Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15959 Immigrant Integration Outside the Urban Enclave: The Role of Local Organizations In Two Suburban Communities

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 8:30 AM
Independence C (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Benjamin Roth, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

In the past two decades new immigrants from Latin America and Asia have increasingly settled in non-traditional “gateway” areas throughout the U.S., including many suburbs (Singer 2004). This trend has renewed debate among scholars about the processes of immigrant incorporation outside the urban ethnic enclave (Lewis & Ramakrishnan 2007; Jones-Correa 2008). How do new immigrants adapt socially and economically when they settle in the suburbs?

Theories of immigrant incorporation suggest that local organizations can facilitate immigrant incorporation, but empirical studies that use or test these theories often rely on data from ethnic neighborhoods in central cities. These studies suggest that urban organizations such as churches, schools, and nonprofit social services can provide an important social space where immigrants interact with established residents (Lamphere 1992) and function as a “buffer” against economic systems that are unwelcoming to immigrant newcomers (Breton 1964). Yet few studies have explored how—and the extent to which—these organizations serve this function for immigrants in the suburbs.

This paper addresses this gap by drawing on data from case studies of two Chicago suburbs that are home to Mexican immigrant newcomers. The paper is driven by two questions:

(1) What challenges do suburban nonprofits encounter when providing services for new immigrants?

(2) What strategies do nonprofits use to meet the service needs of immigrants in these contexts? How effective are these strategies?

Method and Data

Data for this paper come from 40 in-depth interviews conducted with nonprofit service providers and other stakeholders in two Chicago suburbs. These data are one component of my dissertation research. Nonprofit entities were purposively sampled from 2009 IRS 990 data and United Way provider directories. Hour-long interviews were conducted with key informants (from November 2010 to March 2011). They were then transcribed and coded for relevant themes using nVivo, a qualitative data analysis software.


Suburban context presents barriers to immigrant integration: (a) a lack of public transportation that links immigrants to service delivery points; (b) the fear Mexican immigrants have of engaging local organizations; and (c) a lack of organizational capacity to meet the service demands of immigrant families.

Organizational networks have formed in both communities to address these challenges. They are comprised of nonprofit service providers, libraries, churches, schools, local park and recreation departments, and business establishments. Each network's approach to immigrant integration is distinct because they have adapted to key contextual and historical characteristics of their respective municipal contexts.

Conclusions and Implications

This paper provides further empirical evidence of Breton's (1964) theory of local organizations as “buffers” for new immigrants, but builds on this framework by identifying certain limits—and benefits—posed by the suburban context. This paper challenges local service providers and policymakers to consider key contextual factors shaping immigrant incorporation in the suburbs. It also emphasizes the role of organizational networks and the way these networks respond to—and are influenced by—local context.