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Inequitably Embedded: The Children of Immigrants on the Path to College

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In this dissertation, I investigate variation in the socio-economic mobility pathways used by the children of immigrants in suburban Los Angeles. I rely on four years of observation, 135 surveys and 106 interviews with both college-educated and non-college educated Mexican, Salvadoran, Filipino, Iranian, and Armenian immigrant parents and their high school students to address the effects of selective migration on second-generation outcomes. While past research concludes that membership in educationally select groups sponsors youth mobility because it provides resources that culturally match with American high schools, the approach I advance problematizes social mobility as cultural matching and instead regards it as a relational process that must be negotiated to be beneficial. I argue that the immigrant group resources made possible by selective migration contribute to a second-generation advantage in education because they allow youth to negotiate custom pathways to college and therefore optimize the opportunities made possible through public policies that expand access to higher education. Across three empirical chapters, I analyze four years of original ethnographic data from Glendale, CA, a community where rates of intergenerational income mobility are among the nation’s highest, and thus conclude with implications for understanding mobility on the national scale.

In chapter 1, I compare an Armenian youth serving organization to a non-ethnic one nearby and find greater class heterogeneity in the Armenian organization. While the non-ethnic organization primarily serves upper-middle class families, non-college educated Armenian immigrant families are more common in the ethnic organization where they attend to cultivate ethnic identification among their children. Their children therefore acquire cultural capital resources through co-ethnic mentors as an unanticipated gain of organizational membership, highlighting the role of boundaries and relations in acquiring immaterial mobility resources. In chapter 2, I investigate the prevalence of such mobility resources within the co-ethnic network by comparing non-college-educated Armenian immigrant families who participate in such organizations to those who do not. I find that although youth from both types of families converge in high-status educational and occupational expectations, non-participants perceive these goals as an ethnic norm but face greater pressure in meeting them due to their parents’ limited material resources. I show how these youth develop relationship management skills to negotiate belongingness in and expectations of the co-ethnic community that they pursue by relying on community college policy pathways. In chapter 3, I ask whether these relational work resources ever support the educational mobility of non-group members, and find this depends on the locus of youth’s primary college support relationships: either high school campus or community-based ties. I find the foreign credentials of educationally select immigrants are devalued in the U.S., prompting college-educated Filipino, Iranian and Armenian immigrant parents to rely on community colleges to retool their pre-migration credentials. This allows the children of non-college educated families in their respective co-ethnic networks to succeed more commonly in the community college pathway than others. Despite their close friendships with group members however, lower-SES Latinx origin students rely on the high school for college guidance and adopt its evaluative frame which stigmatizes community colleges, leading these students to devalue this pathway and not pursue it. I conclude that even when policies are designed to promote equity between families, how students negotiate meanings and social relations will shape whether they will benefit, or not, from these policies. Through this contribution, I encourage scholars of migration and social mobility to appreciate the limitations of rational choice models of decision-making that dominate education policy design so they can leverage this dissertation’s key contribution: that intergenerational mobility is simultaneously guided not just by the availability of opportunities, but by the relationships that define them as such.

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This item is under embargo until August 11, 2027.