A Dream Deferred

The kids of immigrants find there's no straight path to American success

Christine, now 32, never suspected that her parents would have trouble bankrolling her college tuition. They'd immigrated from South Korea to New York in the late 1960s and launched a printing company with the help of family and friends. Giddy about the company's rapid rise, they bought a house on a quarter-acre lot in Westchester, not far from where Bill and Hillary Clinton now live. They leased a Mercedes and a BMW and spent lavishly on their children, who were expected to go out into the American economy as strivers and achievers.

But during her freshman year at a liberal-arts college, Christine received a letter saying that a balance of $24,000 in tuition was way past due. Her parents' company was tanking. "It would be one thing if I knew about it," she says. "But they kept their financial troubles secret and told me never to worry about money. It was such a blow."

She dropped out of that college in 1991 and enrolled in a state school, where she scraped by with a Pell grant and $11,000 in loans. Meanwhile, her parents slipped further down the ladder, moving to Atlanta and buying a small bagel shop. Her father hired local white kids from the neighborhood and hid in the back room, so customers wouldn't know that Koreans owned the store. It still flopped. Forced to give up everything, her parents went from owning their own bustling company to peddling hip-hop clothes at flea markets.

Now, in addition to her $11,000 in student loans and credit card debt, Christine has taken on $10,000 of her parents' debt. "In Korean families, children's money is not separate from parents' money. It's all in one pool. I'm sure if my parents were rich, they would have been generous if I was hard up," she says. Their debt would be easy to pay off had she gone to law school and worked at a corporate law firm. But she was too scared to risk the $100,000 in loans she'd need for school. So she stuck to dead-end jobs: a string of temp positions, a gig as an assistant at a museum, $8 an hour in a frame shop.

Today she earns $38,000 as an administrative assistant, enough to cover her rent and debt payments, but hardly enough to live out the American dream her parents uprooted their lives for.

Newcomers to the States a half-century ago used to be able to work their way up through manufacturing jobs to higher-paying positions, expecting their children to go further still, into white-collar work. But with the nation's manufacturing base shriveling, the more recent wave of immigrants, and their young-adult children, face an economy that has been described as shaped like an hourglass. On top are the well-paying professional jobs. On bottom are the meagerly paid service jobs. The middle—formerly the stratum of skilled union jobs, among others—is uncomfortably tight.

"The new immigrants are in a very real race against time to jump from entry-level jobs, pass through that narrow center of the hourglass, and reach the professional mainstream," wrote sociologists Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut in Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation. "[I]ncreasingly, many second-generation children do not make it because of the shape of that economy."

Children of working-class immigrants must now, in the span of a few years, cross the educational gap that might once have taken several generations to bridge. Much depends on how educated the parents were, whether they came from professional backgrounds in their home countries or toiled in menial labor.

Second-generation immigrants account for nearly a third of New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 32, and a whopping 63 percent of New Yorkers under the age of 18. As a whole, the children of immigrants outperform their native-born counterparts in school. "Immigrants don't normally have a safety net. They study harder because they know they can't screw up, otherwise they won't make it," says Rumbaut. "But when they leave for college, financial constraints kick in. Even though their work ethic is high, they have to work full-time while supporting themselves in school. Many of them also have the obligation to help out their families. It starts taking a toll and they start dropping out."

As the middle class shrinks in size and ambition, the children of working-class immigrants are finding it harder to live up to their parents' expectations. Take the experience of Jeffrey Rosales, a 33-year-old Mexican American who works at Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a nonprofit that brings the arts to public schools. Rosales graduated with $33,000 in debt, an amount that's hardly unusual for his generation, but for previous generations would have meant you'd bought something large and tangible, like a place to live. He's gotten his loans down to $12,000.

"I'm the first one to have gone to college, and my parents are shocked that I'm not making six figures," he says. "They're shocked that I now make the same amount as they do. They actually did better. At the age of 26, they owned property and a car. Right now, all I'm saving up for is an iPod."

The national rise in student debt—average undergraduate borrowing tops $20,000—has hiked the price of admission to mainstream, white-collar America. Twenty-four-year-old José (not his real name), exudes determination when he talks about his passion: flying. The Puerto Rican borrowed the money to attend the Aeronautical University in Florida, a private college, and to get private lessons for a pilot's license.

Two years out of college, this son of a barber and a former postal worker owes over $100,000. He spent 2003 cleaning toilets and vacuuming airplanes in a Westchester airport, for $15,000 a year, before moving up to $18,000 a year as a flight instructor on Long Island. "I wish I could go back to graduation day and say, 'Give me my money back,' " he says.

But recently, José finally landed his first job as a commercial pilot, and in some ways, he doesn't seem fazed by his loans. When you're six digits in the red, the debt becomes an abstraction. "These white kids have the connections, which I think matters more now than education," he says. "I had to start from scratch."

So did Derrick Cruz, 32, a graphic designer, who spent much of his early childhood in Puerto Rico. He was raised by his grandparents and went to school in a classroom with dirt floors. As an adult, he juggled a data-entry job and schooling, taking eight years to earn a degree from Eastern Carolina University. He also married and had a child. Even with $35,000 debt, Cruz was lucky to have graduated during the late '90s; he immediately scored a designer job in Miami, at $42,000 a year. Hedging his bets, he moved to Hoboken on September 1, 2001, ready to take advantage of the boom economy. He has hung on ever since, right through New York City's steep downturn and tenuous recovery.

Cruz says that for second-generation kids, the measure of success isn't necessarily clear. "They don't compare themselves to their parents," he says. "They compare themselves to the best thing, the best life-style. So I compare myself to the best designer or who has the best pad. You don't have the same expectations as your parents."

At 32, he feels that adulthood has just begun, a sentiment that might surprise older immigrant parents. "I have friends who are in the same situation as me. We have a deadline, March 3, 2005," he says, and smiles. "Look out for me."

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