First-Generation, Foreign-Born Latino Immigrants: Their Migration Experience, Psychological Distress, Support, and Educational Outcomes

Ramos-finalWhile other studies have explored migration and distress, this one is the first to explore such variables in relation to academic outcomes among immigrant youth.

—by Karina Ramos, M.Ed.

Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S. (Fry & Lopez, 2012), making up 16.5 percent of the total U.S. population at 50.7 million people (Fry & Lopez, 2012; Motel & Patten, 2012). Latinos also make up the largest immigrant group in the United States. (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013b). In the last ten years, there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of foreign-born immigrants living in the United States. The majority of immigrants (47 percent) come from Latin American countries (Motel & Patten, 2012; Pew Hispanic Center, 2013a).

Similar to the trends of continued growth in the Latino and the Latino immigrant population, the Latino student population in the United States also continues to grow (Fry & Lopez, 2012). Nearly a quarter of all students enrolled in public schools are Latino/a (Fry & Lopez, 2012). While enrollment rates have increased, the same is not the case when it comes to attainment levels (Fry & Lopez, 2012). Latinos obtain the lowest attainment levels than any group in the U.S. (Motel & Patten, 2012; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).

Despite the growing numbers of Latino immigrants and the low attainment levels among Latinos in general, foreign-born children and adolescents have been largely ignored in the literature (APA Presidential Task Force on Immgration, 2012). Little research has explored the educational experiences, aspirations, protective factors (i.e., support systems), and psychological well-being of foreign-born, first-generation Latino immigrants. Additionally, virtually no research exists on the ways in which their migration experiences relate to their educational outcomes. The purpose of this study is to contribute to the limited literature on foreign-born Latino immigrants by describing the relation between immigrants’ migration experiences and psychological distress, perceived support, and educational outcomes. The three main research questions that guide this study are: 1) What is the relation between migration stress and educational outcomes? 2) What is the relation between migration stress and psychological stress? 3) What is the relation between perceived support and educational outcomes?


Using a sample of 281 foreign-born, first-generation Latino immigrants, this study assessed their perceived support, psychological distress, educational aspirations and outcomes, and stress associated with their migration experience. Similar to the national trends, most of the immigrants in this sample came from Mexico (73 percent), with smaller portions coming from Central (22 percent) and South America (4 percent). Most youth migrated to the U.S. between the ages of 6 and 12 (66 percent).

Preliminary Analyses

In this section, descriptive data and the results of the preliminary correlational analyses are described. When asked about stress associated with their migration experience, 59 percent of foreign-born, first-generation Latino immigrant youth reported that their migration experience was somewhat or very stressful. Additionally, 51 percent reported being concerned for their safety during their travels to the United States. Some of the traumatic experiences reported during their migration experience included being robbed during the trip, being physically attacked, and/or becoming accidentally injured or ill.

Latino immigrant youth in this sample reported high educational aspirations. Sixty-seven percent of the sample reported aspiring to a postsecondary education, with 30 percent aspiring to a bachelor’s degree, and 37 percent aspiring to a graduate degree. At the same time, when asked what the highest level of education they thought they would realistically achieve, it was evident that there was a difference between aspirations and outcomes. Whereas 67 percent aspired to a post-secondary degree, only 49 percent actually expected that this educational goal would be attained. With respect to educational outcomes, a large majority of the students were high performing, academically successful students. Forty-three percent of participating youth reported obtaining mostly A’s and B’s, and 35 percent reported obtaining mostly B’s and C’s in school.

In addition to the descriptive data, correlational analyses were conducted to assess the relation between the variables of interest (i.e., migration stress, educational aspirations and outcomes, perceived support, and psychological distress). There was a significant positive relation between grades and support. The more the immigrant youth perceived support from adults, the better grades they obtained. Grades were also positively correlated to higher educational aspirations and outcomes. With respect to stress, there was a significant negative relation between grades and migration stress. Youth who reported higher levels of stress during their migration experience received lower grades in school. There was also a negative relation between migration stress and perceived support. The more stress associated with the migration experience, the less social support perceived. Finally, there was a significant positive relation between migration stress and psychological distress. Higher levels of stress experienced during the migration experience were correlated with higher levels of psychological distress, as measured by an anxiety measure.

These preliminary findings suggest significant relations between migration stress and the psychological well-being and educational outcomes of immigrant youth. More research is needed in this area to better understand the experiences of these youth. Further analyses will be conducted using this data to better understand the relation between these variables. In particular, a path analysis model will be tested to explore the relationship between migration stress and educational outcomes, and the mediating role that support and psychological distress play in explaining the relationship migration stress and academic performance.


American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2012). Crossroads:The psychology of immigration in the new century. Retrieved from

Fry, R., & Lopez, M. H. (Aug 20, 2012). Now largest minority group on four-year college campuses: Hispanic student enrollments reach new highs in 2011.

Motel, S., & Patten, E. (July 12, 2012). The 10 largest Hispanic origin groups: Characteristics, rankings, top countries.

Pew Hispanic Center. Pew Research Center. (Jan 29, 2013a). A nation of immigrants: A portrait of the 40 million, including 11 million unauthorized.

Pew Research Hispanic Center (2013b). A portrait of U.S. immigrants: U.S. immigrant population trends. Retrieved on March 2013 from

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 (131st Edition), Section 4 on Education. Washington, DC, 2011; Retrieved on March 2013 from

—Karina Ramos, M.Ed., is a doctoral candidate in the UO Department of, Counseling Psychology and a graduate teaching fellow. She received support toward her research from a CLLAS Graduate Research Grant in 2012.