Carola Suárez-Orozco: New Book Looks at the “Transitions” of Immigrant Children

New co-edited volume examines personal, social, and structural factors that pose developmental challenges and advantages.

UCLA Professor of Education Carola Suárez-Orozco has enhanced her research on immigrant children and youth with her perspectives as both a clinical and developmental psychologist. In 2001, with Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, she took stock of the field with the groundbreaking “Children of Immigration” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,). This fall, Carola Suárez-Orozco has published “Transitions: The Development of Children and Immigrants” (With Mona M. Abo-Zena and Amy K. Marks, Eds. New York, NYU Press, 2015), a further exploration of the unique circumstances of immigrant children and the commonalities they share with their peers. The book’s interdisciplinary approach brings together a variety of experts and topics that reveal how personal, social, and structural factors interact to determine the development of immigrant origin children.

“As the field has vastly expanded over the last two decades, this new book is “Children of Immigration, 2.0,” says Suárez-Orozco, who co-directs the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education with UCLA Ed & IS’s Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Professor of Education Robert T. Teranishi. “We turn to the experts in the field and have carefully-curated chapters… in accessible language. Our contributors come from an array of fields with different voices, but we strove to make each section lead to the next, with case studies that would draw the reader in and illustrate each concept.”

Suárez-Orozco says that the book’s title refers to the myriad of developmental transitions that immigrant children go through across childhood. These include the transition to new cultures, languages, spaces, and schools, developmental transitions, as well as the transitions that immigrant parents hope their children will for better futures.

“Whether [immigrant children] manage these transitions well will determine how they will fare,” Suárez-Orozco says. “Children who are flexible do much better in the immigration process [than children] those who are more rigid. Most kids would rather stay in their homeland initially. They would d rather stay with their own friends, in their own school – they’d rather stay within their safety networks. Some kids will be persuaded by their parents’ narrative for migrating but in most families it is a top-down decision. There is no negotiation or conversation; the parents simply announce, ‘This is happening.’ And immigrant kids must make do.”

The book’s introduction describes immigration as “… almost always a journey laced with great hope and optimism— factors that can serve to inoculate migrants against the adversity that is part of the migratory process.” Immigrant children, Suárez-Orozco says are often inspired by the resilience of their newcomer parents who have emigrated in search of a better life. “The optimism of the first [American-born] generation helps because it’s inoculating. The second generation may not be as protected by this source of resilience, however” she says. “They go into neighborhoods that are less than optimal, schools that are far from optimal, they encounter hostile attitudes toward them – like [the comments of] Donald Trump and those that have come before him and will come after him. Xenophobia is a very real and toxic thing.

“Hope is a great vaccine against the difficulties of life, and immigrants bring that with them. So long as [immigrant children] can draw on that with their parents and buy into that narrative… they are protected — at least in part— from the difficulties of life.”

While immigrant parents can shield their children with optimism about their new home, “Transitions” delineates the fact that these children often assume “adult” roles as interpreters for their parents, who may not be as quick to acquire a new language or adapt to a new culture.

“With immigration, all of a sudden, the parents don’t know the new rules of engagement in society,” Suárez-Orozco says. “The kids learn the new language faster, so they may take on responsibilities that are beyond their developmentally appropriate age. A seven or eight-year-old kid will have to translate at the doctor’s office or at an attorney’s office, or for the landlord to negotiate when something is broken or the rent has been raised. These are things you would not expect an eight-year-old to typically do. They are acting as what Marjorie Orellana Faulstich, UCLA professor of education and a contributor to “Transitions,” terms as ‘cultural brokering.’

“In many cases, that’s stressful for the kids. It’s bad in the sense that the parent starts to lose stature in the kids’ eyes, so that when parents try to assert authority in other domains, with some kids they may have lost some of their credibility.”

Despite this role reversal, the experience that immigrant children and youth gain from navigating a new society in an adult capacity can often provide them with “social and emotional muscles that get stronger and stronger,” says Suárez-Orozco.

“That means when [immigrant children] become older, they’ve learned a series of important skills that their peers who played video games all day long may not have,” she says. “This can place them at a certain advantage, in the marketplace; they will be better able to negotiate down the line. They’ll have better linguistic skills. So there are certain advantages, though sometimes at a psychic cost. Some kids are overburdened by it. On the other hand, others become extraordinarily resourceful leaders.”

Suárez-Orozco, who with Marcelo Suárez-Orozco recently published an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report on the harmful effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric, says that the concept of the “social mirror” affects immigrant children with a distorted sense of who they are, through the repetition of negative messages and interactions with mainstream culture.

“For people who are phenotypically different or not in the mainstream, there’s a story attached to who they are that gets mirrored back to them in a social context,” says Suárez-Orozco. “That mirroring often happens in the media. It also happens in the way that people react to them though microaggressions, through various stereotypes, through the way people hold their purses or interact with them in the grocery store.

“One interaction doesn’t count; three interactions don’t count. It’s the multiplicity of one interaction after another. And if you have these narratives about what kind of person you are, there’s a danger that you begin to internalize them. If you’re a kid growing up with a story that ‘my group is problematic,’ that has the potential to compromise your sense of self-worth.”

Suárez-Orozco says that undocumented status affects the social mirror for immigrant children, as well as their parents and family, in unique ways.

“Undocumented status affects people in at least two ways, and there are particularly toxic narratives,” she says. “Immigrants in general have been painted with a brush of illegality. The word, ‘illegal’ is very close to ‘criminal.’ In people’s minds, all illegals are criminals and criminals deserve to be disparaged; people feel that they deserve what they get because they broke the law.

In addition, the undocumented are cut out of a lot of the basic rights that other people have. California is a different space now, but in many states, and in California until very recently, you could have been in the country since you were six months old, and then get to college age and not be able to afford to go to college – if you were admitted, you would have to pay out-of-state tuition, for example, or you wouldn’t be able to get medical benefits. You also live under the fear that your parent could be deported at any moment, or your brother who was born two years earlier, but was born abroad – your family could be torn apart at any given moment.”

Suárez-Orozco says that while she, the co-editors and contributors to “Transitions” have presented immigration as a risk in some ways, they have also illustrated how the experience can make children more resilient.

“I think of immigrant kids are remarkable, resourceful young people,” she says. “What we try to do in this book is begin to deconstruct some of the elements that lead to strengths and resilience, to begin to appreciate those things, and also to recognize when immigrant children are burdened, and what can be done to step in and help before the burdens become too much.

“Immigrant kids are unique in some ways but in others they are like all other kids. They are the future of our nation as they now constitute a quarter of all the nation’s children” says Suárez-Orozco. “From a purely practical, self-serving point of view, we can’t afford to ignore one quarter of the kids in the country—it is economic and social suicide. But, I come at it from the point of view of a developmental psychologist. I happen to believe every kid is important [and] should be treated respectfully and be recognized as a young person who longs to be a member of our society and should be treated fairly. They shouldn’t get more; they shouldn’t get less. I just want them to have what we would want for our own children. In reality, they are our children now.”