Supporting Immigrants in the Suburbs

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  • December 19, 2013

Houston and Suburban DC Form Strong Partnerships to Help New Americans

By Barbara Ray

In 2008, Audrey Singer wrote what would turn out to be an ahead-of-its-time book, The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways.  In it she identified a new phenomenon—immigrants bypassing the original gateway cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in favor of new gateways, such as Charlotte, Atlanta, and Seattle.  She also identified the trend of new arrivals hopscotching past the central city and settling in the suburbs.

In the intervening years, a recession grabbed the nation’s attention, and immigration reform took on new momentum with movements like the push to pass the Dream Act.  Yet one thing remained: the new gateway destinations, including suburbs, continued to grapple with the surge of newcomers. Immigrants accounted for about one-third of the population growth in the nation’s suburbs during the 2000s, and roughly 17 percent of the increase in the suburban poor population.

Immigration BlogA recent symposium at the University of Southern California convened by the MacArthur Network on Building Resilient Regions picked up where Singer left off, reporting on the fates of immigrants in some of these new and old gateways. The case studies looked closely at what makes some communities welcome immigrants and causes others to pull up the welcome mat.

The factors that matter?  Among other things, the rapidity of change, the diversity of the immigrant groups (more diversity makes it harder to scapegoat one group), whether the business community frames immigration as good for the local economy, and—two factors that our colleagues Scott Allard and Benjamin Roth and Sarah Reckhow and Margaret Weir have studied in recent years— the nonprofit and philanthropic base on the ground.

While foreign-born residents accounted for less than one-fifth of the growth in the suburban poor, new immigrants bring a particular set of needs that suburbs are often unprepared to effectively address, from more ESL teachers to child care or reliable transport to work.  Shannon Gleeson, co-author of a recent article in the American Journal of Sociology, told the USC group that newer gateways are more likely to be free riders on central city services, in part because they lack a mobilization structure and a rich base of nonprofit social supports.

One reason for the scarcity of charitable organizations and foundations in suburbia (even though the growth of foreign-born residents in suburbs typically exceeds that in central cities) is that immigration and poverty are still largely invisible there. Still viewing themselves as upper-middle-class bastions, where the PTA and crime watch programs are the only social services needed, suburban residents and their political leadership often don’t even see the immigrants (or poverty) in their midst, Gleeson reports.

In addition, if there’s no strong base of either nonprofits or foundations, it’s nearly impossible to spur the public-private partnerships that are so crucial to solving today’s toughest problems amid tight budgets.

Indeed, the nation can have the best-designed federal policy for supporting struggling families, but if there’s no organizational capacity on the ground, it’s a moot point.

Neighborhood Centers is one example of a scaled nonprofit that is helping the Houston metro area build that capacity in the suburbs and across the metro region. The organization has developed an array of immigration and citizenship services to help new immigrants successfully integrate, build skills, and connect to opportunity in the growing regional economy. Its scaled-but-local approach has allowed Neighborhood Centers to respond to the unique needs of the different neighborhoods in which it works. For instance, when residents of the Houston suburb of Pasadena identified a need for more English language courses to serve the growing immigrant population, Neighborhood Centers partnered with the Harris County’s education department to create what has become the largest ESL program in Pasadena and in Neighborhood Center’s network.

The Neighborhood Opportunity Network in Montgomery County, MD, a suburban county bordering Washington, DC, offers another example of ways in which suburban communities can mobilize to more effectively reach new immigrants. Working with local nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and local funders, the county created the Network in the wake of the Great Recession to make sure low-income residents and new immigrants were aware of and connected to needed services. Montgomery County’s Office of Community Partnerships (OCP) director Bruce Adams observed that this new collaborative effort “has replaced the traditional charity/social services approach to emergency service delivery with a culturally competent capacity building model.”

Amid the growth in suburban poverty and the rise of immigrant gateways in suburbia, we need more of these innovative models to make sure the suburbs are successfully integrating these new Americans into their communities and helping to set them on a path to economic opportunity.

Photo courtesy of John Moore/Getty Images North America

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