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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

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