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32: Resilience in Immigrant and Refugee Families

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    Learning Objectives

    • Learn from the national and global perspectives of resilience in immigrant and refugee families.
    • Recognizing that the world is constantly and rapidly changing.
    • Recognizing that Global/national/international events can have an impact on individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
    • Global implications dictate that we foster international relationships and opportunities to address international concerns, needs, problems, and actions to improve the well-being of not only U.S. citizens, but global citizens.

    34.1 Introduction

    Ghetto Statistics
    By Chay Douangphouxay                                                                                                                                     We were 4th and Dupont
    North side projects
    Second-class refugee We were 1st of the month
    Welfare checks
    Food stamps
    W.I.C.We were just kids
    Community centers
    Study groups
    Basketball hoops They were broken school systems
    Crooked cops
    Drug dealers
    Grave diggers I was supposed to be
    Gang member
    Dead before fifteen I proved them through
    Church groups
    Get out of the hood
    College degree

    The immigrant paradox has been highlighted in recent years as researchers have increasingly noted the resilience of immigrants in the face of challenges and adversity (Hernandez, Denton, Macartney, & Blanchard, 2012). Resilience refers to the process or outcomes of positive development in the context of adverse circumstances (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000; Masten, Burt, & Coatsworth, 2006). Within families, Walsh (2006) views resilience as the capacity to rebound and grow from challenging experiences, building strength and resources. According to this perspective, essential elements to the process of resiliency are making meaning of adversity and supportive relationships. The challenges immigrants and refugees face are many, including loneliness and isolation in a new country (Campbell, 2008; Narchal, 2012), economic challenges (Fuligni, 2012; Parra-Cardona, Cordova, Holtrop, Villaruel, & Wieling, 2006), and poor educational opportunities (Crosnoe, 2012). Refugees often face further challenges of coping with multiple exposures to traumatic events that led them to flee their home countries along with displacement and resettlement stressors (Shannon, Wieling, Simmelink, & Becher, 2014; Weine et al., 2004). However, a resilience framework invites a consideration of the strengths and protective factors that allow immigrant families to overcome adversity.

    The immigrant paradox is defined as the tendency for first and second-generation immigrants to do better in many areas than United States-born individuals (Hernandez et al., 2012). This trend has been observed in physical health, psychological health, and education. Fuligni (2012) outlines two considerations that increase immigrants’ abilities to thrive in the transition to a new culture and home, and then describes a third consideration that can pose barriers. First, immigrant families tend to be highly motivated and value work and education. Second, children of immigrants are protected by family connection and obligation. Finally, in spite of high educational aspirations, immigrant families have varied access to the resources and opportunities needed to achieve success. This review examines research on the strengths and the resilience of immigrant families in the United States in each of these three areas.

    Jennifer Doty (Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Minnesota)

    34.2 Family Motivation: Value of Work & Education

    Consistent with a family resilience framework (Walsh, 2006), the value of family provides a powerful motivation among immigrants to work hard and gain an education. A sense of family identity can provide a sense of belonging and social identity (Fuligni, 2011). Furthermore, family identity promotes eudamonic well-being in minority populations, a sense of purpose, motivation, and meaning (Fuligni, 2011). For example, one young woman from a refugee family explains how her mother instilled the value of family identity to provide a compass for navigating her life:

    The resounding words, “YOU ARE BETTER THAN THAT,” penned and embedded by my mother in the fiber of my being, echoed in the ear drums of my soul, brought me back to sanity. It was like the blinders were opened and the light of truth penetrated the darkness of my world. For the first time, I saw myself for who I really am and wanted to be. I was no longer ashamed of my uniqueness (Douangphouxay, 2012, p. 1).

    Family often provides motivation to immigrate. In one study, Latino/a immigrants cited their desire to be reunited with families as a motivator for immigration (Campbell, 2008). Other reasons for leaving their home country have included dreams of an education and future for their children, a need to protect children from violence, and a desire to achieve financial stability in order to provide the family with basic necessities (Solheim, Rojas-García, Olson, & Zuiker, 2012). This section reviews immigrant and refugee families’ motivation to work hard and provide education for their children.

    Value of Work

    Across the literature, there is evidence that immigrant families emphasize the value of working hard to support their families. The opportunity to work hard in order to support the family has not only been cited as a reason for immigrating to the United States, but qualitative studies have also illustrated immigrants’ feelings of cultural pride in giving their best for their loved ones (Parra-Cardona, Bulock, Imiq, Villarruel, & Gold, 2006; Solheim et al., 2012). Immigrant families described enduring an anti-immigration environment in their country of destination because of economic opportunities and the possibility of upward social mobility for their loved ones (Valdez, Lewis Valentine, & Padilla, 2013). In another study of migrant workers, the demands of long hours and challenging schedules were noted, but the opportunity to work and be independent was highly valued (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). In comparison to previous experiences in their home country, participants expressed satisfaction in having an income that was adequate for basic necessities. Imagining a better future was described as a coping strategy for immigrant participants (Parra-Cardona et al., 2008).

    Mural to honor migrant workers at the Gundlach-Bundschu winery
    Mural to honor migrant workers at the Gundlach-Bundschu winery. Chris deRham – honoring the vineyard workers – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


    Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey suggest that work patterns among immigrant fathers differ by level of language fluency. Among immigrant fathers in English fluent families, 95% to 96% worked to support their families, a level comparable to United States-born families (Hernandez et al., 2012). Among those who were English language learners, more than 85% of fathers worked to support their families. Exceptions were found in Southeast Asian, Armenian, and Iraqi refugee families where rates were between 70-84%. This may be because refugee families from these conflict-ridden parts of the world are likely to have suffered more traumatic events and therefore may experience greater functioning and work-related barriers (See also Chapter 5).

    Hernandez et al., (2012) found that the majority of immigrant families in their study also had a mother who contributed to the family finances. Campbell (2008) illustrated the pride that immigrant women took in their jobs, even if they were low paying. Several women demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit, running businesses based on traditional roles of women (baking, sewing, etc.). The motivations for these efforts were often framed as dedication to the welfare of their families, and obstacles were seen as challenges to be overcome rather than insurmountable barriers. In another qualitative study, one woman shared her pride in balancing work and family as she obtained her GED, found a new job, built a new home with her spouse, and supported her children’s education (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). Women also supported their spouses and took pride in their work ethic and sacrifices. One woman in Parra-Cardona et al.’s (2006) study noted that she was proud of her husband for getting a promotion in a factory for $9/hour; she was proud that his 70 hour work weeks and sacrifices over the years were recognized (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006).

    Children are a source of inspiration as immigrants work hard to face challenges and adversity (Ayón & Naddy, 2013; Valdez et al., 2013; Walsh, 2006). Qualitative research emphasized that well-being of children was a priority among immigrant workers, and being a good parent was their “central life commitment,” even a sacred responsibility (Parra-Cardona et al., 2008). These sentiments were illustrated when immigrant parents expressed desire to cover basic needs of their families without spending excessive time away from family. In another study, Southeast Asian adolescents, the majority of whom were children of immigrants, recognized that their parents shared affection by trying to provide for them (Xiong, Detzner, & Cleveland, 2004). They saw that their parents wanted them to do better than they had, sharing that their parents’ low paying jobs served as motivation to do better.



    Ruben Parra-Cardona, Ph.D., LMFT discusses employment and parenting (14:13-14:52).

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    Paul Orieny, Sr. Clinical Advisor for Mental Health, The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), discusses the education and employment success of immigrants.

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    Value of Education

    Research has also emphasized how much immigrant parents value education for their children. In a qualitative study of Mexican American undocumented women in South Carolina, mothers were unanimous in their desire for children’s educational success (Campbell, 2008). As parents, they had given up life in Mexico for the sake of their children’s education. Many of these mothers invested in their own education to become better parents and to model the importance of education for their children (Campbell, 2008). In a longitudinal study, immigrant children of diverse backgrounds were found to have higher GPAs on average if their parents had listed education as a reason for immigrating, which suggests that parents’ motivations may have an impact on their children (Hagelskamp, Suarez-Orozco, & Hughes, 2010). Planning for children’s education was found to be a source of life satisfaction for immigrant migrant parents (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006).

    In spite of early disadvantages, first-generation immigrant adolescents appear to have an advantage over second-generation or third-generation children of immigrants, an often-cited example of the immigrant paradox. Using data from the Educational Longitudinal Study, Pong and Zeiser (2012) found first-generation immigrant students in 10th grade had higher GPAs and more positive attitudes toward school than subsequent generations. These tendencies held true across race/ethnicity including White, Latino/a1, Black, and Asian immigrant children. Family influences may help account for these results as evidence connects immigrant and refugee parents’ aspirations to children’s academic outcomes. For example, Pong and Zeiser (2012) also found that parents’ expectations were related to 10th-grade math results. For Hmong men, having greater family conflict is linked to being more likely to complete the first year of college. In families like these, family conflict may reflect the parents’ investment in their child’s academic lives (Lee, Jung, Su, Tran, & Bahrassa, 2009). Portes and Fernandez-Kelly (2008) discussed the strict parenting practices in immigrant families that are often at odds with the parenting styles of the majority population. They concluded, “While such rearing practices will be surely frowned upon by many educational psychologists, they have the effect of protecting children from the perils of street life in their immediate surroundings and of keeping them in touch with their cultural roots” (p. 8).

    Value of a Second Language

    Although the challenge of learning English is great, studies have found that the ability to speak a second language represents advantages for many children in immigrant families. Children in families who promote learning in two languages benefit in academic achievements, cognitive gains, self-esteem, and family cohesion (Espinosa, 2008; Han, 2012). However, the importance of mastering English must be stressed. In a sample of Latino/a and Asian children, Han (2012) found that bilingual children dominant in the English language performed at an academic level similar to White monolingual children, controlling for other factors, while bilingual children who were not dominant in English or did not speak two languages performed at lower levels. In addition, first and second-generation bilingual children performed better than third-generation bilingual students providing further evidence for an immigrant paradox. Although it can be a stressful obligation, children of immigrants often express pride in their bi-lingual abilities and in being able to translate for their parents (Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, & Holdaway, 2008). In addition, speaking one’s native language allows children in immigrant and refugee families to connect with extended family members and ties them to their ethnic heritage (Costigan & Koryzma, 2011; Nesteruk & Marks, 2009). Espinosa (2008) advocated promoting rich language experiences in one’s native language during the first three years of life and then adding second language after the age of 3.

    Home1The term Latino/a is used throughout this chapter, though some original studies used the term Hispanic.

    34.3 Family Connectedness & Identity

    Fuligni (2011) argued that because immigrant groups face barriers in their access to resources, family and ethnic identity is a salient protective factor in immigrant families. Family connection remains highest over time among the immigrant families facing the most stress, suggesting that families are a particularly important support for immigrants struggling in the new culture (Ibanez et al., 2015). The protection provided by family connectedness and identity may be one explanation for the immigrant paradox. In Latino/a families, the tradition of family connectedness and obligation is known as “familismo,” (Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). In a qualitative study to better understand parenting needs, Latina/o parents reported that “familismo” was a strong motivation to adopt more effective parenting practices (Parra-Cardona, Lappan, Escobar-Chew, & Whitehead, 2015). In Asian families, family cohesion stems from Confucian values (Walton & Takeuchi, 2010). Among Black Caribbean immigrants, gatherings of family and friends called “liming” sessions reinforce family and cultural identities through storytelling (Brooks, 2013).

    Several aspects of family connectedness described in the following sections may serve as a source of resilience for both adults and children in immigrant families: family cohesion, a sense of family obligation, and an emphasis on ethnic heritage.

    Family cohesion

    Family cohesion is how emotionally close and supportive the members of a family are. An emphasis on family connection is reflected in the structure of immigrant families, which are more likely to include married couples and to be inclusive of extended family members. Immigrants, in general, are more likely than the United States-born to marry and less likely to divorce (Quian, 2013). According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 82% of children of immigrants live with two parents, whereas 71% of children in United States-born families are in living with two parents (Hernandez et al., 2012). This emphasis on cohesion reflected in the immediate and extended family structure could provide protective influences for both children and adults.

    Immediate family. Family cohesion in immediate immigrant families is linked to positive outcomes for children and adolescents. In studies of Latinx immigrant families, family cohesion predicts child social skills and self-efficacy and protects against conduct problems and alcohol use (Leidy, Guerra, & Toro, 2012; Marsiglia, Parsai, & Kulis, 2009). Family cohesion may also help immigrants cope with the challenges of living in a new country and culture. For example, a study by Juang and Alvarez (2010) found that Chinese American youth who experienced discrimination felt loneliness and anxiety, but family cohesion buffered this negative effect. Family cohesion was particularly powerful for youth who experienced high levels of discrimination. Similarly, among adolescent refugees from Kmer who had been exposed to significant violence, family support protected against mental health and personal risk behavior problems (Berthold, 2000).


    Immigrant Family in the Baggage Room of Ellis Island.

    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.


    Immediate families continue to provide needed support during the transition to adulthood and, later, to parenthood. A study by Kasinitz et al., (2008) found that in comparison to their United States-born peers, young adult children of immigrants were more likely to live at home, which enabled many to attend college without burdensome debt and save for a home. In several studies, immigrant adults relied on their parents when they themselves became parents. Even if new mothers had previously been critical of their own mothers, when second-generation women transitioned into parenting, they often relied heavily on their mothers for support and advice (Foner & Dreby, 2011; Ornelas et al., 2009). When their mothers remained in their home country, transnational phone calls were one important form of support (Ornelas et al., 2009).

    Extended family. Another source of resilience for immigrant families is found in extended family cohesion. In several studies, extended family members were a crucial support during the transition time following migration, providing food, giving support, and helping pay bills until the recently arrived family could get established (Ayón & Naddy, 2013; DeJonckheere, Vaughn, & Jacquez, 2014; Parra-Cardona et al., 2006). For example, a Latino youth explained, “When we first came here my cousin and I told a lot of secrets, and he’s the one I trust” (p. 15). Campbell (2008) described how the undocumented women in the study depended on extended family members to help them navigate the system in order to buy a house, and how they relied on family members to look after their properties back home in Mexico. In a quantitative study of risk and resilience among immigrant Latina mothers, social capital, described as a network of family and friends, was related to life satisfaction and food security (Raffaelli, Tran, Wiley, Garlaza-Heras, & Lazarevic, 2012).

    Extended family provided needed support in raising children. When immigrant new mothers were separated from their parents, they relied on other extended family members also living in the country of destination, especially in the time period immediately after giving birth (Ornelas et al., 2009). In a study of Eastern European immigrants, grandparents and other relatives played important roles in raising Unite States-born children (Nesteruk & Marks, 2009), often travelling to the United States for six months at a time to assist new parents after a child was born.

    When children are older, relatives often provide child-rearing support for immigrant families. Xiong and colleagues (2004) reported that Hmong families living in the United States may send their children away to live with relatives to avoid the dangers of an unsafe neighborhood. Similar examples are found outside the United States. Vietnamese refugee parents in Norway depended on kin networks to provide support and protection to troubled youth (Tingvold, Hauff, Allen, & Middelthon, 2012). In order to maintain intergenerational ties, Eastern European immigrant families described making sacrifices to move closer to kin or send their children abroad to stay with grandparents in the summer (Nesteruk & Marks, 2009). Grandparents often played a key role in raising grandchildren in immigrant families, adding instrumental support especially in dual-career families (Treas & Mazumdar, 2004; Xie & Xia, 2011). Given the importance of many grandparents in immigrant families’ lives, Foner and colleagues (2011) suggest that intergenerational research among immigrant families with three generations in one household is needed.

    Family Obligation

    Family identity implies having a sense of obligation toward kin and striving to be valued, contributing members of one’s family (Fuligni, 2011). Even after controlling for socio-economic variables, immigrant adolescents and young adults from Filipino, Mexican, Latin American, and Central/South-American backgrounds were much more likely than European youth to report a sense of family obligation in the areas of assisting family, spending time with family, considering family members’ opinions and desires, and supporting family (Fuligni, 2011). Although foreign-born students had a higher level of obligation than United States-born students, second and third-generation youth from Asian and Latinx backgrounds were more likely to have a higher sense of obligation than those from European backgrounds. Ethnic differences in emotional closeness or conflict, however, were not found. Evidence suggests that these levels of obligation were connected to adolescents’ sense of ethnic identity, a topic explored later in this chapter.

    Feelings of family obligation consistently predicted academic motivations in Latino/a and Asian immigrant children (Fuligni, 2011). Immigrant children with a strong sense of family obligation tended to believe that education was important and useful. This suggests that family obligation may help promote a higher level of engagement in school than socio-economic barriers and actual achievement levels would predict. However, no relationship between family obligation and achievement in terms of grades was found.

    Parenting practices may contribute to a sense of family obligation. Xiong et al.’s (2004) study found that Southeast Asian adolescents perceived a parental emphasis on proper behaviors and academic success. One Cambodian participant in the study reported constant messages from parents to “stay in school, stay out of trouble, don’t go out with friends all the time to do bad things, be on time [when coming back home]” (p. 9). Adolescents also reported that parents often communicated the connection between education and opportunity. These findings imply that parents’ clear communication of family values contributes to the academic resilience of immigrant children, perhaps compensating for other challenges.

    Family obligation appears to contribute to the mental health of immigrant children. One study of Latino families found that familism values contributed to lower rates of externalizing behavior (German, Gonzales, & Dumka, 2009). Also, family identity and obligation has been found to contribute to positive emotional well-being and personal self-efficacy in immigrant children (Fuligni, 2011; Kuperminc, Wilkins, Jurkovic, & Perilla, 2013). Feeling like a good family member has been found to mediate a relationship between helping at home and elevated levels of happiness in youth from Latino/a, Asian, and immigrant backgrounds, although increased helping is also related to feelings of burden (Telzer & Fuligni, 2009). A sense of fairness regarding family obligations was also an important predictor of declines in psychological distress among Latinx immigrant youth (Kuperminc et al., 2013). Most recently, engaging in family assistance has been found to be associated with ventral striatum activation in the brain, suggesting a neurological benefit associated with decreased risk-taking (Telzer, Fuligni, Lieberman, & Galván, 2013). Several studies have found that lower instances of risky behaviors such as early sex, violence, delinquency, and substance abuse have been reported in adolescent immigrant youth across race and ethnicity (Hernandez et al., 2012; Kao, Lupiya, & Clemen-Stone, 2014). While family obligations may be challenging at times, immigrant youth often benefit from these obligations.

    Ethnic Heritage

    A sense of ethnic identity developed through socialization in families and cultural communities may provide protective influence. For example, a strong ethnic identity was found to contribute to academic motivation in immigrant children (Fuligni, 2011). Turney and Kao (2012) found that immigrant parents were more likely to talk with their children about their racial and ethnic traditions than United States-born parents. Religiosity and spirituality, often integrated with one’s ethnic identity, rituals, and traditions, appear to play a significant role as a protective factor in the immigrant paradox among Latino/a and Somali youth (Areba, 2015; Ruiz & Steffen, 2011). Also, participation in a religious community was a key means of connecting children of Vietnam refugees with their ethnic heritage and building cultural capital (Tingvold et al., 2012). Among refugees, contact with those of the same ethnic background may be protective. Sudanese children living without any contact with other Sudanese were more likely to have PTSD than those who had fostered with Sudanese families (Geltman et al., 2005). In one study, ties to tradition and Somali culture were adaptive for Somali girls, but assimilation to the United States host country culture was adaptive for boys (Fazel, Reed, Panter-Brick, & Stein, 2012). Ethnic heritage appears to be a protective factor for many immigrants, although it is influenced by contextual factors such as gender.

    34.4 Role of Resources in Achieving Aspirations

    An ecological approach to resiliency invites us to consider the 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 Latinx families unexpectedly found that human capital was associated with lower life satisfaction; this suggests a gap between reality and expectations based on the 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 variations 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 Latinx students outpaced third-generation Latinx students; first-generation were in-between, but not significantly different from either the second- or third-generation. Among elementary students, third-generation-plus Latinx 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 Latinx 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 challenges 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 Latinx 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 Latinxs; they felt a sense of isolation in communities where Latinxs 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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    A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

    34.5 Emerging Directions

    Immigrant and refugee families may respond with resilience to challenging circumstances and adversity, particularly when policies and resources are in place to support them. Indeed, pro-immigrant policies have been shown to create economic opportunities for immigrant families (Lester & Nguyen, 2015) which allows them to provide for their family’s needs, raise healthy and successful children, and pursue their goals. Although barriers exist, as a whole, immigrants are highly motivated to invest in their families through hard work and education and often express a sense of pride in their independence. Another strength of immigrant communities is a sense of family identity and obligation that often serve as protective factors.

    Scholars have pointed to several gaps in the literature on immigrant families. There is a lack of research regarding several specific subgroups in the United States, including Southeast Asian populations and immigrants from the Middle East (Xiong et al., 2004; Foner & Dreby, 2011). Also, research on refugee resilience is lacking in the United States. Research on couples in immigrant and refugee families is also needed (Helms et al., 2011). A focus on resilience offers a new lens that focuses on strengths and protective factors that provide an environment in which immigrant and refugee families can thrive and contribute to a continually changing and increasingly diverse United States society.

    34.6 End-of-Chapter Summary

    Case Study #1

    Juan Morales stood at the grocery counter watching the clerk ring out each item while his mother looked through her purse to find her wallet. The clerk looked up and asked, “How are you folks doing?”
    His mother answered with her thick accent, “Good, good.”
    “That will be $28.51, ma’am.” The clerk looked expectantly at Mrs. Morales, who turned to her son.
    “Cuanto es, mi hijo?” she asked. He told his mother the amount in Spanish, and she reached into her purse to give him a ten and a twenty. When the clerk gave change of $11.49, she refused the amount and told her eleven-year-old son to communicate the change was too much.

    Juan turned bright red while the customers behind them formed a line. “You gave us too much change.” The clerk tried to explain that he was giving change for forty dollars, but Mrs. Morales insisted that she should get change for thirty dollars. In the end, the clerk thanked them for their honesty.
    As Juan and his mother walked away, Mrs. Morales gave her son a quick hug. She told him how proud she was of him, studying so hard and speaking good English. “Por eso venimous aqui,” she said—that’s why we came here, so you could study hard and have a better life than we had in Colombia.

    Case Study #2

    Ayon ran down the sidewalk, dodging people walking briskly in the afternoon rush hour. She had to get to the Western Union before it closed. Slightly out of breath, she reached her destination and wired money back home to her grandmother in Somalia. Then she stopped by a store to grab a contribution to the family meal that night. Her cousins were coming over and her mom wanted to have a big meal. She was looking forward to a night with the family, even if it meant that she would be up late studying for exams that she had to take the next day.

    When she got home, her family was gathered around her younger sister. She was crying because a girl at school had challenged her to take off her hijab, the headdress that the women in the family wore for modesty. Ayon smiled at her and said, “Don’t listen to them. They asked me the same thing.” Their cousin chimed in, and before long the girls were laughing and talking. Ayon smiled with a deep contented sigh.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What are some examples of the immigrant paradox in immigrant and refugee families?
    2. How would you explain the attitude toward work and education of most immigrant and refugee families? What do you think is behind these attitudes?
    3. Discuss the role families play in promoting resilience among immigrants and refugees? In what ways might family obligations be a barrier to resilience at times?
    4. Why should a community worker or practitioner be careful to refrain from judging immigrant and refugee families negatively?
    5. What is an acculturation gap? How could an acculturation gap affect resilience?

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    Adapted from Chapters 1 through 9 from Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

    This page titled 32: Resilience in Immigrant and Refugee Families is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Whitney Sarah Payne.

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