Immigrants of a feather don't necessarily flock together

The traditional idea that immigrants cluster together in neighborhoods with their countrymen after coming to the United States and move away after achieving economic success is far from universal. New research indicates that who immigrants marry or partner with has a strong influence on where they live.

An examination of the five counties that make up the Los Angeles metropolitan area shows that if immigrants partner outside their native group they are less likely to live near their countrymen, according to Mark Ellis, a University of Washington geography professor and lead author of a the study.

"Our research shows that immigrants are partnering with members of other immigrant groups and native-born Americans," said Ellis. "When people talk about immigrants as 'them' and Americans as 'us' they need to realize that these two groups are quite mixed together and are not separate populations."

Ellis and his colleagues used 1990 federal census data from Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties to look inside immigrant households at the census-tract level. Data from the 2000 census was not available when they began their analysis.

The study focused on the eight largest immigrant groups in the Los Angeles area Mexicans, Chinese, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Iranians.

Mexicans comprised the largest immigrant group with nearly 1.7 million individuals in 1990, more than six times the size of the next largest group, Filipinos. The researchers looked at how immigrants 18 years of age or older clustered together in neighborhoods, dividing residential patterns into highly clustered, moderate clustered and low or non-clustered. The study's main finding is that immigrants who partner within their group are much more clustered geographically than those who partner outside their group.

Other findings of the study showed:

  • Mexicans were the least likely to live in highly clustered neighborhoods with their countrymen.
  • Chinese, Vietnamese and Iranians were the groups mostly like to live in highly clustered tracts.
  • Guatemalans had the highest rate of marrying or partnering outside their group, 36 percent, while Koreans had the lowest rate, 13 percent.
  • Nearly a quarter of Mexicans, by far the largest immigrant group, partnered outside their group.
  • Across all groups those with more English-language ability and higher levels of education were less likely to live in an immigrant cluster.

While this study focused on Southern California, Ellis is confident the results can be generalized to the rest of the United States.

"I would be floored if the results would be substantially different in other parts of the country. The rates might be different, but the direction in trends of mixing would be the same," he said. "Some people talk about immigrant groups such as Mexicans or Koreans as discrete groups with impermeable barriers, but the situation is a lot more complicated.

"We need to understand how people from different groups are intertwined with each other. It is easy to talk about groups with no intimate ties, but that's not true here. Immigrants are mixed up with other immigrants and native-born Americans on a daily basis in the workplace, in schools and colleges, in church and in the malls. Immigrants are choosing partners outside their native group at a high rate and this choice has a major effect on where they live."


Coauthors of the study published in the current issue of Urban Geography were Richard Wright of Dartmouth College and Virginia Parks of the University of Chicago. The National Science Foundation supported the research.

For more information, contact Ellis at (206) 616-6207 or [email protected]

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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