Back to top

EL Experiences: US Born Children of Immigrants

Time to complete: 

Many assume that ELs are primarily newcomers or have moved to the US from another country. But the majority of multilingual learners were actually born in the US after their parents immigrated. Unlike newcomers or immigrant students, these ELs do not have a migrant story, they are not adjusting to the US as a new country, and they face an entirely different family dynamic to navigate. As educators, it is imperative that we understand these students’ unique experiences and needs in order to better support them.

We spoke with Dr. Joanna Dreby, a professor at the University of Albany with a PhD in Sociology, about what she has learned from working with students who grew up as the children of immigrants. She shares some of the common challenges they often face, including identity crises, social-emotional needs, increased responsibilities at home, and more. Most importantly, she provides educators with a glimpse into the lives of these courageous students that will help educators build the empathy they need to support them. 

In a very special part two of this conversation, we were able to sit down with three of these students themselves to hear their experiences: Like all English learners, Falmari Rojas-Barrios, Rachel Lim, and Iliana Perez have different backgrounds, but their stories are similar. They provide educators with a bold, honest look at the hidden challenges so many of our students face.

Each story and conversation was moving and insightful, and we strongly encourage you to listen to them all. In the meantime, we’ve pulled a few themes that spanned across all the conversations:

1. Difficulties US Born Children of Immigrants face in school

Dr. Dreby begins by outlining several recurring difficulties that these students face, which negatively impacts their ability to concentrate in school. As first generation Americans, many students are struggling to manage multiple or changing identities at school while balancing responsibilities at home that at times may alienate them from their peers and pull them prematurely into adulthood. Her students elaborate on several of these examples:


“I was always told, ‘Don't tell anybody that your mom doesn't speak English or your mom doesn't have papers. Don't tell nobody your family's status.’ So that made me into a really shy person. I didn't form relationships with my classmates or with my teachers. I was very shy….I was always hiding half of my identity in school.” - Falmari Rojas-Barrios

Navigating US school system

“I think for me the biggest challenge was always uncertainty and the unknown….And even though I could get emotional support from my parents, they don't understand the American school system, they don't understand things that I feel like non-immigrant families would typically just think of it as something normal. So that's why I was always unsure of the things that I was doing.” - Iliana Perez

Added burden of supporting siblings throughout college process

“I had to figure out how to apply to college on my own…and nowI guess since my parents think, okay, I went through the process of applying to college and I did all that, that I should be able to help my brother out and apply to college, basically, for him,” - Rachel Lim

2. Trauma students experience due to parents’ citizenship status

One of the biggest takeaways from Dr. Dreby’s research on English learners born in the US has been that young people who have had a parent “targeted” (deported, detained, arrested, or involved in some kind of incident with law enforcement) are experiencing a significant amount of trauma. This trauma can manifest itself in many ways as students progress through school. Dr. Dreby’s students courageously share a variety of sources of this trauma and how it has affected them:

Anxiety over unknown

“I have extreme anxiety. For as long as I can remember, I remember my mom telling me to just breathe, to just live in the moment, and stop thinking 10 years ahead. Because that was me. Since I knew my mom was getting deported at 13, I was like, ‘Okay, I'm leaving to Mexico right now, but I have to start planning for one, and 10 years, and five years, when I have to go to college and stuff like that.’ So it is really exhausting.” - Falmari Rojas-Barrios

Prolonged fear of separation

“Actually, as I mentioned my dad, he has his documents and everything now, but it wasn't always like that, as long as I can remember its always been a struggle. He's been dealing with lawyers and the court system for so many years now. And I do remember there was an incident and I'll always remember this incident because it really hurt my family…it was the fear of oh my God he could be taken away at any second now. I think that's the most thing that had kept me in that fear.” - Iliana Perez

Emotionally distressing experiences in court

“Well, I'm still in high school and then my freshman year of college, my mom tells me, I need to write a letter about why she shouldn't get supported. I just came up to Albany. It was my first month into school. It wasn't easy writing that letter. Because now, I had to actually sit and think about like, ‘Okay, what's going to happen and my parents get deported?’ I was only 18. My sister was still in middle school. My brother was just starting high school. What's going to happen to us?” - Rachel Lim

3. How educators can better support students

Many teachers want to improve students’ experiences in their classroom, but aren’t 

always sure where to start. Dr. Dreby offers the advice of normalizing their experiences through language. Much like we are careful about not using gendered pronouns and potentially alienating a population of students, we can be purposeful about comments we make about students’ family/home lives to acknowledge and de-stigmatize the experiences of US born children of immigrants. 

Her students offer other powerful advice to educators:


“Dr. Dreby gave me so much power, so much validation. And I do think it's really important  ... Because I feel like a lot of people research us with the white gaze, instead of really trying to understand us, really trying to look at all the circumstances that influence why we act the way we act, or why we're not developing at the same rate as students who have documented parents.” - Falmari Rojas-Barrios


“So I feel like teachers could always try to offer, ask and see if they can give them a little more guidance or even talk to their parents and explain to them, have like a meeting, sit down with the family and just try to make them understand how things work and how they can support the children in a better way, or just let them know that this path is difficult but it is possible…That guidance and that support to know that okay, I can lean on this person is really important.” - Iliana Perez


“Advocate for us. I understand you're seeing a lot of kids in a day. They're probably seeing about 60 to 80 kids every day in the classroom and then all might just seem like faces too when they're all the same. They might look all dead and they don't want to be there. Get to know us individually as people and not just what our grades defining us, because we are more than our grades. We all do have stories. We do all have lives still.” - Rachel Lim

4. Beyond the classroom: Joanna’s recommends immigration policy changes that can decrease trauma on these students and their families.

EL Experience

Episode Resources:

Dr. Dreby’s research explores family dynamics under conditions of increased globalization, with specific expertise on international migration, gender, and children.

She is author of two award-winning books Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and their Children (University of California Press 2010) and Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families (University of California Press 2015), and the award-winning article "The Burden of Deportation on Children in Mexican Immigrant Families" (Journal of Marriage and Family 2012). She is co-editor of the volume Family and Work in Everyday Ethnography (Temple University Press 2013). Dr. Dreby has published more than 30 peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters on a range of topics including child care fatalities, transnational families, gender and generational relations in families, work-family balance, and the impacts of immigration enforcement policies on children.

In 2017, Dr. Dreby was a Fulbright Scholar to Costa Rica and she received a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Grant in 2004-2005 for field research in Mexico. Her research on children and youth has been funded by the Foundation for Child Development (2009-2012), and her current project titled “the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement Episodes” is funded by the Russell Sage Foundation (2019-2022). She uses a variety of qualitative methods, emphasizing ethnography, comparative research and in-depth interview techniques. She has a background in social services and retains interest in community based work. Dr. Dreby received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2007.