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Where we live, why and how it matters

Wright tracks immigrant assimilation by studying households

Professor of Geography Richard Wright is studying the makeup of households to take a new look at how immigrants settle in to American society.

Richard Wright
Richard Wright's new study finds that who immigrants live with, not their incomes, explains their geographical dispersion. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"Previous research on immigrant assimilation tended to emphasize the distinctive settlement patterns of individuals," said Wright. "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 appeared 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 50 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 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," said 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 makes evident 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, 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," said 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."


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Last Updated: 12/17/08