The Public Interest

Are the children of today’s immigrants making it?

Joel Perlmann & Roger Waldinger

Summer 1998

THIRTY years after the Hart-Celler Act brought a wave of new immigrants to the United States, their children are reaching adulthood. These children of immigrants have only recently become a sizable presence in American schools and are just now moving from the schools into the labor market. But recent studies by Herbert Gans, Alejandro Portes, Ruben Rumbaut, and Min Zhou—all leading students of American ethnic life—outline, with clarity and acuity, reasons for concern: Having originated from everywhere but Europe, today’s newcomers are visibly identifiable in a mainly white society still not cured of its racism. Moreover, changes in the structure of the U.S. economy aggravate discrimination’s ill effects. While the poorly educated immigrant parents seem to have had no trouble finding jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, the shift toward knowledge-intensive jobs means that the next generation will have to do well in school if they wish to surpass the achievements of their parents. But, with big-city schools in more trouble than ever before, the outlook for successful passage through the educational system seems dim. As second generation expectations are unlikely to remain unchanged, we can count on a mismatch between the aspirations of immigrant children and requirements of the jobs that they seek. 

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