How First- and Second-Generation Immigrants Cope with Stress

October 4, 2017

The Trump administration’s announcement to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has thrown the futures of nearly a million immigrants in the U.S. into jeopardy. DACA covers up to 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. The order protects them from deportation and grants them permits to work in the U.S. Beneficiaries of the policy, known as “Dreamers,” have expressed fear for their livelihoods in the wake of Trump’s announcement to rescind the program. “I lose everything without DACA,” one recipient told the New York Times.

Particularly in today’s political climate, it is critical to understand how undocumented status and other challenges affect the wellbeing of new immigrants and their families. A recent study published in Journal of Adolescent Research by RSF grantee Krista Perreira and Maria Brietzke (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) explores how Latino immigrant adolescents in North Carolina cope with daily stresses associated with coming of age, uncertain legal status, racial discrimination, and other factors. The authors also investigate how different mechanisms for coping with these challenges affect teens’ chances for upward mobility. In 2009-2010, Perreira and Brietzke re-interviewed participants in the Southern Immigrant Academic Adaptation (SIAA) who had first been interviewed in 2006-2007 when they were between the ages of 14-16. All respondents were low-income youths, and either first- or second-generation Latin American immigrants.

Based on their interviews with the teens about the stressors they experienced and their coping methods, the authors identified four trajectories for the participants in the study, which they labeled Protected, Americanized, Resilient, and Consumed. Each trajectory was characterized by a set of stressors, buffers, coping strategies, and finally, socioeconomic expectations. The authors defined high school graduation or immediate plans to attend college as markers for upward socioeconomic mobility, while dropping out of high school was a marker for flat or downward mobility. 

(In the figure above, T1 marks the teens’ first interviews in 2006-2007 and T2 marks the authors’ follow-up interviews.)

Teens in the study who fell in the “Protected” category were able to draw support and encouragement from their social networks to cope with the many hurdles they faced. For example, one “Protected” respondent, though a U.S. citizen himself, worried that his undocumented parents might be deported. He also faced racial discrimination at school. Yet, through his participation on a school soccer team, he was able to receive emotional support from teammates, coaches, and teachers. Perreira and Brietzke write that by the second interview, he had graduated high school and been accepted to two universities, and was therefore on the path to upward mobility.

Teens in the “Americanized” category were also positioned for upward mobility, though through a different set of coping mechanisms. Though they faced many of the same stressors as their “Protected” peers, unlike those peers, “Americanized” teens selectively embraced American—rather than Latino—identities. For one teen, this meant speaking only English and socializing with her white peers at school, as she believed those students would best support her aspirations to attend college. “Americanized” teens, in other words, believed that assimilation would create opportunities for them. The authors write, “By Americanizing (in part or in full), they managed the stress of discrimination and stereotyping. They viewed fitting in as a way to pursue upward socioeconomic mobility.”

But there were also study participants whose expected socioeconomic mobility was either flat or declining. Teens in the “Resilient” category reported experiencing trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, a death in the family, or immigration raids. While these teens were able to find strength in family members and certain community institutions, such as churches, Perreira and Brietzke found that they were nevertheless “beginning to slide into a path leading to downward socioeconomic mobility.” One respondent dropped out of high school to support his families by working full-time. Another became pregnant and moved in with her partner rather than finishing school.

Finally, like their “Resilient” peers, teens in the “Consumed” category were often exposed to trauma. But unlike their peers in all other categories, they lacked meaningful support from their families. Perreira and Brietzke report that by the time of their interviews, all teens in this category had dropped out of high school. Some had been expelled or arrested. As the authors explain, “Among all the youth in our study, they were at the highest risk of downward socioeconomic mobility.”

Though Perreira and Brietzske’s study took place before the implementation of DACA, their findings nevertheless hold important implications for a young adult immigrant population that may soon experience significant upheaval and even more barriers to getting ahead.

Read the full report in the Journal of Adolescent Research.

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