Immigrant and Refugee Youth

Immigrant and Refugee YouthImmigrant and refugee youth (IRY) are the fastest growing group of children in the United Statesi and research suggests these young people often face many challenges as they adapt to American culture and strive to succeed in a new environment. While IRY’s experiences differ greatly based on myriad factors, including whether they are undocumented or have had exposure to long-term persecution or war, many face common obstacles such as language barriers, discrimination in their new communities, and difficulty adjusting to new educational and social settings. Furthermore, many IRY adapt more quickly to the resettlement country’s language and culture than their parents or guardians, prompting them to assume adult-like responsibilities like translating important conversations and mail for the adults in their lives. This can cause friction in the family and leave youth feeling like they must fill adult roles.

In theory, mentoring relationships can play an important role in nurturing and supporting IRY’s experiences, increasing their assets, and mitigating the challenges they face. In addition to the traditional supports mentors offer all mentees, mentors of IRY have the unique opportunity to introduce mentees to, and guide them through, new settings, systems, and cultural norms. For example, mentors can help IRY and their families navigate the educational system, locate English-learning opportunities, and connect with other resources, such as public transportation and the library.

What does the research say about mentoring for immigrant and refugee youth?

In 2016, the National Mentoring Resource Center released a review of the research base related to mentoring for first-generation (FG) IRY. This review examined research on the effectiveness, mechanisms of influence, and implementation of efforts to date to improve the lives of IRY. The research available was limited in scope. It did provide, however, the basis for “some preliminary conclusions about mentoring as provided to this population of youth,” including evidence that:

  • Both formal and informal mentoring may be beneficial for facilitating acculturation and social integration to the new country and promoting academic and school engagement among FG-IRY.
  • Benefits of mentoring for FG-IRY may accrue, in part, as a result of mentoring facilitating their acculturation, social integration, and school success, wherein mentors act as cultural and system translators and interpreters.
  • School-based mentoring programs that address the specific needs of FG-IRY have the potential to promote academic success and integration into the new culture through relationships with teachers, school personnel, and peers.
  • Both same- and cross-cultural mentoring relationships can be beneficial for FG-IRY, although mentor training and cultural competence of mentors may influence the quality of mentoring relationships.

The review is accompanied by recommendations for how practitioners could enhance their programmatic practices for mentoring FG-IRY taking into account available research. It was suggested that practitioners:

  • Carefully consider the nuanced needs and specific cultural backgrounds of the mentees and families they wish to serve and cater services accordingly.
  • Think carefully about who should serve as mentors, including whether mentors need to be bilingual/bicultural and whether mentors will be adults or peers.
  • Acknowledge that, in many ways, success in school seems to be key in helping FG-IRY thrive more generally in their new country.

Beyond these highlights, this review offers a wealth of research-based information and actionable ideas for those looking to begin to serve FG-IRY more intentionally in their programs or, if they are already doing so, to strengthen existing practices.

What does the NMRC offer on mentoring for immigrant and refugee youth?

Broad Evidence Reviews

Reviews of Relevant Practices

  • Offering support for mentees’ families may strengthen mentoring programs serving immigrant and refugee youth. Read the practice review of Family Support and insights for practitioners.
  • Mentors serving immigrant or refugee youth may benefit from training to strengthen their cultural competence. Read the practice review of Mentor Training for Cultural Competence and insights for practitioners.

Blog Posts


  • Mentoring Immigrant Youth: Supportive Relationships for Newcomer Youth
  • Cultural and Class Conflict in Mentoring Matches: Strategies for Building the Culturally Competent Mentoring Organization and Professional

Implementation Resources

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)’s Investments in Mentoring
for Immigrant and Refugee Youth

Many of the youth mentoring grantees and other programs funded by OJJDP serve immigrant and refugee youth in diverse capacities. In 2000, OJJDP and its federal partners in the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services launched a program called Safe Startii which sought to improve outcomes for children exposed to violence. In 2011, Safe Start released a tip sheet entitled “Trauma Informed Care for Children Exposed to Violence: Tips for Agencies Working with Immigrant Families,” which provides information and recommendations to help programs respond to the specific needs of immigrant families with regard to trauma and exposure to violence.

Select Additional Reading

Hernandez, D. J., Denton, N. A., & Macartney, S. E. (2008). Children in immigrant families: Looking to America’s future. Social Policy Report, 22, 1–22. Retrieved from

ii  Safe Start: Promising Approaches Communities: Improving Outcomes for Children Exposed to Violence. (2013). Retrieved from

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