Immigrant Children Adrift: Research Provides Insights into the Lives of the Boston Marathon Bombers!

Dear Commons Community,

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco at the U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the authors, with Irina Todorova, of Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, have an op-ed piece today reporting the results of an extensive study they conducted on immigrant children.  Their research began in 1997, and involved a large-scale study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., and the San Francisco Bay Area. Participants came from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean; many fled not only poverty but also strife, in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti. Over five years, they interviewed more than 400 students, as well as their siblings, parents and teachers.  They also gathered academic records, test scores and measures of psychological well-being.

In the op-ed piece, they make the point that the two brothers accused in the Boston bombings — Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed on Friday, and his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, who was captured later that day — were around 15 and 8, respectively, when they immigrated.  They were not part of our study, but they fit the demographic profile of the subjects of our research: birth to families displaced by war or strife, multiple-stage (including back-and-forth) migration, language difficulties and entry into harsh urban environments where gangs and crime are temptations.

Among their findings:

“Many newcomer students attend tough urban schools that lack solidarity and cohesion. In too many we found no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants. Only 6 percent of the participants could name a teacher as someone they would go to with a problem; just 3 percent could identify a teacher who was proud of them.

When asked what Americans thought about immigrants of their national origin, 65 percent of the students provided negative adjectives. “Most Americans think we are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts, that only come to take their jobs away,” a 14-year-old boy in the Bay Area told us. We also found that many educators, already overwhelmed by the challenges of inner-city teaching, considered immigrant parents uninformed and uninvolved.

Having just one friend who spoke English fluently was a strong predictor of positive academic outcomes. Yet more than a third of the students in our study reported that they had little or no opportunity even to interact with native-born students, much less make close friends.

Our research also confirmed that kids who arrive during their high school years, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev did, face bad odds, especially if they experienced interrupted schooling, family instability and traumatic dislocations back home.”

Their conclusion:

“Whatever motivated the Tsarnaev brothers surely … may never be known. Among some of the distinctive features of their case are family estrangement, multiple relocations across countries and, possibly, religious radicalization.

But the broad lesson — assimilating immigrant students into the fabric of society through academic, psychological and other supports — should inform educators and policy makers in the decades ahead, when immigrants and their children will account for most of the nation’s population growth.”


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