8.3 Role of Resources in Achieving Aspirations

Role of Resources in Achieving Aspirations

An ecological approach to resiliency invites us to consider strengths of individuals and families as well as the ways that context contributes to the barriers and support of success (Parra-Cardona et al., 2008). Walsh (2006) cautions, “In advancing an understanding of personal or family resilience, we must be cautious not to blame those who succumb to adversity for lacking ‘the right stuff,’ especially when they are struggling with overwhelming conditions beyond their control” (p. 6). This section examines differences in families’ access to the resources that allow them to overcome adversity, specifically focusing on social stratification, contextual risk exposure, and acculturation.

Social Stratification

Kasinitz and colleagues (2009) point out that many groups of immigrants experience economic success. In New York, children of Chinese and Russian Jew immigrants have levels of income similar to United States-born White European Americans, children of West Indian immigrants have higher income levels than United States-born African Americans, and children of Dominican Republicans and South Americans have higher income levels than United States-born Puerto Ricans. However, Parra Cardona and colleagues (2006) paint a stark contrast to this picture of upward mobility for immigrants. Migrant workers earned lower levels of income than other groups in poverty ($7,500/ year), with little opportunity for upward mobility despite their hard work (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). These families were often required to move across the country without any advance notice; as they moved north to new work locations, schools were less likely to provide bilingual support.

Expectations of financial success in the United States often fall short of expectations. Families from Mexico reported that the cost of living in the United States was higher than expected, and the families could not save for goals as quickly as they had hoped (Solheim et al., 2012). A quantitative study of Latino/a families unexpectedly found that human capital was associated with lower life satisfaction; this suggests a gap between reality and expectations based on level of education and skill (Raffaelli et al., 2012). Although family influences can be protective, family needs and obligations may present a barrier for reaching goals among young adults. For example, one single young man had come to the United States to better his personal circumstances, but supported his mother back in Mexico at the expense of his own education (Solheim et al., 2012). This is consistent with larger trends in research, where first generation immigrant young adults were more likely than second or third generation young adults to provide financial assistance to their families (Fuligni, 2011). Those immigrant youth who provided financial help to families were less likely to complete a 2 or 4 year degree. Similarly, in families whose primary motivation for immigrating was work prospects rather than educational prospects, children’s grades were more likely to decline over five years (Hagelskamp et al., 2010). This suggests that in families where family employment and work concerns are pressing, individual educational goals can suffer. These findings suggest that a hierarchy of needs may exist where basic needs are more important than education and limit upward mobility (Hagelskamp et al., 2010). Together, these studies suggest that high levels of family obligation may interfere with academic success.

Educational attainment. Some of the variation in achieving financial success may depend on the level of parents’ education upon arrival to the United States, which is a reminder that immigration is a selective process (Fuligni, 2012). Many immigrants are able to migrate because they have higher resources than their peers at home. In one study, Black immigrant heads of household had higher levels of education than Black United States-born heads of household (Thomas, 2011). Zhou (2008) found that many Chinese immigrant families had higher education than other immigrant groups and built a community of support for educational experiences, which benefited families with lower levels of SES as well. In another study, Chinese fathers were more educated that immigrant fathers from Central America, Dominican Republic, Mexico, or Haiti, and these Chinese families cited work prospects as motivation to migrate less often than those from other countries of origin (Hagelskamp et al., 2010). Children from Chinese families also tended to have higher grades. In contrast, those from Haiti and Central America were more likely to be fleeing political chaos and mentioned education less as a reason for migrating. In refugee samples outside the United States, parents’ education may be a long-term protective factor (Montgomery, 2010), but those who are educated may also be targeted in violent conflicts and suffer more as a result (Fazel et al., 2012).

Many of the examples of the immigrant paradox throughout the literature rely on data that controls for SES, but these may not have real world application if socioeconomic status is strongly related to outcomes. Crosnoe (2012) responded to this concern by examining educational outcomes over time for first- and second-generation immigrants as well as United States-born groups in two nationally representative samples, but without controlling for SES. The results showed that White European American children of third-generation-plus families scored well above all other groups. Among high school students, second-generation Latino/a students outpaced third-generation Latino/a students; first-generation were in-between, but not significantly different from either the second- or third-generation. Among elementary students, third-generation-plus Latino/a students scored above first- and second-generation immigrants but this gap decreased as the children reached fifth grade. In a study of younger children, access to early education has been found to be limited for some groups of immigrants (Hernandez et al., 2012). Although some cited family and cultural barriers to obtaining early education, research shows the differences were largely accounted for by socioeconomic barriers for both immigrant and United States-born families from Central America and Southeast Asia (Hernandez et al., 2012). Thus, education barriers may vary across generations and across immigrant communities.

Contextual Risk Exposure

Contextual risk exposures can stem from numerous sources, but some of the most salient are local policies, neighborhoods, and discrimination. One study found that pro-immigrant local policies and integration among immigrants and other groups in 2000 was related to the availability of diverse job opportunities for immigrant families (Lester & Nguyen, 2015). In these contexts, immigrants were less likely to lose their jobs and had higher incomes in 2010, implying that they were more resilient to the economic stress of the Great Recession.

Immigrant families often settle in poor, high crime areas with lower quality schools and limited access to resources (Fuligni, 2011; Xiong et al., 2004). Ponger and Hao (2007) found that the schools Latino/a immigrant children attended had a higher record of problem behaviors and poor learning climate compared to schools where Asian immigrant children attended. Portes and Raumbaut (2001) reported that immigrant children from Laos, Vietnam, or Cambodia were likely to attend unsafe schools. This research was substantiated by a large national study which found that schools immigrant children attended were more chaotic and had lower levels of academic expectations and challenge than schools that second- or third-generation students attended (Pong & Zeiser, 2012). Comparisons with children from non-immigrant families were not made, however, which may have shown an even greater difference. Furthermore, Southeast Asian adolescents of immigrant parents felt that their parents frequently lacked the resources to advocate for their children in a school environment because they were socially isolated (Xiong et al., 2004).

In addition to impoverished, low-resource communities, many immigrants face discrimination. Kasinitz and colleagues (2009) reported that children of immigrants from Indian or Latino/a backgrounds faced more discrimination than other groups of immigrants in New York, which may have influenced their ability to access local resources. For example, criminal justice systems tend to give more lenient sentences to White adolescents than to Latino or Black adolescents for the same crimes, and these adolescents also have fewer economic and family resources to navigate their sentences. In a qualitative study, immigrants expressed more discrimination barriers than United States-born Latino/as; they felt a sense of isolation in communities where Latino/as were a minority and experienced discrimination rooted in language barriers (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). In that same study, immigrant migrant workers experienced extreme discrimination, including from employers who reneged on the original agreement for compensation. Few employees received health care, and taking a day off for health or family reasons was punished by extra days of work. Parents felt that their children were disadvantaged in schools by being placed in a slow learning track and negatively labeled (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). A study of Somali refugee children found those who perceived discrimination were more likely to report symptoms of depression and PTSD (Ellis et al., 2008). In contrast, those who felt safe at school or a sense of belonging were less likely to report depression or PTSD (Geltman et al., 2005). Even if discrimination is not obvious, social stereotypes created barriers to resources with long-term implications for mental and physical health (Fuligni et al., 2007). For example, East Asian immigrants tended to have higher incomes that allow high school students to enroll in higher level courses and receive higher grades than peers from Latin American or Filipino backgrounds. In turn, these courses and grades predict college enrollment (Fulgini et al., 2007).

Acculturation Gap

Levels of acculturation may also affect access to resources. Adolescents and young adults who combine aspects of both their family of origin culture and the new culture and speak both languages tend to adjust better than those who either stay steeped in their root culture only or assimilate completely to their new culture (Kasinitz et al., 2008; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).

In some cases, an acculturation gap between parents and their more quickly acculturated children leads to family conflict. As a result, family relationships become a risk factor rather than a protective factor (Lee et al., 2009; Xiong et al., 2004; Lazarevic, Wiley, & Pleck, 2012). When patterns of parent and child acculturation are similar to each other, parent-child relationships and youth well-being may benefit (Portes & Rubaut, 2001; Lazarevic et al., 2012). In a Canadian study, parenting efficacy mediated the relationship between acculturation into the new culture and psychological adjustment of both Chinese mothers and fathers (Costigan & Koryzma, 2011). A direct relationship between maintaining an orientation toward Chinese culture and positive psychological adjustment was found for women but not for men.

Research suggests that parents’ acculturation and adjustments in parenting that align with the demands of the new culture may have some protective factors for children in immigrant families. However, research also shows that subsequent generations do less well. It may be that over time as acculturation and opportunities increase, there is an erosion of a strong sense of family identity which diminishes the protection these connections provide.


True Thao, MSW, LICSW discusses refugee resilience despite adjustment challenges and generational strains (0:00-1:43).


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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