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Why Ignoring the Immigrant Youth Population is a Mistake

Published:  May 19, 2011
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When President Obama chose to focus on immigration reform in El Paso last week, minds turned to new policies that could address the rapidly rising Hispanic population in the United States.

But politicians say little about policy for immigrant kids in our public schools—despite current research indicating that the future of our workforce may depend on it. According to a recent study by Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, immigrants and their children will provide virtually all growth in the labor force over the next 40 years.

Passel’s study was part of a special edition of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution’s Future of Children journal that focused on what new research is telling us about the challenges immigrant youth face in the school system and society at large. Mary Ann Zehr wrote an article for Ed Week that covers several of the report’s highlights, and the full journal itself is available for free (and well worth the read).

The journal covers a wide array of current research on immigrant youth, defined as a child who was either born outside the United States or has one or more foreign-born parent. Passel’s article examines how current trends fit into the last 100 years, with a focus on the rise in immigration since reforms of the 1960’s and the populations changes that are expected to occur as the baby boomer generation ages.

“The youth population of the United States currently has several extreme demographic features,” Passel writes. Drawing on data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), the Census Bureau and several other sources, he concludes that:

  • Immigrant youth now make up a quarter of the 75 million children under 18 in the U.S.—the highest proportion in the last 90 years.
  • By 2050, immigrant youth are expected to comprise one third of that population-- while the number of youth under 18 rises significantly, to 100 million.
  • As the aging “baby boomer” population leaves the workforce, immigrants and their children will provide almost all growth in the young adult population. It’s possible that both Social Security and Medicaid (as well as other major social program) enrollment could swell at the same time, creating resource allocation problems.

These demographic changes pose a challenge to developing our next generation’s workforce. Risk factors such as poverty and high rates of mobility are higher among immigrant children, as is the need for extra literacy and language support. As we discuss often on Early Ed Watch, these risk factors—such as student mobility and a lack of key preliteracy skills— often form roots of bigger academic problems that can be curbed if children receive appropriate support during their early years.

Unfortunately, as shown in another Future of Children article by Lynn Karoly and Gabriella Gonzalez of the RAND Corporation, immigrant children are less likely to be in center-based early childhood settings than their peers. The gap is not huge (the RAND California preschool study found that immigrant 4-year-olds were roughly 10 percent less likely to be enrolled in center-based care than their native counterparts), nor is attendance at any center-based program a guarantee that kids will receive literacy or social support they might need.

But closing that gap is becoming more difficult as Latino families cope with the aftermath of the Great Recession and cuts to many state-funded preschool programs. A report from the University of California at Berkeley recently found that the percentage of Latino 4-year-olds in preschool has been in decline over the last five years, while overall preschool enrollment has risen across the country.

Note that, in El Paso, Obama lauded several immigrant children who had overcome barriers to success and succeeded in school, but he offered no solutions for how to help their peers do the same. The need for better state and federal response is clear: While improved education strategies for immigrant children could help break poverty cycles and build a robust future workforce, the current lack of inertia is becoming a hazard.

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