Cultural Contact and Immigration

Advisory Committee

Cultural Contact:

  • Kay Deaux, CUNY Graduate Center and NYU
  • Karyn Lacy, University of Michigan
  • Hirokazu Yoshikawa, New York University


  • Katherine Donato, Vanderbilt University
  • Mary Waters, Harvard University
  • Steven Raphael, University of California, Berkeley


  • Emanuele Castano, New School
  • John Dovidio, Yale University
  • Victoria Esses, University of Western Ontario
  • Claudine Gay, Harvard University
  • Daniel Hopkins, Georgetown University
  • Yuen Huo, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Tomás Jiménez, Stanford University
  • Michael Jones-Correa, Cornell University
  • Cheryl Kaiser, University of Washington
  • Jennifer Lee, University of California, Irvine
  • Helen Marrow, Tufts University
  • Monica McDermott, University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign
  • Dina Okamoto, Indiana University
  • Efrén O. Pérez, Vanderbilt University
  • Lincoln Quillian, Northwestern University
  • Jennifer Richeson, Northwestern University
  • Deborah Schildkraut, Tufts University
  • Linda Tropp, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Jamie Winders, Syracuse University


Perhaps at no other time in recent U.S. history has the issue of immigration garnered the public and media attention that it currently receives. The American government and populace have become increasingly concerned over the need for immigration reform, and immigration issues have been debated and politicized at all levels of government, particularly among states. In fact, despite an absolute decline in Latino immigration in recent years, immigrant-related legislation has increased—the most salient example of which is the controversial 2010 bill signed into Arizona state law aimed at identifying, prosecuting, and deporting undocumented immigrants. In 2007 alone, 250 communities considered or passed anti-immigrant ordinances; more than 150 passed—three times as many as the previous year. But why the growing anxiety over immigration? Are the underlying causes of anti-immigrant sentiment economic, political, cultural, or some combination? Is immigration becoming the new race issue? What role does the perceived race or ethnicity of immigrants play in attitudes toward immigration and immigration policy? And what role may cultural contact, education, and government policy play in promoting tolerance and integration?

To investigate these issues, in 2010 the Foundation launched a new initiative combining the objectives and strengths of two well-established Russell Sage programs: Cultural Contact and Immigration. The Cultural Contact program focuses on the influence of cultural differences on intergroup relations in schools, workplaces, and communities in addition to how well American criminal justice, educational, and health care institutions are responding to rapidly increasing diversity. The Foundation’s Immigration program seeks to discover how well immigrants and their children are adapting socially, politically, and economically to life in the United States—particularly in light of immigrant settlement in communities that are unaccustomed to large numbers of the foreign-born. The Working Group on Cultural Contact and Immigration will research the evolving character of immigrant life in such communities—cities, towns, and rural areas outside of customary gateways such as New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. This joint program initiative reflects two realities: the surge, since the 1980s, of immigrants settling in non-traditional gateways and the current recession, which has led to mass unemployment and widespread economic uncertainty.

The Working Group on Cultural Contact and Immigration will examine the questions stemming from this reality using a cross-disciplinary perspective. A primary goal of the group is to find ways in which members from different social science research traditions may complement one another in productive ways. Comprising nineteen social scientists, including sociologists, political scientists, social psychologists, and a social geographer, the working group will undertake research that analyzes the cultural frictions and ethnic and racial realignments that result from the rapid growth and dispersion of the foreign born population in the United States at a time of high economic uncertainty and political polarization about immigration.


Proposed topics and questions to be investigated include: how pro- and anti-immigrant arguments are framed and mobilized; the effects of immigrant concentration on immigrant mobility; the role of experience, emotion, and cognition in attitudes towards immigrants; and the role of institutions in immigrant integration. How and when, for example, is the political rhetoric about native-born minorities applied to the foreign-born? How do economic climate, social policy, and demographic composition matter for intergroup relations? What role do the media play in shaping public conversations about immigration and relations between groups? Why are intergroup relations conflict-ridden in some places while other locales experience little or no conflict among different groups? The group is also interested in employing diverse methodologies, including field experiments, experiments embedded within surveys, ethnographies, and focus groups.

Two previously funded RSF projects have already begun to bear fruit and will provide the basis for more extensive study by smaller research teams within the larger working group. Working group member Michael Jones-Correa (Cornell University) and Katherine Fennelly (University of Minnesota) have completed a study examining the effects of immigration law enforcement on the everyday lives of Latinos in two rural communities in North Carolina—a state that has experienced a dramatic increase in its foreign-born population during the last decade. The study found that learning about the occurrence of immigrant raids significantly limits or prevents the civic engagement of two specific immigrant groups—the parents of young children and the undocumented. Jones-Correa and Fennelly suggest that the resulting isolation these two groups experienced has negative implications not only for the goals of integration but also for public safety and whether these groups develop a sense of belonging in their communities.

Another project by working group member Deborah Schildkraut (Tufts University) assessed the challenges posed to American unity by rapidly increasing immigration and cultural diversity. The study, Twenty-First Century Americanism, focused on the causes and consequences, among immigrants, of two aspects of American identity: how people define being American and whether they think of themselves primarily as American rather than as members of a pan-ethnic or national origin group. Using a nationally representative survey, Schildkraut found an overwhelming consensus: immigrants and native-born minorities do not differ from native-born whites in their beliefs about Americanism or about the normative content of those beliefs (such as obligations to fellow Americans or trust in government). Nevertheless, immigrant and native-born minorities overwhelmingly invoked ethnic or racial group membership when they felt discriminated against. Survey findings suggest that the experience of discrimination leads immigrants and native-born minorities to feel marginalized and less willing to express American norms and values.

The working group currently has several pilot projects under development, on issues including the factors that lead immigrants to perceive themselves as targets of discrimination; how immigration shapes immigrants’ and native-born Americans’ perceptions of belonging in the United States; and how status relations shape immigrants’ and native-born Americans’ contact experiences and whether such experiences are reliable predictors of attitudes and behaviors.