Skip to content

Immigrants’ social networks

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.

– by Matt Collette

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish