New Center for Equity Promotion looks at immigrant families in crisis

Oregon is among 22 U.S. states that have experienced recent and dramatic increases in immigrant populations. Among the obstacles immigrant parents face is unfamiliarity with English, as well as U.S. cultural norms.

The children often quickly embrace their new lives, and that often leads to stresses within families. The challenges that new families face not only put them at risk for any number of challenges, they also strain educational, health care and social systems.

Identifying and understanding the family and community dynamics that result from this rapid sociodemographic change, and then addressing them describes the underlying mission of the University of Oregon's new Center for Equity Promotion. A goal is to learn how to best support families and systems with evidence-inspired interventions.

The center is in the College of Education and directed by Charles Martinez, associate professor in the Department of Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership and former UO vice president for Institutional Equity and Diversity.

While the center is new, the research and practices involved have a long-running history developed during the center's roots at the independent Oregon Social Learning Center, which was founded in Lane County in 1977 and dedicated to science designed to improve the lives of children and families. It's just that Martinez and long-time colleagues, including research associate Heather McClure, now have integrated their team's work fully into the UO, where they can better collaborate with UO faculty and students.

The aim of the Center for Equity Promotion (CEQP) is to "foster the positive development of children and families, particularly those who are underserved by educational, health care and social service systems," Martinez says.

While the center is designed to address health and educational disparities affecting a broad range of diverse and underserved communities, the team has established specialized expertise in addressing challenges faced by Latino immigrant families.

A large proportion of the immigrant population moving into the 22 states in the last two decades is Latino — mostly from Mexico but also from other Latin American countries. The stresses that Martinez and McClure are finding appear to be part of an emerging phenomenon that is little studied and expressed surprisingly differently than in the six U.S. states with long histories of immigration: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York and New Jersey.

Many new immigrants are moving into states that aren't used to accommodating them or simply unprepared for the rapidly changing demographic conditions. Many Latino parents are coming from very rural areas in Latin America, speak Spanish or an indigenous language, and are now raising children who are born as U.S. citizens and grow up educated in English. That dimension alone can set up generational turmoil within families. These often intensify when trying to navigate the mazes of education, health care and other assistance.

"Immigration populations have grown, and the implications of this growth are really profound in these 22 states that are not traditional, immigrant-settled states," McClure says. These new states include Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Iowa and several states in the Midwest and Southeast.

Leaders and practitioners in many of these states, Martinez says, are turning to research like his and McClure's as they seek to revamp their policies and explore interventions that refine their systems so they benefit these newcomer families.

Recent research led by Martinez and McClure, for example, show a number of dimensions that have surfaced in states where immigration issues are acute:

• Immigrant families, particularly those who are more recent arrivals to states like Oregon, experience substantial challenges in the process of adapting to life in the U.S. that can negative impact their adjustment.

In a study published in 2011 in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, they examined how differences in time-in-residency for Latino immigrant parents and middle-school students (ranging from 1 to 12 years) led to different patterns of vulnerability for family stress, poor parental adjustment, erosion of strong parenting practices, and youth substance and behavioral problems.

Unlike many studies conducted in traditional settlement states, the study found that among Oregon immigrant families those parents who were the most recent arrivals had the greatest challenges in terms of their own adjustment and parenting practices. Among middle-school youth, parents reported that those who had lived in the U.S. for shorter periods of time had fewer behavior problems and less depression and/or anxiety. Yet, youth who had lived in the U.S. for longer periods of time also reported more vulnerability for alcohol and other substance use.

• Adolescents in these emerging growth states are more likely to be under stress than are those in the traditional states when it comes to language brokering, the situation where children may translate language and cultural information about the U.S. for their parents.

In a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Early Adolescence, they examined the consequences for family well-being when parents were linguistically isolated and relied on their child for translating community interactions such as in school or medical settings or banks, which could involve sensitive information.

They found higher levels of stress in families where children had to interpret for non-English-speaking parents than in families where one parent speaks English. The differences were seen in higher parent and youth depression and stresses, poorer school outcomes and higher likelihood of youth drug use.

The findings were surprising, Martinez says, because research in other states had showed several positive consequences for youth involved in language brokering. Not so in Oregon, where youth may be among the few people in high-stakes settings who not only are bilingual but capable of navigating cultural differences.

To deal with such issues, Martinez says, social context is vital.

"We must put the experiences of the children and the families into the social context of their communities," he says. "What is happening that promotes or hinders better outcomes?"

In addressing those questions, the researchers have demonstrated that strong parenting is key to supporting better outcomes for children and families.

"Our basic and applied intervention studies have shown repeatedly that parents are the most important ingredient in promoting healthy outcomes for families," Martinez says. "Parents can be stripped of their sense of influence in their children's lives during the immigration process. If we can bolster the naturally protective factors that families bring through our interventions, we can prevent many of the most-serious problems from emerging."

That is exactly what the team has done with Nuestras Familias (Our Families), a culturally specific parenting-intervention program. It has improved the outcomes for Latino parents and children in multiple studies, and is now the centerpiece of an effort to embed these intervention practices into schools throughout Oregon.  

The Center for Equity Promotion pursues its mission through five core areas of emphasis: research, methodology, community engagement, turning research knowledge into practical interventions, and providing education and mentorship to both undergraduate and graduate students.