The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Low-Income Mexican Immigrant Youth in the Suburbs and the Bumpy Road to a Diploma

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 5:30 PM
Nautilus 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Benjamin Roth, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Since the 1990s there has been a significant shift in the geography of immigrant settlement in the U.S. Across all major metro areas, for example, the majority of immigrants now live in suburbs rather than central cities. Adapting to life in the U.S. can be difficult for immigrants regardless of where they settle, and the suburbs are no different. Indeed, recent studies of low-income, first-generation immigrant adults in the suburbs have found that they face numerous challenges to incorporation including poverty, discrimination, and abusive working conditions. Yet little research has focused on their children, the immigrant second generation, and how they are fairing in suburbia.

Prominent sociological theories concerning the immigrant second generation suggest that members of some ethnic groups are at higher risk for certain negative outcomes—such as dropping out of high school—that can interrupt development and future possibilities of economic mobility (Portes & Rumbaut 2001). Scholars agree that Mexican second-generation youth are more vulnerable than their peers from other immigrant groups, but it is unclear how the suburban context conditions this adaptive process. Therefore, this paper answers the following questions about Mexican second-generation youth in the suburbs: (1) What barriers do they face to basic developmental milestones? (2) What types of social and institutional resources enable them to achieve these milestones? and (3) How do they access those resources?


Data for this paper come from 30 in-depth interviews with a sample of low-income Mexican second-generation male respondents (ages 18 – 25) who graduated from high school. Respondents were recruited using a “snowball” method with several different starts to avoid sampling from the same network. Social support data were collected using a hierarchical mapping technique that other researchers have found to be an effective tool for gathering network data from youth. Transcribed interviews were coded and analyzed with the assistance of qualitative data analysis software.


My sample of Mexican second-generation youth faced several key obstacles to educational attainment. These include factors such as social isolation and racial discrimination, as well as resource availability—particularly a dearth of youth-serving programs—and a lack of information about college. Social capital was a common mechanism by which these youth overcame barriers to educational attainment. However, social capital formation for youth in my sample did not inhere in ethnic social networks, and was conditioned by their suburban context. These findings complicate segmented assimilation theory’s predictions regarding prescribed adaptive pathways, and offer fresh insights into growing up poor in suburbia.


This paper builds on what we know about poverty and immigrant integration in the suburbs. Findings contribute to our understanding of the adaptive process of immigrant youth; the role of social capital in the lives of Mexican immigrant adolescents; and how social capital formation and immigrant integration are conditioned by the suburban context. Findings will be useful to policymakers and social work practitioners who address issues related to immigrant integration, community and youth development, and the educational achievement gap, especially in the suburbs.