The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Finding Pathways Through the Sprawl: Mexican Immigrant You and Coming of Age in the Suburbs

Friday, January 17, 2014: 9:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 103B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Benjamin Roth, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

There are over 40 million immigrants in the US today, and their children represent the fastest growing segment of youth under age 18. Immigrants are now more likely to live in the suburbs than in central cities, yet we know little about immigrant youth and the transition to adulthood in these contexts. This paper focuses on the social mobility pathways of the children of Mexican immigrants in the suburbs. Why are some getting ahead, while others fall behind? How—if at all—does the suburban context condition their opportunities for mobility?

Immigrant youth from some ethnic groups are successfully navigating high school and headed to college, but others have a higher risk of dropping out of high school. Mexican immigrants are by far the largest US immigrant group, and their children have lower rates of mobility relative to their peers from other ethnic groups. Mexican immigrant youth face many barriers to mobility, including immigration status. Many live in mixed-status families with at least one member who is undocumented, for example, and social mobility prospects are further attenuated for Mexican immigrant youth who are undocumented themselves.

Data and Methods

Data for this paper come from in-depth interviews with 45 low-income Mexican second-generation young men (ages 18 - 25) in two Chicago suburbs. The stratified sample includes individuals who graduated from high school and others who dropped out. The majority of respondents are undocumented or come from mixed-status families. Respondents were recruited using a "snowball" method with several different starts to avoid sampling from the same network. Social network data were collected using a hierarchical mapping technique that other researchers have found to be an effective tool for gathering network data from minority youth. Transcribed interviews were coded and analyzed with the assistance of qualitative data analysis software.



The Mexican immigrant young men in this study face numerous barriers to educational attainment, despite growing up in two of the wealthiest counties in the country. These barriers include legal status, racial discrimination, poverty, and gang activity—all factors anticipated by contemporary theories of immigrant integration. However, I find that these young men are following multiple pathways to adulthood that call into question assumptions that Mexican immigrant youth are all assimilating “downwards”. I also explore social ties and institutional embeddedness as key mechanisms that influence mobility.


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 youth; and how social capital formation and immigrant integration are conditioned by the suburban context. Findings will be useful to policymakers and practitioners who address issues related to immigrant integration, community and youth development, and the educational achievement gap, especially in the suburbs.