The Struggle of Refugee Teens

Teenage refugees are having a particularly hard time adjusting to life in the U.S. While most resettlement practitioners would intuitively agree with this statement, new evidence from a study of the American Community Survey supports this point with new data.

Dr. Williams Evans of the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) drew data from the 2010-2014 American Community Survey to shed some light on the social and economic assimilation of refugees. He found that high school graduation rates declined with age at entry. For refugee kids younger than 14 at the time they came to America, the high school graduation rates were similar to the U.S.-born. In contrast, graduation rates for refugee children older than 14 years were significantly worse compared to the U.S.-born.  The adjustment struggles of older teens, Dr. Evans theorized, is likely due to language barriers, resulting in LEO’s recommendation to direct scarce resettlement resources at older teens.

The LEO research team, including Dr. Evans and his research assistant Danny Fitzgerald, discussed the (yet unpublished) study results in the context of a Nov. 15, 2016 a brown bag meeting at the USCCB. The researchers’ first major finding related to the cost of resettlement, which was discussed in a recent blog post. The research project involved looking at roughly 18,000 refugees who entered the country between 1990 and 2014. Fitzgerald combed through census data to locate people entering the country as refugees, then tracked their employment, education, dependence on social programs, tax history and other factors.Stay tuned for a final post in this three-part series on the MRS refugee research blog.

While much of the research in this area focuses on adult newcomers, the nexus of language and career outcomes is well-understood. Observing Colorado refugees over a period of 5 years, the Refugee Survey & Evaluation Study of 2016 finds a significant correlation between English language proficiency and integration successes. And the Brookings Institute‘s Jill Wilson found in 2014 that adults with limited English proficiency earned 25 to 40 percent less than their English proficient counterparts. In sum, English proficiency is a strong predictor of social integration and workplace successes.

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