GSE News

Understanding New Immigrant Communities

By Stanton E.F. Wortham

As has often been noted, the United States has a conflicted attitude toward immigration. The idea of people from other lands coming to America in search of a new and better life is perhaps the most essential component of the national ethos. Especially in times of increased immigration, however, many Americans also resist what they perceive as non-American influences.

Recent trends have brought the issue to the forefront of public policy discussions, in part because of a shift in the characteristics of immigration. Although major metropolitan areas and most parts of the Southwest are accustomed to the steady arrival of newcomers, the last 15 years have seen an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants into rural and suburban areas that have not previously been home to Latinos-a phenomenon that has been called "The New Latino Diaspora." Between 1990 and 2000, Latino immigration to New Diaspora sites rose 130 percent, compared to a 50 percent increase in areas of traditional Latino settlement, with an accompanying shift from seasonal migration by a predominantly male workforce to more permanent residence by family units.

In conjunction with several Penn GSE colleagues,* I have been working for several years in New Marshall, a suburb that has experienced the same surge in Mexican immigrants that has been taking place in similar towns over the last decade. Unlike many other towns, however, New Marshall has received this wave of immigrants with more grace and in some ways more success.

The national media tell the story of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, with its aggressive legislation against illegal immigrants, but rarely feature places, like New Marshall, where both residents and institutions are more welcoming. We believe that New Marshall reacts this way because of its history as a transportation crossroads that has hosted many waves of immigrants and domestic migrants. The schools, the police, the government, and other institutions may not be invariably friendly, but they are often more welcoming than in similar towns. To balance the accounts of us-vs.-them reactions to immigrants that dominate national discourse, the stories of places like New Marshall should be told.

Many analyses of immigration focus on immigrants' material situations, but ideas also matter to the future of immigrants and their host communities. How immigrants imagine themselves has an important influence on where and how they work and on the futures they aspire to. Host community accounts of and reactions to immigrants are also crucial, because hosts' views shape the opportunities afforded to immigrants and immigrants often respond in kind. Our project explores the models of identity developing in a town that until recently had no history of Mexican immigration. Compared to areas of longstanding Latino settlement, and compared to many other immigrant destinations like Hazleton, New Marshall offers more flexible models of identity for immigrants, models that should afford them greater opportunities. Institutions are also important, of course, and we have spent time with educators, police, clergy, and others who shape both models of immigrant identity and the practical realities they face in daily life.

In areas of longstanding immigrant settlement, stereotypes about immigrant groups have generally become entrenched. Where the lines between communities are firmly drawn, immigrants often face stark choices between assimilation and resistance. In many areas of more recent immigrant settlement, polarizing stereotypes circulated by mass media have also penetrated deeply. In other places, however, models of immigrant identity are less entrenched. In places like New Marshall, Mexican and other immigrants face both more ignorance and more opportunity than in areas of traditional Latino presence. Such host communities know less about immigrant cultures and have less expertise in serving their needs. In addition, fewer second- or third-generation immigrants are available as models and helpers. But these towns also have less entrenched prejudices against newcomers. Because these communities are very early in the historical process of imagining immigrants' identities and trajectories, immigrants sometimes have more flexibility in defining themselves. Such locations offer opportunities to develop new models about who immigrants can aspire to be and to illustrate how host communities and immigrants can more productively live together.

A suburb of 30,000, New Marshall has attracted thousands of Mexican immigrants who work mostly in landscaping, construction, retail, and restaurants. Along with a shrinking majority white community, a large African American community has long resided here, many descended from migrants who left the South in the first half of the 20th century and came to work in local industry. Several waves of European and other immigrants also settled here, including Irish who migrated in the 19th century, Italians who came in the middle of the 20th century, and smaller groups of Puerto Rican, South Asian, and Caribbean newcomers. The distribution of racial groups changed dramatically between 1990 and 2000-from 71 percent white, 26 percent African-American, and 3 percent Latino to 54 percent white, 35 percent African-American, and 11 percent Latino. Many white residents left for adjacent suburbs, while the Mexican population grew dramatically-going from under 0.5 percent of the local population to more than six percent. These figures do not include undocumented immigrants, and Latinos are probably approaching 20 percent of the total population. Since 2000, there has been a new wave of Mexican immigration, as in many similar communities, with an increase of over 50 percent.

Although it sits in one of the most affluent counties in the metropolitan area, New Marshall is significantly poorer than surrounding suburbs. About 17 percent of documented residents live below the poverty level, and inclusion of the thousands of undocumented Mexican immigrants would raise this figure considerably. The town faces high rates of poverty, crime, and low educational achievement. In 2004-2005, the graduation rate for Latino students was 58 percent, compared to 82 percent for African Americans and 87 percent for whites. More than half of Latino students scored below basic on standardized tests, compared with a third of black students and 15 percent of whites. African Americans and Latinos live in the poorest neighborhoods. As in other New Latino Diaspora towns, the arrival of many new, young residents of working age has brought welcome revival to a struggling downtown, but some long-term residents have reacted with hostility.

Communities like New Marshall are in periods of rapid historical change. We do not know whether these towns will embrace newcomers as bringing revitalization, reject them as dangerous and expensive interlopers, or some other alternative. Nor do we know whether immigrants and hosts will conceive of newcomers as like some hosts' own immigrant ancestors, like longstanding "underclass" minorities, or like something else entirely. In order to better understand the problems and prospects of Mexican immigrants in places like New Marshall-and in order to help schools as they struggle to help immigrant children-we have focused one aspect of our work on three types of stories: stories about interethnic relations and the historical trajectory of the town, stories about Mexicans as students, and stories about what counts as academic success.

Community Stories

Because Latino immigrants are unfamiliar in New Marshall, hosts and newcomers often do not use entrenched stereotypes when they imagine what the immigrants have done and will do to the character of the town. Both residents and immigrants draw upon a range of characterizations, often combining models of identity in unique ways, as they include immigrants in their narratives about the town. We have collected people's stories about the community's past, present, and future-stories that often reveal how residents imagine newcomers will contribute to or impede their aspirations for the town. These individual figurations take place against the backdrop of two competing characterizations put forth in mass media-immigrants as industrious people seeking "the American Dream" of opportunity or as foreign elements stealing jobs and threatening American culture.

Some residents blame immigrants for New Marshall's economic decline, portraying Mexicans as having brought crime and social decay. These pessimistic stories often see New Marshall moving toward the blight seen in large cities, with immigrants hastening the decline. Others portray Mexican immigrants as victims of the crime and poverty that have come in recent years, not as the cause of the decline. Other storytellers see Mexicans as prime players in hopeful narratives about the town's future, crediting them for revitalizing downtown business and reinvigorating local churches. Such varying and sometimes contradictory images of immigrants in New Marshall show how conceptions of immigrants are more fluid in New Latino Diaspora towns than in many other settings.

We have also focused on inter-ethnic relations and accounts of immigrants given by two specific communities: African Americans and Italian Americans, who form large and important groups in New Marshall. Across the U.S., African Americans and Mexican immigrants have sometimes clashed, with African Americans accusing Mexicans of taking jobs and receiving special treatment, and Mexicans accusing African Americans of crime and discrimination. In New Marshall, almost every Mexican immigrant we have spoken with has a story about a relative or friend having been mugged or beaten by African American criminals. In response, most Mexicans seem leery of blacks, with some businesspeople even refusing to let African American youth into their stores. Mexican youth are ambivalent in their reactions to African Americans, however: most fear African American criminals, but many have African American friends and most adopt some African American inspired "urban" clothing and music. For their part, African Americans sometimes complain about noise and overcrowding from Mexicans, and some resent Mexicans taking jobs and moving into traditionally African American areas of the town.

Italian immigrants-another important local group-have followed a traditional path for European immigrants, but the older generation still speaks Italian, socializes in Italian clubs, and attends largely Italian churches. Many from this community identify with Mexican immigrants, seeing them as hard-working, family-centered Catholics, just as Italian immigrants were. As one said, "these Mexicans, you put them to work, they work. They want to better themselves. You can see it. They're just like the Italian people. The Italian people when they came from Italy, they worked like slaves because they wanted to better themselves....In twenty, twenty five years, this area...is going to be controlled by Mexicans." Many Italian immigrants and their children are now landlords and business owners in town, and the presence of this community of relatively sympathetic whites makes New Marshall somewhat different from towns like Hazleton.

School Stories

Questions of identity are especially important for adolescents, and schools are important places where certain models of personhood are endorsed and others discouraged. Schools' reactions can influence the self-esteem and self-concept of any adolescent, but particularly of immigrant youths who are immediately classified as foreign and who have little experience with the specific identities available to them in their new surroundings. As a result, they find themselves in a complex environment in which their already complicated self-identities interact with a range of competing and sometimes contradictory characterizations and expectations.

Through interviews, participant observation, and document analysis, we traced how models of identity are applied to Mexican immigrant students in New Marshall High School. As in our research on narratives about the town, we found a shifting and complex set of ideas about who Mexican students are and what prospects they have. In town, Mexicans are frequently painted as victims of criminals and greedy landlords, while in school they are sometimes still seen as victims, but of non-immigrant students and non-ESL teachers.

Administrators also set forth models for the immigrant students, sometimes drawing parallels between ESL students and Special Education students, characterizing both as demanding extra training and attention-in ways that unfortunately lowered their expectations for immigrants' academic achievement. Teachers often employed more sympathetic models, casting immigrant students as young people who shoulder adult responsibilities and excusing students for poor participation or incomplete assignments if they have been working long hours outside of school. Models of "good student" and "bad student" also took on specific connotations for Mexican students, with "bad students" most often identified not by poor academic performance, but by disrespectful behavior and truancy.

Overall, adolescents find themselves negotiating a variety of models as they move from one sphere to another, while the adults they encounter tend to categorize them using relatively rigid and homogeneous models. If one follows an immigrant student from advisory meetings, to a mainstream class, to a sheltered ESL class, to an administrator's office, and then into the workplace and the town, one sees that young person confronting divergent models of who he or she is-ranging from stereotypes of low-functioning students, to sympathetic but patronizing images of victimhood, to supportive accounts of hard workers, to images of disrespectful troublemakers, to models of economic revitalizers. The host community members who interact with these immigrant adolescents tend to have one or two more stable models of their social characteristics, not realizing that the students themselves must navigate across contexts in which longstanding residents act in widely divergent ways toward them.

Mexican immigrant adolescents themselves react to this situation in various ways. One student self-identified as a good student and dedicated worker, but also tried to complicate those identities by including himself with "bad" Mexican students he felt were being unfairly stereotyped by the school. Another aligned himself with the model of a student using education to improve his situation, but was mistakenly detained by school police under suspicion of theft, hassled by non-Mexican students, and sued without grounds by a landlord. Such instances show how models like "good student," "hard worker," "undocumented immigrant," and "victim" take on different meanings as students traverse an array of sometimes overlapping environments daily.

Success Stories

As they navigate this complicated terrain in school, immigrant students run into another crucial story that they cannot avoid. The model of the "college-bound student" is explicitly and implicitly promoted throughout American secondary education, and New Marshall High School is no exception. District reform led the school to adopt weekly small-group advisory meetings intended to help students develop skills and habits that will bolster their academic achievement. The program's curricular materials lay out the features of successful high school students and their parents, with academic success framed largely in terms of higher education-most often in terms of future attendance at a four-year college. While these materials outline a normative model for student success that stresses future college studies, the New Marshall teachers presenting that model varied in how they related it to their Mexican immigrant students. Teachers frequently cited specific immigrant students who have gone to college as success stories, but they rarely identified current students as future college students. In other words, they reinforced the success narrative by pointing to a result rather than the process of achieving it, possibly because they know how difficult the process is for undocumented immigrant students.

Despite the impediments to higher education that these students face, teachers still promoted the college-centered model as an ideal-because the larger society and the school offer them little choice. They occasionally acknowledged a disconnect between the advisory materials and the lives of their students, and went off script to present alternative ways to obtain funding or paths that do not include college. Overall, however, they maintained the standard narrative of academic success. Based on our observations, the establishment of that ideal was effective, in that most of the immigrant students accepted the college-bound student model as desirable, even while they had doubts about their ability to attain it. Presented with sometimes impracticable "habits of successful students," like studying at a desk in a quiet room, or unfamiliar expectations, like performing community service to build a resume, immigrant students pointed to a disjunction between the ideal and their reality. They accepted and valued this model that the school strongly equated with success, but the more they were told about the signs that identify someone who is a successful student, the less it seemed applicable to them. The school succeeded in transmitting the model of a successful student to them, but the result was that most immigrant students concluded that they would then never be "successful."

Ideas about immigration matter. As hosts and immigrants imagine immigrants' character and potential, they shape that potential. In places like New Marshall, hosts and immigrants have more flexibility to treat and imagine immigrants in new and productive ways. Although the historical outcomes of immigration in this and similar towns have not yet been determined, we believe that more productive models of immigrant identity and host-immigrant relations are emerging in New Marshall. We hope that these can serve as an example for other immigrant communities, as they and their neighbors work out what it means to be an immigrant in contemporary America.

* Drs. Vivian Gadsden, Nancy Hornberger, and Kathy Howard have consulted with me on this project; Penn GSE doctoral students Elaine Allard, Kathy Lee, Sarah Lipinoga, and Katherine Mortimer have contributed to data collection and analysis.

Stanton E.F. Wortham is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Penn GSE.