growth and higher earnings for their less educated co-workers” (2011:185).


Although the DREAM Act has not been re-proposed since 2011, legislation similar in effect should be enacted within the U.S. To not help these aspiring college students, soldiers, and workers is “to create a discrete permanent underclass continuing to live with an “enduring disability” (Drachman 2006: 94). Making these members of the 1.5 generation would provide numerous benefits to the U.S economically, and would also be a step toward allaying certain stereotyped fears about immigrants, as, in general, college educated students actually draw less on public services and the criminal justice system as well. Passing DREAM-esque legislation and providing a pathway to citizenship for these already almost-citizens is imperative. While certain individual states have enacted the own version of the DREAM Act to aid aspiring college students, only federal action can solve this pressing problem.

Michael Olivas on state-level DREAM Acts and DREAM Act related legislation in the absence of a national DREAM Act 


Barron, Elisha. 2011. “The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.” Harvard Journal on Legislation 48(2): 623-625 (Retrieved from Web of Science on October 25, 2014).

*On Web Science, I was only able to retrieve this source in “article” form, not in the original journal format. As a result, the text was listed continuously on one long page, and I was unable to give page numbers for the in-text citations.

Baum, Sandy and Stella M. Flores. 2011. “Higher Education and Children in Immigrant Families.” Future of Children 21(1): 171-193.

Drachman, Edward. 2006. “Access to Higher Education for Undocumented Students.” Peace Review 18(1): 91-100.

National Association for College Admission Counseling. 2013. “Tuition Equity for Undocumented Students Gains Momentum.” April 10, Arlington, VA. Retrieved December 14, 2014 (

National Immigration Law Center. 2014. “FAQ: DACA.” June 13, Los Angeles, California. Retrieved October 25, 2014 (



Educating Polish Immigrants

Although the Polish immigrant population in America today is not one of the most prevalent, its success in terms of educational attainment and income raises a few interesting questions concerning immigrants in America. Specifically, the Polish American and Polish immigrant population in the Chicago area has used some interesting methods to ensure that individuals were not only being educated with American standards in mind, but also focusing on the group’s heritage and history. This group is also a prime example of some of the ways in which the success of an immigrant group can lead to some adverse effects for future immigrants when too much focus is placed the second and third generation.

In a profile of Polish Americans using data from the 2000 U.S. Census, Jason C. Booza notes that “when compared to the national population, Poles 25 years of age and over are much better educated” (2007:68). For example, 19.1% of the Polish population in America had a Bachelor’s Degree as compared to 15.5% of the total population (2007:70). Another surprising statistic is found in the 3.8% poverty rate for Polish families, as compared to the 9.2% national average. A closer look at the education of the Polish community in Chicago provides a glimpse into some of the approaches that have allowed for the group’s success.

Firstly, it is important to note the positive influence that the Refugee Act of 1980 had on many Polish immigrants since it offered “language and job training, as well as housing allowance and food stamps” (Coleman 2004:28). Although this wave of Polish immigrants differed in many ways from earlier waves, both groups “showed the desire to see all American Poles learn about Polish culture” (Coleman 2007:29). Clearly, assistance from the U.S. government is a beneficial step towards success for an immigrant group. In Chicago, many schools began to offer bilingual education programs following the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. Despite some issues including lack of qualified teachers and materials, various schools were able to implement these programs successfully, but many individuals in the Polish community desired a way to teach children the Polish language and culture in a way that would not impede their immersion in the American education system (Coleman 2007:33-34).

Along with the desire for immersion, the group’s success in terms of education and occupation, as well as its subsequent assimilation into American culture and its spread into the suburbs, have raised questions concerning the future effectiveness of bilingual programs (Coleman 2007:34). This is evidence of the fact that an immigrant group’s needs are constantly changing, so frequent reevaluation of its disadvantages is required. Bilingual education may have been the best option when children were having less success in schools, but because the issue has been largely solved, a different approach that also tackles more relevant and recent problems could be beneficial. Also, bilingual education programs were successful because of the high concentrations of Poles in certain communities, but because these programs have aided in assimilation, the group has been spreading geographically, which will lead to difficulty in using the public education system to address their needs.

Because immersion is becoming more favorable than bilingual programs for Polish American students, education concerning the Polish language and culture must be found elsewhere. Polish Saturday schools seem to be the most effective way of allowing Polish Americans to be immersed in the American education system while still contributing to America’s multicultural heritage. The Polish immigrant group is a good example of how both assimilation into American culture and remaining entrenched in the culture of their homeland can lead to success for a group.

Works Cited

Booza, Jason C. 2007. “A Profile of Polish Americans: Data from the 2000 U.S. Census.” Polish American Studies 64(1):63-74.

Coleman, Geraldine Balut. 2004. “Educating Polish Immigrants Chicago Style: 1980-2002.” Polish American Studies 61(1):27-38.

Factors Affecting Educational Success of the Children of Immigrants

Education is a key aspect of assimilation into the American mainstream. It has been long believed that America’s K-12 education has been the key for upward mobility of children of immigrants (). This was the case during the nineteenth century, as the white European immigrants were expected to “move ahead” and get “Americanized”  through the public school system; which they did, as they were largely absorbed into the nation’s major social and political institutions within a couple of generations and became upwardly mobile over time” (). Although this “linear model” of assimilation was successful—largely due to educational success—for the European wave of immigrants in the nineteenth century, the model is not applicable to the current children of immigrants due to many factors such as language, stereotypes based on educational success of older generations, and socioeconomic status.

Language is an enormous factor of educational success. In the United States, it is virtually impossible to finish school without knowledge of English. Many extremely intelligent children of immigrants fail to have any success in school simply because they do not know the language. Mexican immigrants are especially notorious for poor educational attainment; only 39.8 percent of Mexican born men have a high school diploma (Batalova 2008). Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Mexican immigrants are not proficient in English, as almost 75 percent of Mexican immigrants reported speaking English less than very well (Batalova 2008). Although these statistics largely represent Mexican born adult immigrants, the mere fact that the children of these immigrants will have parents who cannot speak English can threaten to hinder their English development. Language is not the only factor that can affect educational success; the educational success of prior generations can also play a tremendous role in the educational success of current children of immigrants.

The educational success of prior generations is an extremely important determinant of the educational success of current generations for numerous reasons; especially the stereotypes developed by native citizens; society will naturally develop stereotypes based on their first impressions. If an older generation of an immigrant group comes to America and rapidly achieves educational success, the later generations will most likely obtain benefits from society due to the positive impression made by the older generation. This is very evident today as for many generations; Asian immigrants have gained a reputation to strive academically. Due to this reputation, educational institutions will make greater investments in Asian immigrants than they would for Mexican immigrants; who suffer from stereotypes of low educational attainment; stereotypes that were developed based on the low economic success of earlier generations of Mexican immigrants (Crosnoe 2011).

Socioeconomic status is also a tremendous factor concerning education attainment for immigrant children. It is significantly harder for children of immigrants with low socioeconomic status to be successful educationally for many reasons. Firstly, low socioeconomic status increases stress and increases the possibility of distractions. Low socioeconomic status also increases the possibility that the children will have to drop out of school and get jobs (very low wage jobs due to little to no educational attainment) to help support their families. This continues to negatively affect numerous immigrant children as they feel as though they have no choice but to abandon their educational careers in order to help their families survive.

Educational success of children of immigrants is a very complex subject that is based on numerous factors. Knowledge of the English language, stereotypes based on educational success of older generations, and socioeconomic status are just three of many other factors that affect the educational outcomes of different immigrant groups.


Batalova, Jeanne. Apr. 2008. “Migration Information Source – Mexican Immigrants in the United States.” The Migration Information Source. <>.

Crosnoe, Robert, and Ruth N. Lopez Turley. 2011. K-12 Educational Outcomes of Immigrant Youth. Rep. 1st ed. Vol. 21.

Is Education a Fundamental Right?

Article 26 – (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

– The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares “Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” The declaration that elementary education should be free for undocumented youth in Texas was challenged in the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe. Following the decision of Supreme Court case San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973), the court’s ruling in Plyler v. Doe enhanced the discussion of whether or not the right to education was a fundamental right or just an ordinary right.

A fundamental right is described as “a basic or foundational right, derived from natural law; a right deemed by the Supreme Court to receive the highest level of Constitutional protection against government interference” ( The naming of education as a fundamental right became a highlighted issue in the 1973 San Antonio v. Rodriguez hearing. The court case was concerning the matter of financing of public schools in Texas which led to disparities in individual school resources. The court decided that the fiscal plan implemented by the state has “abundantly satisfied this standard” (U.S. Supreme Court 1973). The Supreme Court decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez found that there is no constitutional right to education because it is not expressed so in the Constitution (

Education as a fundamental right was revisited in Plyler v. Doe. The case concerned the issue of a Texas law that required undocumented youth to pay fees in order to attend K-12 public schools. In what Andrew Stevenson describes as “landmark decision,” the Supreme Court “established the right of undocumented immigrant youth to education to the U.S.” (2004: 562). The court discussed that “education as a special public benefit, holding that the right to education lay somewhere between an ordinary and fundamental right, regardless of a person’s immigration status” (Stevenson 2004: 563). However, the court ultimately decided that education was not a fundamental right. The decision of the court guarantees the right to free education for undocumented youth only for K-12 public education. This means that undocumented youths are unable to receive state and federal funds for postsecondary education.

The decisions made in San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973) and Plyler v. Doe (1982) continue to affect the lives of students in the United States today. Every year undocumented youth graduate from high school prepared to continue on in postsecondary education but soon find that they are ineligible to receive state and federal funds for financial aid. In reference to postsecondary education, Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” Undocumented youth in the United States are not equally accessible to higher education, especially when considering the burden of tuition fees. It is time that the Court revisited San Antonio v. Rodriguez and Plyler v. Doe to reexamine the issue of education as a fundamental right.

Works Cited:

Chaltain, Sam. (May 16, 2011). Your education is not an equal opportunity. Retrieved from

Fundamental Right. (n.d.) In Retrieved from

Stevenson, Andrew. (2004). DREAMing of an Equal Future For Immigrant Children: Federal State Initiatives to Improve Undocumented Students’ Access to Postsecondary Education. Arizona Law Review, 46, 551-580.

San Antonio School District v Rodriquez. Retrieved from <>.

San Antonio Independent School Dis v. Rodriguez. Retrieved from

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from

Mary: A 2nd Generation College Student

Mary is the child of two immigrant parents from California.  She is currently a sophomore at Vassar College, a highly selective private four-year college in Upstate New York.  My research (see my blog post “Attainment of Higher Education for Immigrants: What Exactly is Possible?) concludes that access to private colleges is severely restricted for many children of immigrants.  I recently sat down with Mary to discuss her educational trajectory and see what factors enabled her to attend such an esteemed postsecondary institution.  My questions are in bold and Mary’s answers are in plain text.

Are both of your parents immigrants?  If so, where are they from and when did they immigrate?

Yes, they both are.  My dad immigrated about twenty five years ago and my mom immigrated about twenty years ago and they’re both from Mexico.

Do your parents have college degrees?  If so, from where?

No. Neither of them.

Do you have any siblings?

Yeah, two brothers.  Older and younger.

Are they in college?  If so, where?


Did you attend public or private school?

Private school.

How big was your high school?

It’s small.  It’s like a hundred and seventy five students in total.

What was the ethnic make up of your high school?

It was mostly minorities.  Maybe like two or three white people in my class.  But it was like Blacks, Latinos, Tongans.

Did your high school implement ‘tracking’ in terms of its courses/policies?  If so, what track were you in?

Yeah.  We had AP courses and we ahd different levels of math, that’s the first one I know.  It’s advanced math, then regular, and then people who need help with math.  I was in the AP track.

Were there other children of immigrants in your track?

I was in the top and advanced classes in all subjects.  Half of {children of imms] were in the advanced ones and half were in the lower.

Were there a lot of children of immigrants in your school?

Yeah, I’d say about 90% of the population, at least.

What did your school offer in terms of resources to help you search for and apply to colleges?

We had a high school counselor, about one for every forty students.  She was definitely working with us individually, helping us know which colleges to apply to and which ones she recommends.

What types of schools did other children of immigrants in your high school attend?  Liberal arts colleges?  Public universities?  Community Colleges?

Some of them went to Stanford.  Others went to Community College.  Others went to public institutions—UCLA, Yale.  It was all over the map, definitely.

Did you participate in a college prep program?  Was this run through your school or privately?

We had a class called College Readiness.  It was a class where we had to do a lot of writing how college teachers would want us to write.  Just like the resources we need to apply to college, what resources we need to get, preparation for the SATs, and ACTs.  The whole period was dedicated to filling out applications, later filling out the FAFSA.

Did everyone have to take that?

Yeah, it was a requirement so everyone had to take it.

How big was that class?

They only offered two classes and it was about 25 students each.

What types of colleges/universities did you look at?

I looked at schools all over the map.  For my [high] school we have to apply to reach, safety, and target schools.  So I definitely applied to safety schools, the ones I knew I could get into.  Not community colleges, but like Mount Saint Marys.  UC Merced.  Everyone who applied got in.

So did you look mostly at smaller colleges?

Yeah.  I liked the smallness of my highschool.  I liked how teachers focused their time on individuals.  I visted the big schools like UCLA and UC Berkley and it was humongous, so I didn’t see myself there.

Why did you choose Vassar?

Mainly because of financial aid.  I liked that it was in New York, I’ve neve been here before.  I thought it would be a great experience to go across the country to a small liberal arts school.  I liked that it was small and there were no requirements.

Was financial aid an important factor when looking at schools?

For everyone in my high school, yeah.


Mary is working towards a degree in Sociology.  She plans on studying abroad in Europe next fall.

Attainment of Higher Education for Children of Immigrants: What exactly is Possible?

In modern America’s society and economy, post-secondary school attendance is more important than ever, with students enrolling at enormous rates.  Record enrollment is occurring “across all institutional types.  [By 2005], public four-year enrollments increased by 39%, private four-year enrollments by 66%, and public and private two-year enrollments by 138%” (Price and Wohlford 2005: 60-61).  However, for children of immigrants in this country, access to higher education is severely stratified, with few options available in terms of the institutions that they are able to attend.  These discrepancies in attainment are shaped and perpetuated by three primary factors: socioeconomic status, availability of information regarding the college application process, and the rigor and policies of secondary schools.  Due to these three primary factors, most children of immigrants attend two-year community colleges, with few able to attend public universities and private colleges.

Socioeconomic Status

For many children of immigrants, access to higher education is severely limited due to economic constraints.  Post-secondary schools are a major investment and “according to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (2002), more than 150,000 college-qualified students each year do not enroll in any post-secondary institutions due to inadequate financial aid” (Price etc. 2005: 64).  Many of these students are children of immigrants—unable to attend college because their families belong to an inescapable underclass.  However, “despite what is popularly understood, the issue isn’t only the cost of higher education and financial aid, but the simple need to spend time working for the survival of the family” (Berg 2010: 112).  Many students are torn between pursuing degrees for their own personal futures versus attending to familial duties.  Thus, for many children of immigrants, “the opportunity costs for attending college are too great, and thus they choose to work rather than attend college” (Kurlaender and Flores 2005: 26).

Access to Information 

Often, children of immigrants have limited access to information regarding higher education processes and opportunities.  This lack of information begins at home. “The children of parents who are not in a position to help them prepare for and navigate the post-secondary system are likely to struggle” (Baum and Flores 2011: 186).  In addition, “there is a close relationship between parental education and school readiness, performance on achievement tests, grades, drop-out rates, school behavior problems, and school engagement” (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, and Todorova 2008:37). Overall, immigrant parents without degrees themselves are unable to aid their children with the necessary processes for attending college.  In addition, some children of immigrants attend poor, low-quality schools without sufficient resources to advise and assist college application processes.  At the end of the day, many of these students have parents and schools that are unable to facilitate the transition to higher education.

 Rigor/Policies of Secondary Schools

More often than not, children of immigrants “are more likely to attend racially and economically segregated, low-performing schools with weaker resources, such as fewer qualified teachers, a less rigorous curriculum and worse facilities” (Kurlaender and Flores 2005: 26).  Underfunded schools are unable to provide the resources necessary for a rigorous, high-quality education.  In turn, children of immigrants who attend these schools are not prepared academically for college-level work.  Alternatively, if these students do attend better schools, they are often denigrated to remedial courses through the practice of “tracking.”  This pipeline process separates students into different trajectories of above average and below average courses of study.  Children of immigrants often find themselves in the latter category and many “internalize the low expectations of the school settings in which they work and often steer…away from applying [to college]” (Suarez-Orozco etc. 2008: 141-142).  In short, the rigor and policies of the secondary schools that children of immigrants attend bear heavily on their post-secondary educational outcomes.

Community College

Due to a combination of the three factors mentioned above, many children of immigrants enter Community College as a fast-tracked form of higher education, as they “have provided immigrants and other less well-off populations with a second opportunity to get educational credentials” (Trillo 2004: 58).  Community Colleges provide higher education for less money and with a lower expected level of academic preparedness, acting as ideal institutions for children of immigrants who are unable to attend public or private colleges for financial and academic reasons.  In addition, students are expected to transfer to four-year institutions upon completion of a Community College degree.  However, “while some do, the transfer rate to four-year colleges is surprisingly low and the dropout rate for students who pursue this route is appallingly high, especially for students of color” (Suarez-Orozco etc. 2008: 142).  In this sense, while attaining a BA is the ultimate goal of Community College attendees, children of immigrants ultimately emerge as disadvantaged as they started, “attaining fewer years of education and fewer BA degrees than students of comparable social background, educational aspirations, and high school preparation who enter four year colleges” (Karen and Dougherty 2005: 37-38).

Public and Private Four-Year Institutions

Public universities and private colleges emerge as less probable options for children of immigrants.  They are often expensive and demanding in terms of academic preparedness and expectations.  Many children of immigrants are ill equipped academically and financially to attend these higher institutions—they require high GPAs and SAT scores, which many children of immigrants do not have due to the rigor of their high school education.  Between the two, however, public state-owned universities are a more likely option, as “a number of states have implemented policies that offer in-state college tuition to out-of-state students who meet certain requirements” (Baum and Flores 2011: 184).  While this relieves some of the financial pressure, state universities are still difficult for children of immigrants to attend due to reasons of access to information and level of academic preparedness.

Private colleges are even more unlikely options—they are highly selective and expensive institutions that pander directly to the elite upper class.  In addition, these public and private universities “supported the founding of community colleges not just to expand college opportunity, but also to keep the universities academically selective by channeling less prepares students away from their doors” (Karen and Dougherty 2005: 42).  In this sense, it seems that the idea of “tracking” can extend to the post-secondary level—with Community College acting as less-elite options for the underclass, as public and private universities and colleges are reserved for wealthier and predominantly white middle and upper classes.

Works Cited

Baum, Sandy and Flores, Stella M.  2011.  “Higher Education and Children in Immigrant Families.”  The Future of Children 21(1): 171-193.

Berg, Gary.  2010.  Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Karen, David and Kevin J. Dougherty.  2005.  “Necessary but Not Sufficient: Higher Education as a Strategy of Social Mobility.”  Pp. 33-58 in Higher Education and the Color Line, edited by G. Orfield, P. Marin, and C. Horn.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kulraender, Michal and Stella M. Flores.  2005.  “The Racial Transformation of Higher Education.”  Pp. 11-32 in Higher Education and the Color Line, edited by G. Orfield, P. Marin, and C. Horn.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Price, Derek V. and Jill K. Wohlford.  2005.  “Equity in Educational Attainment: Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Inequality in the 50 States.”  Pp. 59-82 in Higher Education and the Color Line, edited by G. Orfield, P. Marin, and C. Horn.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Suzrez-Orozco, Carola, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, and Irina Todorova.  2008.  Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Trillo, Alex.  2004.  “Somewhere Between Wall Street and El Barrio: Community College as a Second Chance for Second-Generation Latino Students.”  Pp. 57-78 in Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation, edited by P. Kasinitz, J. Mollenkopf, and M. Wates.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

English Language Learners

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, so too must society want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” – John Dewey, The School and Society 

The experiences of individual children are at the heart of my interest in bilingual education. I think we too often forget that government policies, academic scholarship, and popular media debates about bilingualism have real, palpable consequences for students throughout the country. Or even if we do recognize these consequences, it is still difficult to  construct images in our minds about how the absence of bilingual education shapes the experiences of many immigrant students.

Reflecting on my personal experiences with English language learners allows me to see the ways that the lack of bilingual education impacts students on a deeply personal level. While the individual experiences of these students are part of a larger social landscape, I think that emphasizing that these students are all unique children with their own worries, hopes, dreams, and challenges should be an important part of discussions about bilingual education.

During my time as a student at Vassar, I have worked continuously with Poughkeepsie students. Poughkeepsie has a large immigrant population, and many of the students attending Poughkeepsie schools are English language learners. Last year, I worked with a recent immigrant from Honduras in her history class. I attended multiple classes a week with her to help her make sense of the history curriculum, which was taught entirely in English. Though I speak Spanish fairly well, her teacher asked me to use Spanish as infrequently as possible. I asked this teacher about her thoughts on bilingual education, and recorded her response in my field notes:

“I don’t think students should be speaking Spanish in school…It’s just not the place. The problem is that they speak Spanish all the time, at home, with their friends. It makes it so difficult to learn English, and I feel for them because I know they just don’t get the English reinforcement they need. When I catch my students speaking Spanish I let them know that I’m not happy, it’s just making it so hard for them to learn. I know there are many theories about bilingual education and its benefits. But I just don’t know… I don’t know if there’s a place for that in schools. My students have ESL classes every day. Why should history class be in Spanish too? I’m saying this because I really don’t think it helps them, this Spanish in school.” 

During class, I saw the student I was working with become increasingly frustrated with her inability to understand the class material. Her limited English proficiency kept her from engaging with her academics, and there was no option for bilingual instruction. Though Spanish was highly present in the hallways and cafeterias of Poughkeepsie High, it had no place in her history classroom.

I worked briefly with another student at Poughkeepsie High last year, named José. José was placed in the special education classroom, but I quickly realized he had been placed there due to his language difficulties. José had a passion for math, and would breeze through the math packets his teacher gave him. One day, José and I approached his teacher, asking if we could work on more difficult math packets that could prepare him for advanced courses. The teacher looked right at José and said, “You don’t need that… you should be focusing on math that will be practical for you, like how to calculate a tip, ya know?” In that moment, I saw the light fade out of José’s face- a sight that was truly heartbreaking.

These individual stories speak to the experiences of many English language learners at Poughkeepsie High. Though there is such a large and growing immigrant population, there is no bilingual education, and Spanish language use is sometimes frowned upon by teachers. The absence of bilingual education presents enormous challenges for many immigrant students, and hinders their ability to be academically successful. The lack of recognition of the cultural and linguistic knowledge that immigrants possess reinforces stereotypes and damages many students’ confidence and sense of self.

My interactions with English language learners at home in Connecticut stand in striking contrast with those in Poughkeepsie. My mom is a speech pathologist in my hometown (a small, affluent suburb in northern Connecticut). She works with preschool students, most of whom come from white, upper-middle class families. There is not much ethnic or racial diversity where we live, and English language learners are few and far between in the public schools. This year, however, my mom has a student, Juan, whose family recently emigrated from Mexico. Juan is five years old, and very quiet. He comes to school every morning with a bright blue back-pack and a small, hesitant smile. My mom spoke to me a bit about Juan and other English learners in her school district:

“It’s challenging when so few of our students are English language learners. I think it’s really isolating for them, especially the very young students. Juan attends a particularly small elementary school in town, and he is the only student at this school who is a native Spanish speaker. The only other ESL students are two siblings from Bosnia and one boy from Korea. In some ways this is great, because the ESL teacher can devote so much time and attention to each of the students. But it’s also hard because the ESL students don’t have a larger network of English learners who share their experiences. Juan never has the opportunity to speak Spanish with anyone, there are no teachers here who can speak. Well, I can speak a little, but not enough to carry a conversation or teach. I constantly think about how isolating that must be for him.” 

Unlike students in Poughkeepsie, Juan is not surrounded by fellow English learners, and the absence of bilingual instruction means that he is rarely given the opportunity to express himself in his native language, if ever. When I’m home, I often go to work with my mom and I love seeing Juan. The first time I met him, I started a conversation in Spanish, and I saw his eyes instantly light up. He became animated and chatty, and my mom told me that she had never seen him so expressive or enthusiastic. He finally had the chance to express himself in the language he felt most comfortable in.

The experiences of English language learners in different environments throughout the U.S vary greatly- but English learners in all places face challenges due to the absence of bilingual education. It is important to remember that language is a critical component of students’ identities. Amidst all of the current debates about immigration, bilingualism, and immigrant schooling, I think it is important to remember the struggles of individual students, and to work towards finding the light behind each and every students’ eyes.

Bilingual Education: A Historical Perspective

Language is an important indicator of immigrants’ incorporation into U.S society, and is central to many debates about current immigration. Conversations about assimilation to the English-speaking mainstream often hearken back to the early twentieth century as a time when immigrant language outcomes were more linear—claiming that all immigrants readily learned English and left their native languages behind. In contrast, proponents of contemporary English-only policies portray modern day immigrants as resistant to English and desperate to maintain their native languages. This line of thinking ignores history, and highlights a common misconception surrounding immigrants’ relationship with language and schooling.

In reality, immigrants have always had a complicated relationship with language—struggling to balance English assimilation and native language retention. Bilingual education is one way that immigrants have sought to establish that balance, and has also been an important way that immigrants have attempted to access equal educational opportunities.

Shining the spotlight on immigrant education in the early twentieth century reveals the long history of bilingualism in U.S schools, and helps shatter myths and misconceptions surrounding immigrants’ schooling and language use. Examining the historical roots of bilingual education illuminates the many forms it has taken, and helps to contextualize modern-day bilingual programs. Understanding bilingual education’s historical purposes is helpful as we continue to discuss the merits of bilingualism today.

History has shaped our ideas about immigrants in schools, and has influenced attitudes towards bilingual schooling. Historical myths have also been critical to the United States’ bilingual education policies. There is a pervasive mythology in American society that schools provide immigrants with opportunity and access to the American mainstream, even the ‘American Dream.’ Michael Olneck discusses the far-reaching power of this mythology:

Among the central legends of American history is that of the immigrant and the school. The myth that—through schooling—early twentieth century European immigrants to the United States were afforded and embraced unparalleled opportunities to achieve social mobility and ‘become American,’ has shaped responses to persisting poverty among African Americans, informed contemporary education policy toward ‘English Language Learners,’ and, generally, stood as an object lesson for how success in America is available to all (2008: 103). 

This myth has shaped the way Americans have viewed immigrant education, and has informed policies and teaching practices that have defined the experiences of immigrants in United States schools. However, the mythology surrounding immigrants in schools stands in striking contrast with the reality of the struggles faced by students, educators, and policy makers as immigrants enrolled in U.S public schools in increasing numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The overwhelming influx of immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century posed many challenges to the U.S education system. Students, educators, and policy makers did not know how to react as immigrants poured into United States schools.  In her book, Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education, Paula Fass describes how the infusion of immigrants into schools during the twentieth century redefined the purposes of American education (1989: 6).  Fass emphasizes the challenges this influx of immigrants presented to traditional ideas about the purposes of schooling, and discusses the way school policies were “strongly informed by contemporary perceptions about immigrants” (22).  In a society that was increasingly pluralistic, schools became even more important instruments of socialization, providing “remedial socialization” for students who were considered outsiders (6). This was particularly true for students who were linguistic outsiders, set apart from the English-speaking mainstream.

Language was often at the center of debates about the purposes of schooling. As the unprecedented number of immigrants flooded into the U.S at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, a wide array of languages surged into the country as well, creating new diversity in America’s linguistic landscape. While it is true that most public schools did not accommodate diverse language needs, immigrants still found ways to incorporate native languages into their children’s education. Language schools were a means by which immigrants facilitated linguistic and cultural retention and helped create environments where their children could learn. In her book Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in American 1880-1925, Melissa Klapper identifies three major categories of language schools: parochial or church schools, nationalist schools, and cultural or heritage schools (2007: 93). These different types of schools emphasized homeland language, religion, and culture, creating environments where immigrant students could still experience and learn about important elements of their identities. Klapper argues that language schools “helped immigrant families come to terms with the demands of Americanization,” by offering a way for immigrant children to advance academically while also preserving their cultural and linguistic heritage (101).

The widespread presence of language schools illustrates immigrants’ desires for educational spaces that allowed for native language retention and provided their children with enhanced educational opportunities. Some progressive school districts even allowed for native language instruction within public school buildings (Klapper, 2007: 101). Other schools incorporated foreign languages into daily instruction as a way to help immigrants acclimate to American, English-dominated schooling. This narrative runs counter to the misconception that early immigrants did not prioritize native language maintenance or bilingual education opportunities. Though modern-day opponents of bilingualism portray turn-of-the-century immigrants as ready to jump enthusiastically into the English-speaking melting pot, a historical perspective tells us otherwise. Bilingualism benefited these early immigrant students, who often lived in vibrant ethnic enclaves where their native languages were essential for everyday life. While these immigrant children learned English at extremely high rates, bilingual education and native language retention were important to them.

Looking at these early attempts to find a place for native languages in American schooling provides an important counter-narrative to the myths and misconceptions that are often used as fodder for contemporary anti-bilingualism activism. Immigrants have always sought to incorporate their native languages into American schooling and life, not at the expense of learning English, but rather as a way to access educational opportunities, express their ethnic identities, and carve out a place for themselves within American society.

Today, the fastest growing population in U.S schools is children of immigrants. Half of the students in this rapidly growing group are English-language learners (Calderón et. al., 2011). In their article, “Effective Instruction for English Learners,” Calderón, Slavin, and Sánchez argue that “wide and persistent achievement disparities between English learners and English-proficient students show clearly… that schools must address the language, literacy, and academic needs of English learners more effectively”(103). Like the immigrants of the early twentieth century, immigrants today have a complex relationship with language, especially in educational contexts. We need to rethink our national policies toward bilingual education, and recognize that immigrants’ desires for bilingual education and native language maintenance are not new trends- rather, they are the continuation of a long history of bilingualism and linguistic diversity in the United States.

Works Cited

Calderón, Margarita, Robert Slavin, and Marta Sánchez. 2011. “Effective Instruction for English Learners.” The Future of Children 21(1): 103-127.

Fass, Paula. Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Olneck, Michael R. “American Public Schooling and European Immigrants in the Early Twentieth Century: A Post-Revisionist Synthesis” in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. Reese, William J., and Rury, John. L. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Klapper, Melissa. Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in America, 1880-1925. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Reese, William J., and Rury, John L., eds. Rethinking the History of American Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillam, 2008.


Some Interesting Links:

Rethinking Schools—Bilingual Education Resources 

Timeline: The Bilingual Education Controversy 

Evolution of Important Events in California Bilingual Education Policy 

“Why Bilinguals are Smarter”