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3Qs: Immigrants build social networks to achieve American ideals

Silvia Dominguez is an assistant professor of sociology and human services in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and is also on the faculty of Northeastern’s Institute on Urban Health Research, where she focuses on international migration and race and ethnic relations. She spent more than two years with immigrant women living in public housing in two Boston neighborhoods. The experience led her to publish a book this year – “Getting Ahead: Social Mobility, Public Housing and Immigrant Networks” – on those women’s ability to build social networks to advance themselves and their families. Dominguez, a Chilean immigrant to the United States, said she hoped her book would debunk myths and provide a better understanding of how immigrants work to escape poverty.

View selected publications of Silvia Dominguez in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

What did you learn about the real-world social networks of Latin-American female immigrants in the United States?

I’m interested in social mobility and I study social networks. Therefore, I paid attention to the way that the women negotiated networks to get ahead and get support in part to rear their children in the best way possible. You can look at networks as a way of providing both support and leverage. Support allows people to get everything they need on a daily basis; these are people who can pick up your children if you can’t, give you a ride if you need one or keep your child after school while you’re working. Leverage refers to the people who can actually offer you the opportunities to get ahead.

What was really interesting about what I found with these Latin American immigrants in public housing was that they had heterogeneity in their networks. That is very unusual and not consistent with the general population of people who live in poverty, who are generally socially isolated, and who only have access to others like themselves. For the most part, the immigrant women knew people like them – first- and second-generation immigrants – but they also had relationships with African-Americans and white- Americans, a trend that was pretty pervasive. This heterogeneity was further exemplified in that they had many family members who were getting ahead, who were going to school or were already in good paying jobs. All of these connections help open up new opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them.

You say some members of a social network act as a “bridge” that connects two groups that might otherwise never connect. How do these relationships benefit poor immigrants?

A bridge is a type of person who can connect dissimilar groups. An example from my research would be an Irish-American service provider in South Boston who consciously opens up opportunities for immigrants that might otherwise be available exclusively to whites who are longtime community members. These people who act as bridges are pivotal in terms of opening opportunities for immigrants who are newly integrated into a community.  And more often than not, these bridges are acting on their own; they are not told by their own organization that they need to do this. Instead, they have a consciousness of their own that they use to integrate the community and make resources more available to the minority population

What sets poor new immigrants apart from poor Americans whose families have long ties to the United States?

One of the things that helps immigrants get ahead is this cognitive frame based on what I call “the narrative of the struggle of immigrants.” And the narrative goes like this: If you’re a second-generation immigrant, you say, “My parents worked really hard and they struggled to come here so I could have a better life and better opportunities.” If you’re a first-generation immigrant, you usually say, “We struggled so that our children would be better off.” That frame is a big motivator to keep working toward moving to a better life.

That’s different from native-born populations, for whom that struggle is not part of their experience. One could say that the last time African-Americans had connections to a mobilizing struggle was during the civil rights movement. For many in native-born, low-income populations, families stay in poverty and in public housing for generations, while many immigrants see public housing as a component of their mobility negotiation. They work hard to keep moving forward and, in the case of the women I followed in my research, many have already moved out of public housing and into homes of their own. If you’re conscious that your parents worked so hard and struggled so much to bring you here, you want to give justification to that struggle.

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