Dartmouth researcher tracks how immigrants fit in by studying household configurations

October 17, 2005

HANOVER, NH - A Dartmouth researcher is studying the makeup of households to take a new look at how immigrants settle in to American society.

"Previous research on immigrant assimilation tended to emphasize the distinctive settlement patterns of individuals," says Richard Wright, Dartmouth geography professor. "We wanted to shift attention to relationships between individuals. Using households, we could study who immigrants lived with so we could analyze immigrant settlement patterns in new ways."

With support from the National Science Foundation, Wright worked with Mark Ellis, a professor of geography at the University of Washington. Their study appears in the Oct. 17 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers identified seven types of immigrant households using different combinations of immigrant generations present in them. For example, foreign-born individuals not only form households with other newcomers, they can also be found in a home with second- and third-generation immigrants. Each household type expressed a different pattern of settlement across the fifty states.

Wright and Ellis explain that, generally, it's assumed that assimilating into society is connected to where foreign-born immigrants live, and that economic improvement drives this geographic dispersion. In other words, better jobs lead to better neighborhoods and better housing with better amenities. In this study, however, they found that generational status, not income, has the most effect on immigrant dispersion.

"Immigrant households with more than one generation in them have very different patterns of geographic dispersion than households containing only the foreign-born or only the second generation," says Wright. "Put differently, with whom immigrants live better explains where immigrants live than does household income."

Another important aspect of the research challenges the current ideas about where immigrants live. The mapping and tracking of individuals promotes their social distinctiveness. Mapping various types of households containing immigrants, however, blurs this impression. For example, although "immigrant gateway" states like California, New York, and Florida stand out in terms of the concentration of immigrants there, the six New England states contain notable concentrations of households comprised of only second and third generation people.

"Census and other demographic data first and foremost count and categorize individuals," says Wright. "When we shift to focus on relationships between individuals, we show that the settlement patterns of immigrant households are far more complex and varied than maps that dwell exclusively on the foreign-born. States where immigrant populations are more likely to share multi-generational households may find that the socio-cultural and economic adjustment of immigrants is easier. These states may also be relatively infertile grounds for nativist anxieties about immigration compared to states in which immigrants live isolated in single-generation households."

Dartmouth College

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