Left behind: a dropout's difficulties

Second-generation Latinos struggle for a higher foothold

Javier Saavedra, son of Mexican immigrants, is struggling to get a well-paying job after dropping out of high school and leaving behind gang life. Whether Saavedra and his peers succeed will have consequences far beyond immigrant circles: The offspring of Hispanic immigrants already make up one of every ten children in the United States.
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009

Javier Saavedra slumped his burly frame into a worn, plaid couch in the cramped basement room he shares with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter, his expression darkening as he ticked off all the wrong turns that had gotten them stuck below the economy's ground floor.

Raised by Mexican immigrant parents, Saavedra was a gang member by 13, a high school dropout by 16 and a father by 21. Now 23, he has been trying to turn his life around since his daughter, Julissa, was born.

But without a high school diploma, Saavedra was unable to find a job that paid enough for him and his girlfriend, Mayra Hererra, 20 and pregnant with their second child, to move out of her parents' brick home in Hyattsville.

Even the dim, wood-paneled room piled with baby toys and large plastic bags of clothing was costing them $350 a month.

"I get so upset with myself," Saavedra said. "I should have a better chance at a job [than our parents]. I want to be helping them with their bills, not them still helping me."

Millions of children of Latino immigrants are confronting the same challenge as they come of age in one of the most difficult economic climates in decades.

Whether they succeed will have consequences far beyond immigrant circles. As a result of the arrival of more than 20 million mostly Mexican and Central American newcomers in a wave that swelled in the 1970s and soared during the 1990s, the offspring of Hispanic immigrants now account for one of every 10 children, both in the United States and the Washington region.

Largely because of the growth of this second generation, Hispanic immigrants and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren will represent almost a third of the nation's working-age adults by mid-century, according to projections from U.S. Census Bureau data by Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer with the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Not since the last great wave of immigration to the United States around 1900 has the country's economic future been so closely entwined with the generational progress of an immigrant group. And so far, on nearly every measure, the news is troubling.

Second-generation Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rate -- one in seven -- of any U.S.-born racial or ethnic group and the highest teen pregnancy rate. These Hispanics also receive far fewer college degrees and make significantly less money than non-Hispanic whites and other second-generation immigrants.

Their struggles have fueled an outcry for stricter immigration laws, with advocates saying that the rapid increase in Latino immigrants and their children has strained the United States' resources and social fabric.

"The last 30 years of immigration have made our country more unequal, poorer than we would have been otherwise, more fractious and less cohesive," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors tighter restrictions on immigration.

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