The New Neighbors

A User's Guide to Data on Immigrants in U.S. Communities

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Document date: August 31, 2003
Released online: August 31, 2003

Prepared by The Urban Institute with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The guidebook is available for all users but is designed specifically for Casey Foundation Making Connections partners, Casey Civic Sites partners, and Kids Count grantees.

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF). (File Size: 1.4 MB)

I. Introduction

Immigrant integration is now a key issue for communities across the nation. States and communities that had seen few immigrants as recently as 1990 are now welcoming new arrivals in unprecedented numbers. Although new immigrants continue to settle in the traditional U.S. centers of immigration—including California, Florida, New York, and Texas—the states with the currently fastest growing immigrant populations have not seen similar inflows for almost a century, if ever. According to the 2000 Census, these new destination states include North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee (at the top of the list) and other states in the Southeast, as well as states across the Midwest and up into the Pacific Northwest.

This guidebook is designed to help local policy makers, program implementers, and advocates use U.S. Census and other data sources to identify immigrant populations in their local communities—their characteristics, their contributions, and their needs. More detailed data on immigrant characteristics are available than ever before, as well as newly accessible software to facilitate the necessary analysis. We list relevant data sources, the information contained in each, and where they can be located, as well as some software needed to use them effectively.

We are grateful to the Annie E. Casey Foundation for funding this guidebook as part of its initiative to educate Making Connections partner organizations and Kids Count grantees on how to use data to help their programs. The purpose of Making Connections is to "work with neighborhoods in 22 cities to connect families to the opportunities and supports they need to raise happy, healthy, and successful children." ( Since these organizations—and similar organizations across the country—work at state and local levels, we focus on sources that are suitable for analysis of small geographical areas.

Major Data Sources on Immigrants

The most comprehensive new data source on immigrants is the U.S. Census for 2000. Census data make it possible to map settlement patterns in great detail, and to analyze their implications for communities, at the national, state, and even local levels. Detail on numbers of immigrants, their countries of origin, the languages they speak, and their English proficiency is available down to the level of the Census tract—a geographic area no larger than many city neighborhoods. Mapping software now makes it possible to display this information in conjunction with other information about housing, schools, and social services. Additional Census data, to be released in Spring 2003, will make it possible to analyze the detailed characteristics of immigrants and their families at the metropolitan level—including housing conditions, income sources and labor force participation.

Other sources can be of great use in supplementing these Census data, depending on the questions of interest. These sources include, among others: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service data on legal immigrant admissions; school district data on limited English proficient students and students born outside the United States; health department data on births to immigrant mothers; and data from social service agencies on immigrant participation in public benefit programs.

Organization of the Guidebook

The first section of the guidebook provides an overview of its purpose and uses. Section II describes recent trends in immigration at the national and state levels, based primarily on Census 2000 data, and identifies some of the largest immigrant populations and their characteristics.

Section III discusses ways in which the data may be used to address key questions about immigrants' short- and long-run adaptation to, and involvement in, the local economy and social institutions. Previous Urban Institute research has found that the design and effectiveness of immigrant settlement policies—such as enhancing English language skills, improving school performance and increasing access to public benefits and services—vary greatly depending on the characteristics of immigrants and the communities in which they settle.

Section IV provides the nuts and bolts of accessing and analyzing relevant data. It gives a list of data sources—including several different Census data sets—and describes their strengths and weaknesses in terms of geographic detail, population coverage, accuracy and timeliness. We also describe how to obtain additional data, identify immigrant populations within them, and perform analyses that provide answers to key policy research questions.

The relative ease of accessing these data and manipulating them provides opportunities for many at the local level, even with very limited research budgets, to use them effectively. While analysis involves some degree of technical capacity—most notably data manipulation, database storage, and mapping software—most forms of data are available over the Internet, on CD-ROM, or via other methods that are reasonably easy to obtain. And software programs such as ArcView—a leading mapping software package—operate easily on today's personal computers.

Section IV also tackles a key challenge: how to identify immigrant populations of interest and the data that pertain to them. Such tasks may be challenging because data on immigrants are often incomplete. Most sources include information on immigrants' country of birth and year of admission to the United States. But information on the legal status of immigrants—a key policy and analytic variable—is more difficult to obtain.

Section V uses a profile of immigrants in Providence, Rhode Island—a city participating in the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Making Connections project—to demonstrate ways in which the data can be used. Section V was developed in consultation with the Foundation and with the Providence Plan, one of the Foundation's Making Connections partners.

Section VI summarizes what the data-based profile of Rhode Island tells us about immigrant settlement patterns there and discusses how high immigrant concentrations within the city of Providence facilitate drawing conclusions about immigrant neighborhoods there. Also discussed are implications for analysis of data on immigrants in other areas of the country where such high concentrations do not exist.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF). (File Size: 2.5 MB)


The authors would like to thank Irene Lee, Megan Reynolds, and William O'Hare of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Garrett Harper of the Heartland Alliance for their help and insight in the development of this guide; Brenan Stearns of The Atlanta Project and Jim Vandermillen of The Providence Plan for advice and examples of data applications; and Felicity Skidmore for her expert editing.

Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Cities and Neighborhoods | Immigrants

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