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The Myth of Immigrants’ Educational Attainment

There’s a popular theory that says children raised in immigrant families do better in school than the offspring of comparable native-born Americans, despite language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. The concept even has a name: the “immigrant paradox,” a phrase that has helped spawn the notion that these kids have a remarkable capacity for upward mobility—and that there is perhaps even something subpar about American culture that prevents children whose families have been in the United States longer from advancing as quickly.

But new research from the sociologist Cynthia Feliciano, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, calls that interpretation into question. In a study published this month by the American Sociological Review, Feliciano and a doctoral student named Yader Lanuza found that the reason immigrant families appear so successful is not upward mobility, but the ability to work their way into the same class they occupied in their native country.