Urban Wire Maybe immigrants don't have it better after all
Molly M. Scott
Display Date

I enjoyed reading my colleagues’ perspectives last week about suburban poverty and concentrated (often urban) poverty. These are critically important discussions and I’m glad we’re having them, particularly because of my interest in the immigrant communities that are growing in these same areas.

There are a lot of important subtleties to these discussions, and it’s right to highlight immigrants’ resiliency as a sign of optimism for newly-poor places. But, for some reason, this focus on resiliency leads to the assumption that immigrants somehow don’t experience discrimination as much as native born folks or that it is less systematic, less hurtful, or less important.

I have to say I find this puzzling.

Maybe some folks look at employment numbers for immigrants and think that because so many of them work, they must not experience discrimination.  But that would be wrong.  With only limited access to our federal safety net and often saddled with transnational economic responsibilities, many immigrants simply don’t have a choice to work or not.  Employers know this and routinely intimidate immigrant workers and pay them lower wages.

Maybe folks think that immigrants don’t experience discrimination because their residential segregation isn’t as visually striking as it is for groups like African Americans. But immigrants are a diverse group and the few studies that actually examine differences in segregation by foreign-born status show that immigrants of all racial groups experience greater residential segregation  than natives.

The hard thing about discrimination is that is it largely goes unreported, even among native-born Americans.  So it should be no surprise that discrimination against immigrants, particularly non-citizens with limited English and low comfort levels with American institutions, easily falls under the radar.  But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

In both my personal and professional life, I routinely hear about the everyday indignities that immigrants—even those living in nice, suburban communities—quietly endure.  Here are just a few recent examples:

  • A 16-year-old recounted how she had taken advanced math in Mexico, but was placed in remedial math classes when she started school in the U.S.  As she put it, “They don’t think the ESL students have the same capacity as other students.”
  • Security guards prohibited immigrant mothers from waiting on a public street corner to pick up their children from the school bus.  The same guards regularly harass immigrant men waiting in the morning—even alone—to be picked up by their carpool to go to work.
  • Multiple immigrant parents reported going with an appointment to the social service office and waiting all day without being seen, while other people without appointments walked in and were served on the spot.  As one woman put it, “The social services office… is very difficult… they treat you really bad, but if it’s someone of their color, they treat them well.”
  • After an animal literally crawled under an apartment building and died, an immigrant woman complained about the horrible stench emanating throughout the entire building and asked property management to remedy the problem.  Staff refused and told her she’d have to take care of it herself.  The woman tried to organize her immigrant neighbors to do something, but they were so afraid of arbitrary eviction or other sanctions that nothing could be done.
  • When she could no longer protect herself during a domestic dispute, a pregnant woman called the police to intervene.  Instead of detaining her husband, the police arrested her instead and made her sit outside, handcuffed, on a curb.  Her husband was a citizen.   She was not. Sadly, this is not an anomaly, even though immigrant victims of domestic violence often qualify for special visas and protections.  I’ve heard some version of this story during work on three different projects in sites across the country.

At the close of one of our recent youth focus groups in an immigrant neighborhood outside of Washington, D.C., a girl approached the recruiter and told him how much she valued having a safe forum to share her experiences.  She’d often wanted to speak up about how she was feeling, but feared repercussions from property management, school administrators, teachers, or other students.

Our public institutions can do a lot more to reach out to all communities—native and immigrant— and create these kind of safe spaces.   We can’t begin to address discrimination until we recognize that it’s a problem for everyone who experiences it.

Street photo from Donald Bowers Photography / Shutterstock.com

Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality
Tags Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrants and the economy Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy