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The Immigrant Experience From a Middle School Perspective

Chiu-Hui Wu investigates how immigrant students in the United States perceive their immigrant status and how it relates to their experience in U.S. schools. See Naomi Ono LeBeau's Out of the Box article, "Teacher, Can I Call You 'Teacher'?", Essential Teacher, June 2009.

Immigrants often refer to those who come to a new country as first generation, regardless of their purpose and length of stay (Nieto & Bode, 2008). Unlike previous waves of immigrants from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, a majority of today's immigrants to the United States come from Central and South America as well as Asia (King, 2000). Like their parents, children are affected by immigration experiences and have perceptions about their status in the United States. However, they are rarely asked about this.

While conducting a study of middle school ESOL students who were using Scholastic's READ 180 software (, which is specifically designed for English language learners (ELLs), I was able to ask these students about this topic. The three students in this study were Myra, from Puerto Rico; Andres, from Chile; and Xiao Nan, from China (all names are pseudonyms). The students shared some commonalities: All were 13 years old and enrolled in eighth grade, had come to the United States with their parents, and were receiving ESOL services in the same middle school classroom at the time of the study. I wanted to know how they, as newcomer students, perceived their immigration status and how it related to their educational experiences in U.S. public schools.

READ 180 was a catalyst that provided insight into these questions. The first lesson of its accompanying Stage B rBook deals with the topic of immigration and is titled "The New Americans." The book describes an immigrant as "a person who moves from one country to another" (Scholastic, 2005, p. 9). On the surface, such a definition accurately reflects the background of the ESOL students who come to the United States from their native countries. However, of the three students I interviewed, none of them considered themselves to be an "American immigrant." Their responses surprised me and challenged my own assumptions as well. I found these students' perceptions fascinating, and I think that knowing and understanding these perceptions could provide ESOL teachers with some new inspiration to address the issue of immigrants and immigration in the United States.


Myra emigrated from Puerto Rico in 2002 with her family. She stated that she knew little English before coming to the United States and that her mother had hired a tutor to help her learn English when she first arrived. I asked Myra, "How do you feel about immigrants here in the United States?"

My question seemed to confuse her. She said, "I don't know if I am considered an immigrant 'cause Puerto Rico is kind of a territory of the USA."

I continued, "So you consider yourself a U.S. citizen?"

She replied, "Yeah, 'cause some [people from other] countries don't have the privilege traveling from here to there, from another country to here, so they have to get a passport, but we don't have to get passport to come here."

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, Myra is indeed a U.S. citizen and not an immigrant, unlike what Scholastic's definition might indicate. Her answer revealed how she perceived herself to be a U.S. citizen rather than an immigrant and was aware of the "privilege" that afforded her. In short, she did not need to go through the painstaking process of adjusting her status, as many newcomers do, from immigrant to citizen. Her use of the word privilege seems to suggest that being a U.S. citizen is more powerful and affords a higher social status than being an immigrant.


Like Myra, Andres noted that he was not an American immigrant. He emigrated from Chile with his parents in 2007 so that his father could pursue a doctorate at a U.S. university. The family planned to stay in the United States for at least 4 years, the time required for his father to complete the degree. Andres, then, was a visitor, or temporary immigrant with the intent of returning to his home country.

He revealed that he was confused by some U.S. citizens who called their country "America." He said, "When I got here, they say, 'Welcome to America!' Back into my country, we say South America, North America." When he saw the "Welcome to America" sign at the border, he was confused. "I don't get it. Why do they say that United States is America? I was born in America. I don’t get this stuff."

On the topic of his awareness of the political relationship between the United States and Chile, Andres said, "They [U.S. citizens] should say 'United States,' not 'America.' It makes us, our country, like, a little bit, like, lower. . . . I really don't want to [be a U.S. citizen] 'cause I got my country. My culture. My style." Through his words, I learned that Andres has maintained his cultural identity as a Chilean and as a South American, not as a "new American," because he was "born in America." Andres was disturbed by people using "the U.S." and "America" interchangeably, which the READ 180 textbook did as well. His self-awareness of the need to distinguish these two terms indicates how he negotiates his identity as a Chilean and South American.

Xiao Nan

Like the first two students, the third student did not perceive himself to be an American immigrant. Just recently, in 2008, Xiao Nan had arrived from China with his mother, a visiting scholar at a nearby university. From my observations and interviews, Xiao Nan was highly motivated to learn English. When I asked him about his status as a newcomer, he said, "I don’t think I am an immigrant."

Xiao Nan perceived immigrants as people who lived in a new country for a lengthy period of time. He did not consider himself part of this group because he knew he was only in the United States for 1 year and would then move back to China. Like Andres, he was a visitor, or temporary immigrant. However, he indicated that he might one day return to the United States to attend college. At that time, he would consider himself an immigrant because his stay would be longer, perhaps permanent. Xiao Nan's words challenged me to rethink the definition of immigrant, recognizing it as a fluid and complicated term, unlike its dictionary definition. What is meant by "permanently"? One year? Four years?

A Lesson on "Immigrants"

Based on their experiences and responses to their own immigration status, Myra, Andres, and Xiao Nan have shown that the meanings of immigrant and America are culturally and political shaped. One implicit message in the students' remarks is that these terms (particularly for Andres) position them as vulnerable or as a dominated group; all three students wanted their individual, unique, and reflective identities to be made clear, rather than to be categorized as "immigrants." Indeed, their responses to the questions in my study represent their own cultural identities and their understanding of the political implications of a word.

As educators, we may assume that all newcomer students are "immigrant." However, it is clear now that their experiences are varied and unique. This recognition contrasts with definitions and descriptions of immigrants in textbooks and software programs such as READ 180. Teachers should keep in mind that concepts such as "immigrant" or "America" are not objective and static; rather, they are subjective, dynamic, and relative to each student's cultural experiences. Discussing these concepts with students can be a great opportunity for teachers to understand ESOL students' perceptions and experiences in the United States. Teachers would be wise to understand and respect how students perceive their immigrant status, because Andres and Xiao Nan represent a majority of ESOL students who come to the United States without pursuing citizenship. They may maintain a stronger sense of identity related to their home country and culture than those who consider themselves U.S. citizens, such as Myra.

Finally, regardless of whether they perceive themselves as immigrants in "America," the path of fitting in, especially for middle school students, is similar because each has left his or her home country to come to the United States. They not only seek to maintain their own sense of language and culture but have a strong motivation to learn English in order to build on their friendships with others.


King, D. S. (2000). Making Americans: Immigration, race, and the origins of the diverse democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Scholastic. (2005). READ 180 stage B rBook: Pupil's edition. New York: Author.

Chiu-Hui Wu ( is a doctoral student at the University of Florida, in the United States.