Throughout most of the twentieth century, immigrants to the United States settled primarily in urban areas. Large numbers of immigrants who arrived between 1980 and 2006, however, have chosen instead to move directly to the suburbs. According to Lorrie Frasure, speaking at the fifteenth program in the Division of United States Studies' New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity series, this demographic shift has created multi-ethnic enclaves, or "suburban melting pot metros" (SMPMs). These are areas in which whites comprise less than 69 percent of the population, while two or more ethnic groups constitute more than 18 percent of the population. The factors that contribute to spatial location decisions of immigrant groups have important socioeconomic, cultural and political implications for both public policymakers and the nongovernmental organizations that serve these populations.

While Dr. Frasure's work is part of a larger study of 33 SMPMs around the nation, her presentation at the Wilson Center focused on the Washington, D.C. area, the country's fourth largest SMPM. She employed both quantitative analysis and focus group discussions to assess the factors that influence minority spatial location patterns. Housing and family-related concerns, she discovered, are most likely to impact such spatial location decisions of whites, Asians and Latinos in the Washington area. Those considerations are far less important for non-immigrant blacks who move to multi-ethnic suburban areas. Their choices are more likely to be based on income considerations and the high cost of housing in other Washington metropolitan areas. Interestingly, proximity to employment was not a major factor for any of the groups.

Frasure found that while Chinese, Koreans, and Iranians consider local public services to be important, their lack of English fluency is a major problem as they attempt to deal with local governments. Latinos, however, consider government responsive, in large part because most suburban areas present their information in Spanish as well as English. Frasure also learned from focus group discussions with Latinos, Chinese, Koreans, Iranians, African immigrants and African Americans that members of most of the immigrant groups do not interact with other immigrant groups. She therefore emphasized the need for more public, neutral places such as libraries and for public services such as housing workshops to facilitate multi-ethnic interactions.

Audrey Singer pointed to the difficulty of scholarly generalizations and the need for specific case studies in asking whether the D.C. region, rather than being typical of other metropolitan areas, may be exceptional. It is a particularly wealthy area with an unusually expensive housing market; the presence of the federal government provides economic stability; the organizations that cluster around the government attract highly skilled immigrants and it has experienced a very rapid recent growth in its immigrant population. In addition, that population is exceptionally diverse in nationality, education, and economic background. No single group dominates: Salvadoreans, e.g., make up the largest group – 13 percent – of the area's immigrants, while Mexicans are only about five percent, and there are relatively large populations of African immigrants (11 percent), refugees, and African Americans. A key factor for local policymakers to examine, Singer commented, is the ratio of housing renters to housing owners, as the availability of rental housing is also an indication of affordability for newcomers.

Turning to the national scene, John Logan described the United States today as constituting two countries: one that is experiencing large growth in its immigrant population and another that is largely bypassed by immigration. The demographic shifts that are occurring in the major metropolitan areas in the United States have bypassed much of the rest of the nation. For example, Logan noted, the number of Hispanics in suburban areas other than metropolitan Washington did not grow significantly from 1980 to 2000. He asked whether the increasing heterogeneity of the suburbs means they are becoming melting pots or whether the suburbs are developing ghettos of their own. In fact, he queried, does it make any sense to speak any longer of cities and suburbs? Might it not make more sense for policymakers and others to think in terms of "metropolitan areas"? Suburbs, like cities, experience discrimination and oppression: are they different from each other in any factor other than affluence?

The panelists agreed that suburban minority groups live with other minority groups more than they do with whites, most of whom still reside in largely white areas, but the minority groups' housing patterns do not affect most social interactions. More case studies, more quantitative analysis, and more qualitative methods are all necessary if social scientists are to present policymakers with the information they need to deal effectively with the problems and promises of this new age of immigration to the United States.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129