A black and white photograph from 1906 showing a crowd of men and women immigrants on deck of the S.S. Patricia facing camera

From the Archive

Immigration: Education’s Story Past, Present, and Future

How should the education system should change to meet new immigrants? Virginia Gonzalez explored that question in her piece published in May 2001

The role of education has always been central to the conversation about America’s immigrants. Who gets to learn? How? Where? And what, exactly, will they learn? From the first waves of European immigration to the United States in the 19th century, those questions have been answered with varying degrees of acceptance, bigotry, religiosity, cruelty, and classism. Maybe industrialists would keep Hungarian laborers from education, but their kids would be allowed to go to school—if they spoke only English and renounced their traditions in order to become “American.” And, as Virginia Gonzalez wrote in The College Board Review in its May 2001 issue, the repercussions of that dynamic between immigrants and education impacts how the country treated new arrivals and what it expected of them in the first years of the 21st century.

Nearly 20 years later, the issues she highlights—access, dropout rates, poverty, opportunity, language barriers—are not only still with us, they’re more relevant than ever. Should the children of undocumented immigrants be allowed to attend public K–12 schools? Should Dreamers be allowed to go to college? How do we keep first-generation students from abandoning the classroom? As Gonzalez writes, “Making the American Dream a reality for the immigrants of the 1980s and 1990s will require providing a genuine opportunity for equal access to education immediately after they arrive in the United States.” It’s a statement as true today as it was at the dawn of the new millennium.

a black and white photograph from 1910 photograph showing five female immigrants sitting on dock at Ellis Island

Library of Congress

This 1910 photograph shows five women immigrants sitting on dock at Ellis Island.

During a recent ferry ride to the Ellis Island Museum in New York Harbor, through which 12 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1954, I was inspired to think about and compare the experiences of immigrants in those early years to those of today. The passengers on the ferry were ethnically and culturally diverse, middle-class American parents and grandparents explaining to their children how their ancestors had come to the United States. Watching them, I wondered what those ancestors looked like, where they came from, what languages they spoke, and what their cultural values and beliefs were. What kind of adaptation process did they have to go through to become “Americans”?

As a Peruvian immigrant who came to the United States in the 1980s, I was moved by this reminder of my past. Looking at the Statue of Liberty and thinking about its symbolism for immigrants brought back vivid memories of my own arrival on a nonstop flight from Lima to Miami International Airport. In my early twenties, my dream then was to become a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. This dream was realized when I received my master’s degree in 1988 and my doctoral degree in 1991.

During my visit to Ellis Island, I thought about the continuing nature of U.S. immigration—an ever-present, never-ending process—and about the generational chain that is part of it. My son, now a preschooler and first-generation American, will also explain to his children and grandchildren how his own immigrant parents came from Latin America back in the 1980s. As the Statue of Liberty loomed above us and we approached the island, I realized why we immigrants continue to try to recreate the American Dream of better opportunities for ourselves and our descendants.

Later that day, my musings were reconfirmed by another recent immigrant. At dinner in a Broadway restaurant, I was served by a busboy who spoke English with a heavy Spanish accent. He explained that he had come to New York City from Peru six months earlier looking for a job. He said, “I am working too hard, but in Nazca there are no jobs. You can have a job here, I like it here.” I realized then that we immigrants are much alike—we all decide to change our lives, to take the risk to recreate our identities for the better, thus creating new opportunities for generations to come.

A Sociohistorical Perspective

Now, some weeks after my journey to Ellis Island, I am able to view the immigration process from a more scholarly, sociohistorical perspective. Most of the immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island came from rural, impoverished areas of Europe; they spoke languages and had cultural backgrounds then unknown in America. They came from Ireland, Italy (mostly the southern region), Romania, Sweden, Russia, Eastern Europe, Portugal, and Turkey. They fled economic struggle, famine, political and religious persecution, and lack of opportunity, including a lack of educational opportunity. And their arrival utterly changed the cultural identity of the United States.

When Ellis Island became the “Gateway to America,” these immigrants coming from nonindustrialized countries reinvented the cultural identity of America. In the early 1900s, America was undergoing the Industrial Revolution, and there was a need for laborers. However, the overwhelming number and diversity of immigrants engendered anti-immigration sentiments, and earlier immigration laws were applied. In 1917, strict rules and quotas based on national origin were enforced. Immigrants now were asked to prove that they were literate in their native languages and that they were not involved in anarchistic activities. By 1924 immigrants were required to have a visa, marking a substantial reduction in the number of people processed at Ellis Island. Today, about 100 million Americans have some ancestors who came through Ellis Island. The closing of the facility in 1954 signaled the end of the massive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and the Middle East.

the cover of the may 2001 issue of the college board review featuring a group of male and female elementary school students

A second wave of immigration, from Latin American and Asian countries, occurred during the 1980s. According to Crawford (1992), “In 1965, Congress abolished the national-origins quota system, a racially restrictive policy that long favored northwestern Europeans and virtually excluded Asians” (p. 3). This historical event caused another social phenomenon, a massive immigration parallel to the Ellis Island years. Crawford also pointed out that “by the 1980s, the Third World was providing 85% of them [immigrants], not counting undocumented” (p. 3). Even though there are many differences between the Ellis Island immigrants and the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have entered the United States since the 1980s, there are also some parallels. For example, all the immigrants spoke English as a second language, and they all brought cultural diversity to this country.

Immigrants have endured negative stereotypes about their languages and cultures for many years. The eugenics movement of the early 1900s influenced public opinion and policy, which looked for people who could easily assimilate into the American landscape. Children under the age of 10 were granted citizenship because it was believed they could easily acculturate and then function as mediators for their parents’ acculturation.

After waiting in long lines, Ellis Island immigrants were screened and then underwent physical examinations to ensure that they would be healthy laborers. About 9 out of 100 were also given psychological tests, most of which were verbal and were administered by English-speaking inspectors aided by interpreters.

The Experience of Today's Immigrants

Today’s immigrants are also given psychological exams, but in U.S. public schools. Moreover, we still have the problem of providing educational access to English as a second language (ESL) immigrants or first-generation Americans, especially the at-risk group of Hispanics who have a low socioeconomic status (SES). Then too, there is the problem of overrepresentation of ESL children in special education classes due to the misdiagnosis of learning disabilities, language differences, speech disorders, mental retardation, and developmental delays (see Gonzalez, Brusca-Vega, and Yawkey 1997). But it is still expected that immigrant children will easily adapt to their new country.

We expect that ESL children will be able to read and write in English within two or three years of mainstream schooling. If their performance in psychological testing does not conform to their middle-class, monolingual English counterparts, they become candidates for special education. They are often tracked with a “suspected genetic disability,” making them “unfit” to have access to mainstream schooling that would provide them a genuine and equal educational opportunity. At present, we have a quickly growing number of immigrant ESL children in our public schools. Thus we need to make an effort to develop their potential for learning and increase the opportunities for them to have access to elementary, secondary, and higher education.

a black and white photo showing a judge in chambers swearing in a new citizen

Library of Congress

Judge in chambers swearing in a new citizen, New York. (from the Bain Coll. / Bain Collection)

At the beginning of the last century, American industries were looking for laborers who were not well educated. However, since the 1950s, the social value of formal education has changed dramatically. For about 30 years, a high school diploma was necessary to secure many promising careers in American businesses. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, the technological revolution dramatically changed the demands of the labor market. To find even a menial job, young adults now need a high school diploma; better jobs require postsecondary training and, in most cases, higher education. Thus, a high school diploma is a minimum requirement for employment and for access to postsecondary training. Adult immigrants who are illiterate no longer have a real chance of entering the labor market. Their children, however, may have opportunities to find jobs in this technological society if they do not drop out of school.

Dropout Rates Among Minority Students. The precise number of dropouts is difficult to calculate, because the number of migrations and transfers in and out of special vocational and technical programs is unknown. However, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and the College Board (1998) do offer some projections: “Nationally, approximately 25% of the students who entered eighth grade in 1991-92 failed to graduate with their cohort in 1995-96. [In contrast,] only 21% of the 1987-88 eighth-graders failed to graduate with their cohort in 1991-92” (p. 63). The statistics reported by WICHE and the College Board (1998) complement the findings of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (1999), which indicated that the dropout rate was 5% during 1999. However, it is important to note that most students drop out during middle school, before entering high school; this fact was not shown in the NCES report. Moreover, this phenomenon was most common in families in the lowest 20% income distribution. Hispanic students were more likely than white, African American, or Asian students to leave school, and made up 7.8% of the dropouts in grades 10 to 12 during 1999.

According to NCES, during the 1990s, between 347,000 and 544,000 students in grades 10 to 12 left school each year without completing a high school program. In 1999, the proportion of dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, that is, young adults who did not have high school credentials, was much higher for Hispanics (28.6%) than for African Americans (12.6%), whites (7.3%), and Asian/Pacific Islanders (4.3%). Statistics indicate that about 85.9% of all young adults (ages 18 through 24) not enrolled in high school were still able to complete their high school studies during 1999. On the negative side, 11.2% of the 34 million 16- to 24-year-olds were dropouts (NCES 1999), and the majority consisted of minority students (Hispanics and African Americans) underrepresented in higher education.

Access of Minority Students to Higher Education. Based on the large dropout rate among Hispanic and African American youngsters, and as reported by Gandara and Maxwell-Jolly (1999), the pool of minority students who can be admitted to higher education institutions is still relatively small. In the preface to Gandara’s report, Eugene Cota-Robles and Edmund Gordon state: “Until much higher percentages of students from underrepresented minority groups enjoy very high levels of educational success, it will be virtually impossible to integrate our society’s institutions completely, especially at leadership levels” (p. vii). Therefore, I will focus on Patricia Gandara and Edmund Gordon’s recommendations about how to increase access to higher education for minority students.

Gordon (1986) recommended targeting high-risk minority students who need pre-college preparation, and also those who can graduate without academic distinction if supported. Hispanic and African American higher education students take longer to complete their bachelor’s degrees, and their dropout rate is higher than that of white students. As Gordon suggested, the application of existing knowledge derived from research on cognitive and learning theory can help to increase the admission and retention rates of underrepresented minorities in higher education.

Gandara and Maxwell-Jolly (1999) pointed out that most programs for minority students target the physical and biological sciences, math, engineering, and technology, and that much more needs to be done in the humanities and social sciences. They recommended increasing the number of minority students so that they would feel they are not being singled out in higher education institutions. Gandara referred to this strategy as an example of reducing the “inhospitality index” of institutions. Other examples include creating supportive study and social groups, providing supplemental instruction to allow for developmental time when pre-college training is not sufficient, providing an intensive summer program for freshmen before their first semester on campus, making explicit high expectations, providing financial incentives, and developing mentoring programs with faculty.

As positive as some of these suggestions might be, we now note that the number of underrepresented minority students in higher education institutions is decreasing on many campuses instead of increasing. For instance, during April 1998, the University of California at Berkeley already showed the effects of the end of affirmative action. The number of Hispanics and African Americans who enrolled as freshmen dropped significantly during fall 1998. Due to the current debate about affirmative action, it is uncertain how admission criteria will be applied for the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority students.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Seventy-six-year-old Sonya Feferman, from the Ukraine, raises her right hand as she reads her "Oath Of Allegiance" during a naturalization ceremony July 1, 2004 in Chicago, Illinois.

Demographic Data on Minorities and Immigrants

As reported by Hodgkinson (1992), estimates based on the 1990 census data indicate that by the year 2010 one-half of the population of 12 states and the District of Columbia would have a higher growth rate and tend to have a high minority population, especially of young people. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau (2000) projects that 45.5% of the population will be composed of minorities by the year 2050.

The American population changed dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. Based on the 1990 census data, Ovando and Collier (1998) reported that between 1980 and 1990 the population increased by 9.8%. Minority groups, however, grew at a much faster rate than the white population. The white population increased by 6%, whereas the number of Hispanic Americans grew by 53%, Asian and Pacific Islanders population by 107.8%, African Americans by 13.2%, and American Indians by 37.9%. The much higher rate of growth of nontraditional groups (Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders) is due both to high legal and illegal immigration trends and to a higher fertility rate. The second highest growth rate of traditional minority groups (African Americans and American Indians) was due to a higher fertility rate.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s (2000) estimates of the foreign born are consistent with the 1990 estimates, which reported that Hispanics of any race would account for the larger percentage (43%), followed by white non-Hispanics (25.3%) and Asian/Pacific Islanders (24.5%). According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), the decades of the 1990s and 1980s show the largest number of immigrants legally admitted since the first two decades of the 20th century.

However, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice (1999), the 1990s showed the largest percentage of immigrants admitted through family-sponsored programs, with a much smaller percentage admitted through employment-based preferences and other categories. These percentages included both aliens who were previously living abroad and those who were already living in the United States. According to an Immigration and Naturalization Service Report (2000), 13.4 million legal immigrants were admitted from 1981 to 1996. Most came from Mexico, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. These new immigrant trends have dramatically increased the number of language minority or ESL students in U.S. public schools.

The “New Mainstream” Student. In Gonzalez, et al. (1997), we write about the “new mainstream” student because a sizable segment of the school-age population is becoming culturally and linguistically diverse. As national reports have indicated, during the first decade of the 21st century, one third of our nation will be individuals of color, and English will not be their primary language (Commission on Minority Participation in Education and American Life 1988; Hodgkinson 1992). Of the 45 million students enrolled in public schools and in private elementary and secondary schools during the 1990s, over 30% were from groups designated as racial or ethnic minorities. As reported by WICHE and the College Board (1998), the proportion of non-Hispanic whites in the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools was expected to decline from 65% in 1995–1996 to 62% by 2000–2001. The enrollment of Hispanic students was expected to increase from 13% to 16%, and Asian/Pacific Islanders from 3.8% to 4.3%, with a constant representation of African Americans (13%) and American Indians/Alaskan Natives (1%). Moreover, this diversity will increase as the total U.S. population moves toward the 50-50 division between non-Hispanic whites and other groups that is expected by 2050.

In addition, a large percentage of Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives are culturally and linguistically diverse. About 6.3 million, or 14%, of students in grades K–12 speak languages other than English at home, including 2.3 million, or 5%, who are enrolled in bilingual or ESL courses. Of the latter group, the most common native languages are Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Cambodian, and Korean. The number of students in bilingual or ESL programs nearly doubled between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s and is expected to increase in this century. Moreover, the academic needs of the ESL students are compounded by their poverty.

Poverty Level. Alarming demographic data on the low SES of minority children and their families has been observed. Based on information from the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), 13.8%of all families of all races with children under 18 years of age had incomes below the poverty level. The percentage was lower for non-Hispanic white families, and it increased dramatically for minority families. This report also indicated that the below poverty percentage decreased when only families consisting of a married couple with children under 18 were included. For 1999 the percentages were significantly affected by whether or not the household was headed by a single parent, and whether the head of household was male or female. In comparison to all family counterparts, the percentage below poverty level was increased for male householders who had no spouse and had children under age 18. However, the increment almost tripled in comparison to all family counterparts when the householder was a female, with no husband present.

A black and white photograph from 1906 showing a crowd of men and women immigrants on deck of the S.S. Patricia facing camera

Library of Congress

A black and white photograph from 1906 showing a crowd of men and women immigrants on deck of the S.S. Patricia facing camera.

As noted by McLoyd (1998), “African-American and Puerto Rican children are more likely than non-Latino white children to experience persistent poverty and, if they are poor, to live in areas of concentrated poverty” (p. 186). The rise in the number of minority children has also increased the proportion of children living below the poverty level. For minority children, living in high-poverty communities presents major disadvantages, including the quality of public services and exposure to negative or even life-threatening environmental stresses such as street violence, homelessness, illegal drugs, etc.

Another factor is the distinct aspects of poverty—age when onset of poverty occurred, chronicity, initial disadvantage, and depth of poverty. As noted by Bronfenbrenner and collaborators (1996; cited in McLoyd 1998), poverty tends to occur more often during early childhood, affecting most children before they are age 6, primarily because of the higher likelihood of having younger parents with lower wages. Garrett, Ng’andu, and Ferron (1994) found that the proportion of a child’s life lived in poverty, and whether or not a child was born into poverty, had a statistically significant effect on the quality of the home environment. Garrett stated, “The greatest responsiveness in the quality of the home environment occurred among the poorest households, those in which children experienced initial disadvantage or the greatest persistence of poverty” (p. 342).

Demographic data, therefore, supports the need to take into consideration the interactional effect of external and internal factors affecting minority children’s performance in school. We need to understand what factors present in the family cultural environment and school setting can prevent minority children from underachieving and dropping out, and can provide them real access to higher education. Research findings have demonstrated the importance of conducting in-depth analysis of the characteristics of poverty, including age of poverty impact, duration of poverty, degree of economic disadvantage in comparison to the U.S. poverty level, and mediational factors present in the family cultural environment.

Recommendations for the Future

Making the American Dream a reality for the immigrants of the 1980s and 1990s will require providing a genuine opportunity for equal access to education immediately after they arrive in the United States. ESL students from a Hispanic or an Asian background who are also from a low SES background require an enriched, high quality educational setting. Educators need to value their cultural and linguistic diversity and to represent this diversity in the curriculum. Only when we have reduced the dropout rate in middle school and high school can we increase the pool of potential applicants to higher education. Genuine access to higher education requires us to apply current knowledge to stimulate at-risk minority students to achieve and to provide them with academic, social, and financial support. Perhaps the best way to reduce the dropout rate in higher education and high school is to prevent the onset of at-risk external and internal factors during the early childhood years.

The massive dropout rate of Hispanic middle and high school students attests to the failure of the U.S. public school system to provide a viable educational opportunity for them. We cannot afford to lose a high percentage of our youth, whether they are immigrants or first-generation Americans. We cannot waste the potential economic, social, intellectual, and spiritual contributions of the new mainstream students by not offering them access to education. As a nation, we need to figure out a way to give every student a fair chance to have access to higher education, and thus to become productive American citizens in the twenty-first century.


  1. Commission on Minority Participation in Education and American Life. 1988. One-Third of a Nation. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, Education Commission of the States.
  2. Crawford, J. 1992. Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of “English Only.” Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  3. Gandara, P., and J. Maxwell-Jolly. 1999. Priming the Pump: Strategies for Increasing the Achievement of Underrepresented Minority Undergraduates. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.
  4. Garrett, P., N. Ng’andu, and J. Ferron. 1994. “Poverty Experiences of Young Children and Quality of Their Home Environment.” Child Development 65: 331–45.
  5. Gonzalez, V., R. Brusca-Vega, and T. Yawkey. 1997. Assessment and Instruction of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with At-Risk Learning Problems: From Research to Practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  6. Gordon, E. 1986. A Descriptive Analysis of Programs and Trends in Engineering Education for Ethnic Minority Students: A Report to the Field. New Haven: Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University.
  7. Hodgkinson, H. H. 1992. A Demographic Look at Tomorrow. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Education Research.
  8. Immigration and Naturalization Service Report. 2000. Immigration Statistics by Country of Origin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  9. McLoyd, V. C. 1998. “Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Child Development.” American Psychologist 53 (2): 185–204.
  10. Ovando, C. J., and V.P. Collier. 1998. Bilingual and ESL Classrooms: Teaching in Multicultural Contexts. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  11. U.S. Census Bureau. 2000. Projections of the Resident Population by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Nativity. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  12. U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service. 1999. “Legal Immigration, Fiscal Year 1998.” Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  13. Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the College Board. 1998. Knocking at the Door: Projections of High School Graduates by State and Race/Ethnicity 1996–2012. Boulder, CO: WICHE.