Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles

Other External Scholars:
Leo R. Chavez, University of California, Irvine
Jennifer Lee, University of California, Irvine
Susan K. Brown, University of California, Irvine
Louis DeSipio, University of California, Irvine
Min Zhou, University of California, Los Angeles
Project Date:
Nov 2003
Award Amount:
Project Programs:

For most of the last century, the promise of upward mobility proved true for highly motivated and hard-working immigrants to the United States. Each succeeding generation of these white ethnic groups achieved more education and better jobs than the one before, notwithstanding initial social and economic discrimination, and harsh living conditions. At the beginning of a new century, however, the assumptions of upward mobility for new immigrants and their children have become more uncertain. One factor contributing to this changed state of affairs is that the source of new immigrants to the United States shifted radically after 1965, when U.S. immigration law abolished the national origins quota system. This opened the doors to immigration from Asia, which now accounts for about a third of new immigration, and a steadily growing flow from the Americas, which accounts for more than half of the total. Another important fact about the new immigration is the changed context of reception. Urban labor markets in major metropolitan areas where immigrants concentrate have experienced profound structural economic changes, such as de-industrialization, declining wages for low-skilled workers, and the expansion of "dead-end" jobs in the service sector.


Since 1991, the Russell Sage Foundation has funded a program of research aimed at assessing how well the young adult offspring of recent immigrants are faring as they move through American schools and into the labor market. Two previous major studies have begun to tell us about the paths to incorporation of the children of contemporary immigrants: The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) and the Immigrant Second Generation in New York study.


Now a third major initiative, the Immigrant and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles (IIMMLA) study, will focus on second-generation immigrants in Los Angeles in their young adult years, with the goal of gathering systematic information about how successful assimilation strategies differ among groups. Under the direction of Professors Ruben Rumbaut, Frank Bean, Leo Chavez, Jennifer Lee, Susan Brown and Louis DeSipio of the University of California, Irvine and Professor Min Zhou of the University of California, Los Angeles, the IIMMLA study involves a multi-stage, multi-method investigation of the pathways of incorporation and intergenerational mobility among young adult (ages 22-39) children of immigrants in metropolitan Los Angeles and, in the case of the sizeable Mexican-origin population there, among young adult members of the third- or later-generation as well. The project complements the Foundation's previous study of the Immigrant Second Generation in New York by adding new groups, expanding the range of ages examined, and focusing on an area containing the largest multi-generational group of persons of Mexican origin in the U.S. There are over 5 million persons of Mexican origin in the Los Angeles metropolitan area alone, and their mobility paths and outcomes represent a critical case study for both immigration theory and public policy.


About 62 percent of Los Angeles residents in 2000 were of foreign-birth or parentage, the majority of them Mexican. The area contains the largest first-, second- and third-and-beyond generations of persons of Mexican origin in the United States, as well as the largest concentrations of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Filipinos, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans - all among the largest immigrant nationality groups arriving in the United States since 1965. The diverse migration histories and modes of incorporation of these groups make the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area a strategic choice for a comparison study of immigrant incorporation and mobility from one generation to the next.


The study will compare six second-generation immigrant groups (Mexicans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, and Central Americans from Guatemala and El Salvador) with three native-born comparison groups (non-Hispanic whites and blacks, and third- or later-generation Mexican Americans). The targeted groups represent the largest immigrant origin populations of greater Los Angeles. Moreover, they represent both the diversity of modes of incorporation in the U.S. and the range of occupational backgrounds and immigrant status among contemporary immigrants (from professionals and entrepreneurs to laborers, refugees and unauthorized migrants).


The investigators will conduct 35-minute long structured telephone interviews with random samples of first-generation immigrants who arrived before age 12 (the so-called 1.5 generation) plus second- and third-generation adults, age 22-39, from as many ethnic sub-groups as is practical to achieve. The phone interviews will provide basic demographic information as well as extensive data about socio-cultural orientation and mobility (e.g., language use, ethnic identity, remittances, attitudes towards inter-marriage, experiences of discrimination); economic mobility (e.g., parents' background as well as the respondent's education, first and current job, wealth and income, and any encounters with the law); geographic mobility (childhood and present neighborhood of residence), and civic engagement and politics (political attitudes, voting behavior, as well as naturalization and transnational ties).


The second phase of data gathering involves face-to-face interviews with 10 percent of the young adults interviewed by telephone. The investigators will invite them to talk at more length about intergenerational relations, their educational and occupational choices, ethnic identity and cultural preferences, as well as their experiences of discrimination. The investigators expect this information to help elucidate the pathways and mechanisms through which people successfully join in the social and economic mainstream.


Finally, in order to provide an assessment of the urban context faced by the second generation, the investigators will conduct a series of targeted ethnographies. Rather than choosing specific sites at the outset, they will select several "key informants" from the in-depth interviews with high- and low-achieving individuals and follow them in the course of their daily lives. The "shadowed" key informants will introduce the ethnographers to the organizations and networks that are most important to them.


Through the combination of these three approaches, the investigators hope to "unpack" the particular kinds of experiences and pathways associated with different kinds of (mobility) outcomes. In particular, the ethnographies are expected to highlight how context shapes observed outcomes. The final results of this project will be reported in four major book-length manuscripts and several journal articles focusing on special themes and topics, as well as the preparation of public use data files.


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