Conclusion: Challenges for the Future
The integration of immigrants—children and adults, authorized and undocumented—takes place at the community level where local relationships determine the immigrants’ experience. Encounters at the local level do not just shape the host society’s attitudes towards newly arrived migrant children and youth or the young migrants’ attitudes towards their new neighbors. These conditions also influence the cohesiveness of the neighborhoods, towns, and cities they adopt as their new homes.
The dynamics of integration, of course, cannot be reduced to a negotiation between two groups. A categorization of two camps (e.g., “established residents” and “newcomers”) classifies individuals only according to when they arrived; it does not account for infinite social divisions along ethnic, racial, and religious lines. The US host society itself is composed of numerous waves of newcomers, some more empathetic than others to the newest arrivals. Even though the newly arrived children and youth may come from the same region and speak a common language, they too have diverse experiences and backgrounds. They also are arriving in communities that host other waves of immigrant youth, and they may be hailing from various continents or have a variety of immigration statuses.
Some integration challenges can be remedied with more effective policies at local and national levels. Many, however, derive from cultural rifts that require changes in the perceptions that established residents, including earlier immigrants and newcomers, have of each other. Bridging the gaps that separate these dissimilar groups of immigrant youth would strengthen communities; mitigate divisive social tensions; and, of course, position the young immigrants to participate more effectively in the wider society.
The news media significantly influence the popular perception of immigrants, children and adults alike, which reinforces stereotypes in some cases though empathizing with the immigrants’ experiences in others. The arrival of Central American children and youth has attracted substantial news coverage. Regrettably, reporting of immigrant issues frequently concentrates on moments of conflict between natives and newcomers. It is imperative that local media promote positive images of the newly arrived youth. Human-interest stories, focusing on their resiliency and potential contributions to the local community, can go a long way towards eliciting acceptance and assistance.
Successful integration programs generally help established residents acknowledge that immigrants—no matter how young or old— bring something of value to their community. Nonetheless, successful integration also depends on the empowerment of immigrant youth. One of the largest obstacles to this goal is that mediating institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals, and local governments) often overlook the newcomer voice, especially if it is a voice of a child or youth. Links of incorporation within newcomer groups and with the broader society will remedy this condition over time. Young immigrants also can improve their own prospects of integration by asserting themselves with one voice and by establishing partnerships with other immigrant and refugee youth.