How America Lets Down the Children of Immigrants

A new book explores how being a teen in the United States is way harder when your parents are immigrants.

Sep 29 2016, 1:40am

Isaias Ramos (second from right) at a Knowledge Bowl competition with his friends. Photo courtesy of Karen Pulfer Focht / The Commercial Appeal

Daniel Connolly grew up in Memphis in the 1980s, and back then, it seemed like everyone in the city was either black or white. It wasn't until the 1990s, when he was in college, that he started noticing the influx of Mexican immigrants attending services at the Catholic church where his family went. Connolly, who is white, decided to start learning Spanish and later volunteered to teach English to the immigrants at his church. As he got to know the immigrant families in his community, and later, as he pursued a career as a journalist and wrote stories about immigration, he started to see immigration in a new light.

His new book, The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America, which comes out October 4, is the culmination of five years of research and interviews with children of immigrants in the United States. Connolly follows Isaias Ramos, an 18-year-old high school student, and his friends as they weigh options for their future. Connolly discovers that for the Hispanic teens, the options quickly fizzle out. Finding a place in American society for a child of Hispanic immigrants isn't as easy as people think.

VICE spoke to Connolly about his experiences writing the book, what he sees as the major immigration challenges of today, and how they affect the children of Hispanic immigrants.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Isaias Ramos (second from left) and his friends walking to Class Day. Photo courtesy of St. Martin's Press

VICE: You've been writing about and researching this issue for a while now. In your opinion, what's the biggest hurdle facing the children of Hispanic immigrants in American today?
Daniel Connolly: Isaias's parents came from Mexico and his father had a sixth grade education. His mother went as far as ninth grade, and neither of them speak English very well. They didn't really know much about the American school system, and when it came down to Isaias figuring out life after high school, he largely had to do it on his own. There's a number of immigrant families that don't have money, and regardless of the immigration status of the children, they're affected by that.

Another challenge for children of immigrants is that they have immigration [status] problems. For instance, Isaias was brought to the US at age eight, and his parents brought him illegally. It gets complicated, but the short version is that he had significant immigration problems that made his college search a lot more difficult. Under the law, he can't apply for US citizenship. Immigration law is complicated—but the general thing is that an individual who's brought into the US illegally, even if it's against their will, often has no way to ever become a citizen.

So even though kids like Isaias grow up, for all intents and purposes, American, they're not. How can these issues affect them, or affect our country as a whole?
We talk a lot about adult immigrants, but much less so about their children. Roughly one in four kids in the US today has at least one immigrant parent, so there's a huge portion of kids growing up in an immigrant household. Historically, Hispanics in particular have had difficulties obtaining college degrees for a wide variety of reasons. One of the main reasons I wrote this book is to highlight the human potential of Hispanic kids, because it's a shame when a student who's capable ends up dropping out of high school. That's something as a society we can't afford. We need to develop our people, our human capacity, and that's for the good of everyone, not just Hispanics and those who grow up in immigrant families.

"The path toward success in America is not necessarily clear for children of immigrants."—Daniel Connolly

What kind of policies are keeping kids like Isaias from succeeding in the United States?
I'll speak to Tennessee, which is the state where this book takes place and the one I know the best. In Tennessee, there was actually a law that was passed by the state legislature that aims to stop people living in the US illegally from getting state benefits. The legislature was trying to discourage [undocumented] immigrants from settling in Tennessee. If someone who had immigration issues applied to college, like Isaias, he'd have to pay the out-of-state tuition, which in this case was roughly $20,000 a year. On top of that, he wasn't eligible for most of the state's scholarships either, so in his case, he's looking at coming up with $80,000 for a four-year degree and doing that without public scholarships.

At the time [Isaias] was applying to college, he actually had a federal Social Security number and a federal work permit. However, the state of Tennessee basically ruled that people like Isaias, children of immigrants, were still not eligible for state benefits. There are a lot of people living in this gray area, this legal status where they're neither fully rejected nor fully accepted by our society.

Isais, his brother Dennis, and mother Cristina on a cold day at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, circa 2004. Photo courtesy of the Ramos family

Wow. What else are these kids up against?
The bigger thing, I think, affected their mindset was just not having that many examples of people who had gone to college. I asked Isaias who he knew who went college. He could only name a couple of people, and both of them were young women. In that sense, the path toward success in America is not necessarily clear for children of immigrants. They may not have a model of somebody who's done it well. I've interviewed many [immigrants] who live here illegally. They don't live like fugitives; they don't live in hiding. But they don't have the same rights that I would enjoy as a US citizen. They're living in this gray area, and when someone like Isaias interacts with the bureaucracy of Tennessee's public universities, suddenly their immigrant status is a problem.

Related: The Crippling Cost of College for America's Undocumented Students

During this election, immigration has been a primetime discussion. How have things like a proposed wall between Mexico and the United States affected the younger generation of immigrants?
At the national level, there's a tendency among some politicians to profit from divisions among people. I think it's part of human nature to think about our tribe versus the other tribe. For example, in the Midwest, there's a great football rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan. You'll hear people yelling "Michigan sucks" or "Ohio sucks," and if you think about it, they're basically the same. There's not much difference between people who live in Michigan and people who live in Ohio, but it's part of our human nature to think of ourselves in groups or tribes. There are certain politicians who use that with immigration issues, basically saying these people are from another tribe, and they're dangerous.

What do you think about Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigration?
A lot of what Trump is saying isn't about the real world. It's about fantasies of what he would like the world to be. It's about white identity and white nationalism. It's not about actually addressing immigration or related issues. The other point I'd make is that the peak immigration years were in the early 2000s, if we're talking about immigration from Mexico. If you build a wall now, that doesn't address the people who are already here. Trump talked about a deportation force, and yet at the same time, there are some reasons to be skeptical about that and its feasibility, cost-wise.

But the big thing that I say in this book is that there's a case to be made for addressing the question of children of immigrants separately from adult immigrants, and that's something we typically don't do. I say in the epilogue that over 90 percent of young Hispanic kids in America are US citizens. These are people who are going to be part of our country no matter what. The central argument of the book is that children of immigrants have great potential, and it's in everyone's interest as a country to develop their potential.

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