Understanding the children of immigrants

oatsy40, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
oatsy40, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Developmental psychologist Cynthia García Coll on the “immigrant paradox” and the political threats immigrant families face today.

Meeri Kim: In your 2012 book The Immigrant Paradox in Children and Adolescents: Is Becoming American a Developmental Risk?, you describe how assimilated children of immigrants experience diminishing developmental outcomes and educational achievements. Could you explain why this is considered a paradox?

Cynthia García Coll: The “immigrant paradox” refers to the fact that children of immigrants in the U.S. tend to do better than children of second- and third-generation parents in the same ethnic group, or sometimes even better than age-appropriate peers in other ethnic groups. This happens despite the fact that these immigrant families are usually poorer, larger, and lack knowledge of the dominant language. Their kids go to schools that are segregated by poverty and have fewer resources — yet, these children tend to have better developmental outcomes.

Hence, the paradox: If you look at the sociodemographic characteristics of the family and lower levels of assimilation, you would predict otherwise. You would say that these are not going to be the kids that will do well, but it turns out they perform well both in school and in the community.

MK: What could be the reasons why children of immigrants outperform expectations?

CGC: There has been some work by Andrew Fuligni on family obligations as one possible reason why they work harder. When you talk to children of immigrants, they have a sense of all the sacrifices that their parents have gone through to create a better life for them. Their job in this world is to make all the sacrifices worth it by becoming successful.

Another possible reason is that their families have often stressed to them that education is the way out of poverty. The family dynamic is to place value on education, and everyone will be on your case if you don’t do your homework. As a result, these kids can be really well-supported by teachers who recognize the work ethic and study habits that aren’t seen in other students.

Lastly, a really interesting factor to consider is the perception of prejudice over time. After being in a country for one generation, what happens is that people start perceiving the doors of opportunity have been closed off to them due to discrimination. They get angry, feel defeated, and stop studying hard because the reward won’t come to them even if they do. It’s very multifactorial and contextualized, but it’s a fascinating finding that comes primarily from U.S. data.

MK: Immigration is a very hot-button issue at the moment both in the U.S. and Europe, with some citizens wanting to close their country’s borders. What have you learned from your research about the impact of immigrants and their children on society as a whole?

CGC: In 2015, my colleagues and I put out a mission statement on the importance of immigration and the positive development of immigrant youth. A group of 15 researchers from the U.S. and Europe came together for an experts’ meeting in Hydra, Greece and decided we had to write this statement given the current political climate.

We argue that, as our populations continue to age, immigrant youth are the next generation of workers. If it wasn’t for immigrants, the U.S. would be experiencing negative population growth just as Europe is right now. All this anti-immigrant talk is terrible, and we’re closing off the doors to this new generation’s ability to be great contributors to our economic growth.

If you look at the U.S. data, we know that immigrants generally pay their taxes, commit less crime, and their children do very well in school. The anti-immigrant arguments out there are basically xenophobic attitudes that are not based in science. All of us who work with these families know that they just want a good education, a decent place to live, and a paying job. They want to contribute to society. So it’s incredibly frustrating to have all this science saying one thing, and then the government policies and the popular notions going in the other direction.

Cynthia García Coll is a Professor in the Clinical PhD program and Associate Director of the Institutional Center for Scientific Research at Albizu University in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her research focuses on the interplay of sociocultural and biological influences on child development, with particular emphasis on at-risk and minority populations.


The Society for Research in Child Development, a membership association whose mission is to advance developmental science and promote its use to improve human lives, held their 2017 Biennial Meeting in Austin, Texas, April 6 – 8, 2017. The overall theme of the invited program was Developmental Science and Society, although many other areas of research in the field of child development were presented in the general program. For a full list of invited program speakers, visit Invited Program Information or view the entire program using this link: Online Program.

Cynthia García Coll joined the Biennial Meeting as a panelist.