Mexicans in New York: The Factors Affecting Their Educational Attainment

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The population of Mexicans in New York is rapidly increasing. According to a report conducted by The Community Service Society of New York, the Mexican population in New York has grown five times more than it was in 1990 with a great majority being under the age of sixteen, greater than other ethnic groups, and with a growing number of young people being born in the U.S. (Treschan & Mehrotra 2013). As a result, there will be a greater number of Mexican students in public school. When it comes to education, “Latino young people have the lowest rates of school enrollment – 54% compared to 60% of blacks, 64% whites, and 73% of Asians” (Treschan & Mehrotra 2013), but among the foreign-born Latino youth, those born in Mexico have the lowest enrollment rate with 37%.  In contrast, native-born Mexicans have the highest rates of school attendance (67%) than other native-born Latinos, with only 54% among Puerto Ricans, and 64% of Dominicans (Treschan & Mehrotra 2013).  However, both foreign-born and native-born Mexicans who drop-out have significantly lower levels of educational attainment than their school peers, with over half not earning a high school diploma.  Consequently, Mexicans end up having low-paying jobs due to poor educational attainment and thus living at or below the poverty line (Treschan & Mehrotra 2013).  Several factors that negatively affect the educational outcomes for Mexicans living in New York include:  1.) poverty, 2.) undocumented status, 3.) parent’s level of education and their involvement 4.) language barrier, 5.) ineffective schools and educational policies 6.) transnationalism and the “myth of return”7.) and racial discrimination.

School Enrollment of 16-24 year Old Latinos in NYC.jpg
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According to Harris et al., low socioeconomic status is directly linked to poor grades and accounts for Mexican students’ low achievement in reading and math (Harris et al. 2008). Not surprisingly however, low education attainment contributes to poverty in return.   In their analysis, Sullivan and Ziegart concluded that “the single most important reason why Mexican immigrants have such high poverty rates is that they have, on average, very low educational attainments” (Sullivan & Ziegart 2008).  Poverty is often also a result of having immigrant status and the many disadvantages that can be linked to it, such as “language barriers, incompatibility of educational credentials, limited transferability of job skills, unfamiliarity with the market demands, and lack of access to job and educational networks” (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2011).  Persistent poverty leads Latino immigrant students, [like the many Mexican youth living in NYC] to take on the responsibilities of supporting their families by working long hours after school which has been shown to distract from school work and is associated with poor educational outcomes (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2011).

Undocumented Status

Undocumented Mexican immigrants have especially low education outcomes in New York City. The fear of deportation is the root of many of the causes that lead to Mexican students’ poor education in New York. “Many illegal immigrants, particularly those belonging to newer immigrant groups, have smaller extended families or less-developed social networks than others, and therefore fewer people around to help raise children” (Semple 2011a). With that, the stress suffered by illegal immigrant parents is often transferred to their children, which is displayed in their academic performance and overall behavior. While less so in NY than other states, many Mexican student in New York still carry with them a constant fear of being deported themselves or their parents being deported while they are at school. Researchers have concluded that “children who live in families under threat of detention or deportation will finish fewer years of school and face challenges focusing on their studies” (Anderson 2016). Furthermore, many young illegal Mexican immigrants don’t even see a point in attending school because of their undocumented status and the poor job opportunities that result from that. Some even “drop out under the erroneous belief that they are not eligible to attend college” (Semple 2011a). Most of the jobs available for undocumented immigrants are low-skill manual labor or service work that require little schooling. This in turn becomes an incentive to skip school altogether and work instead, albeit for low-wages (Greenman & Hall 2013).

Parent’s Level of Education and Involvement in Child’s Education

According to author Regina Cortina, the level of educational attainment by Mexican parents directly influences the education of their children who are born in Mexico and in New York (2003).  The majority of Mexican rural families who migrate to New York have only a few years of academic schooling, with 43% of working-age Mexicans not furthering their education pass the ninth grade (Cortina 2003).  In addition, migrants from rural or shanty towns in Mexico usually have high deficiencies in academic skills because of the extremely poor schools they attend (Cortina 2003).  A great segment of the adult Mexican population in New York City come from the State of Puebla, which has an average of 5.5 years of schooling for adults.  Among those 15 years or older, a third never attended school, and a third finished only elementary school (Cortina 2003). The lack of schooling among parents also influences how they interact with schools, rendering them incapable of providing support and advise to their children since they never attained it themselves (Cortina 2003).

Mexican students in New York may also be falling behind educationally due to their parents’ level of involvement. Parents’ involvement in a child’s education is critical even before the child enters formal schooling. Literacy activities in particular, such as reading to children, or taking trips to the library, “have been shown to enhance children's language acquisition, early reading performance, social development, and later success in school” (Schhneider 1970). Unfortunately, many studies show that in compared to other racial groups, Hispanic, including Mexican, parents participate in fewer literacy activities with their children. This may be due to the fact that many Mexican families have limited economic and educational resources. Many Mexicans in New York are struggling financially and in the country illegally. “Parents, many of them uneducated, often work in multiple jobs, leaving little time for involvement in their children’s education” (Semple 2011b).

Language Barrier

Many Mexican students in New York lag in education due partially to the language barrier that they face. “A study of Mexican immigrant students in New York City revealed that the educational background students and their families possess upon arriving to the United States greatly influence their possibility of completing school” (Cortina 2006). In this specific study, only 22% graduated from high school in four years. Though this can be attributed to many factors, one of the major ones is that having a language barrier poses great difficulty for students to learn what they need in order to graduate. While schools in New York do offer English as a Second Language classes, studies show that the longer a student is in ESL, the lower their probability of finishing high school, because of the lack of academic courses the student is able to take while still in ESL (Cortina 2006).

In addition, research findings by the New York City Board of Education state that chances of succeeding in school increases when children are matriculated in kindergarten and first grade, as compared to entering school in sixth grade or later, which decreases the chances of learning English.  Many foreign-born Mexican youth arrive in New York City and enter school during their middle-school years having little to no English skills and unfortunately, there is a higher concentration of English language programs and qualified teachers at the elementary school level (Cortina 2003).

Ineffective Schools & Educational Policies

In New York, there is a low investment in school programs that help students learn English despite the majority of the population having Spanish as their only language (Cortina 2003).  According to a study, children of Mexican decent are primarily enrolled in low-performing schools that lack the economic resources to combat the racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences which help produce inequality among the students (Orfield & Lee 2005).  Furthermore, besides the over-representation of foreign and native-born Mexicans in failing schools, they are being taught by underqualified teachers with low educational achievement (Cortina 2003).  A study done on teacher’s educational attainment in New York State confirmed that teachers with poor training taught the poorest students (Lankford et al. 2002).  Another contributing factor is the educational policies for high-stakes testing like the Regents Exams in New York.  Such policies are “not attuned to the needs of immigrant students [especially regarding the English language] and in many cases have been shown to have detrimental consequences” (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2011). The charter school movement as well, which for the most part does not engage and ignores new immigrant students, keeping them from considerable educational opportunities (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2011).

Transnationalism & The “Myth of Return”

A study done of schools in the states of Nuevo Leon and Zacatecas revealed that an estimated 2% of students enrolled in Mexico’s primary schools and high schools had transnational experiences and a significant amount of schooling in the United States. Furthermore, almost half of the students in the study were born in, or had a U.S.- born mother (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2011). Many foreign-born and native-born Mexican youth travel between their parent’s native home and the U.S. for a number of reasons, such as following the agricultural season or job availability of the parents. Additionally, due to medical reasons and lack of health insurance, parents remove their children from school and send them to live with family members where they can have access to medical care in Mexico (Cortina 2003).  This migration between two homes ultimately impacts the education of students. Many of them stay for long periods of time in Mexico and enroll in the schools there, then come back after finishing the equivalent of middle-school education in Mexico and are at high risk for school failure (Cortina 2003). Another migratory factor is the “myth of return” which refers to the fact that in the hopes of returning back to their homeland as soon as possible, new migrants with just a few years after arrival hold on to their customs and languages and raise their children with their cultural understandings, not pursuing assimilation and education in their U.S. home (Cortina 2003).

Racial Discrimination

In New York City as in other parts of the U.S., many Mexican students are also deterred from performing well in school due to racial discrimination. Research on Mexican-born and Mexican-American students in New York tend to demonstrate that the second generation have a greater tendency of not completing school due in part to the widespread prejudice against Latinos, which ultimately has a negative impact on their educational outcome (Cortina 2003).  “Discrimination in the educational context specifically may be subtlety found in such practices as academic tracking, retention in grade, and teacher expectations” (Benner 2011). This discrimination causes the affected students to lose confidence in themselves and it decreases their motivation and engagement in school. Another correlate to discrimination is that the more racially and ethnically diverse the student body is, the more likely Latino students, in this case Mexicans, report discrimination (Benner 2011). Mexicans are migrating to a multi-racial, multi-ethnic city that is New York, which has already documented rivalries between the ethnic groups, and where ethnic gangs influence drop-out rates (Cortina 2003).  Interestingly enough, studies suggest that students feel less discriminated against when the school’s teaching staff is ethnically diverse, and “schools with more minority teachers report less interracial conflict among students” (Benner 2011). 


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