August 1, 2016

What Happens to the Children of Refugees Once They’re Americans?



Refugee policy is hotly debated in the United States and abroad, but one aspect that receives relatively little attention is how the children of refugees in America fare once they become ‘Americans.’ The research is unambiguous: children of refugees are integrating really well into American society and culture.

The U.S. resettles tens of thousands of refugees each year; nearly one-third of those refugees are children under the age of 14. These children spend the majority of their formative years in America, which ultimately gives them a huge leg up over the integration of older immigrants.  

Recently, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) authored a report comparing the outcomes of both the foreign-born children of refugees and U.S.-born children of refugees (‘refugee children’), to children born in America with no connection to refugees. Astonishingly, refugee children are nearly indistinguishable from all other children born in the U.S., based on a number of factors, including: rates of parental employment, graduation, and health care coverage.

On the surface, the relatively equitable outcomes of refugee children and children born in the U.S. isn’t startling, except when considering the number of obstacles refugee children must overcome. For example, learning English is often an uphill battle. Nearly one-third of refugee children live in households without anyone over the age of 14 who is proficient in English. In many cases, these children must not only learn English while attending school, but they also teach their family members English and act as translators in the meantime.

When taking into account the debilitating post-traumatic effects from the violence and displacement that refugee children experienced in their home countries, their successful integration into American society is even more impressive. Even if the children were not exposed to the trauma themselves, the overwhelming suffering experienced by their parents can have a lasting effects on the mental health of their refugee children born in the U.S.

Although the children of refugees must overcome a number of challenges, they also enjoy positive advantages of their status. The children of refugees are significantly more likely to live in a family with two parents–81% of refugee children live in a household with two parents, as opposed to 65% of U.S. born children–and in many cases, extended family members, providing a more stable financial environment, additional supervision, and more workers in a household. According to the study, grandparents and extended family also offer additional nurturing and care, which contributes to the child’s adjustment and socialization in the U.S.

Second, by virtue of their age, they can learn English with less difficulty than an adult. Early interactions with American children help speed up the cultural and social integration in the U.S. Ultimately, these early interactions may impact the impressive high school graduation rates, as well as the number of refugee children who grow up to marry American-born citizens.

Third, refugees prioritize taking advantage of private benefits. For example, according to the MPI study, almost all refugee parentsand by extension their childrenhave health insurance as a result of their employment, resulting in higher rates of coverage than that of other immigrants.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) published a study last month corroborating MPI’s findings, including support for the conclusion that the most complete integration among refugees occurs most thoroughly in children. Additionally, the CAP study points out that the quick integration of children also expedites the integration of their parents, as they become increasingly involved in their children’s lives at school, in their communities, and with neighbors.

For all immigrants, integration into American culture and society is often difficult, so it is especially promising that studies suggest the integration of refugee children occurs quickly and thoroughly. While there are always exceptions, fears that the children of refugees do not assimilate, struggle to learn English, and/or become reliant on welfare, appear to be by and large unfounded.