New Geographies of Immigrant Suburban and Metropolitan Settlement

The geography of immigrant settlement in the United States has undergone many transitions. In the past, immigrants largely settled in traditional gateway cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. While those cities continue to receive immigrant newcomers, immigrant settlement patterns in the U.S. today differ dramatically from the past. Not only is the inter-urban geography of immigrant settlement different today, with newcomers settling in new gateway cities in new destinations—places without long histories or experiences receiving immigrants—such as mid-size and smaller cities and metro areas in the Midwest, Southeast, and intermountain West. But the intra-urban geography of immigrant settlement has also changed. No longer are new immigrant arrivals settling in inner city areas in immigrant and ethnic enclaves. Today, in many cases, new immigrants are settling directly in suburban communities of metropolitan areas. Furthermore, as the geography of immigrant settlement in new and continuous gateway metropolitan areas continues to evolve (for a more detailed discussion of the different types of immigrant gateways, see The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways, by Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution. Also see Twenty First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America, which contains place-specific works by a number of scholars relating back to Singer’s immigrant gateways typology), suburban immigrant settlement and spread manifests in a variety of ways. Given that many municipalities are charting a course toward welcome and inclusion, and that metropolitan areas are typically comprised of a multitude of municipalities, the metropolitan geography of immigrant settlement has certain policy implications.

In 2010, according to Jill Wilson and Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, 51 percent of immigrants in the U.S. lived in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, compared to 43 percent in 1980. Depending on geographic area, size, and population dynamics of a metropolitan area’s core city and suburban municipalities, some metropolitan areas are more suburbanized than others. Immigrant settlement patterns reflect that trend. In particular, they note “the metro areas with the highest shares of their immigrants living in the suburbs in 2010 have high rates of suburbanization generally. In the Atlanta metro area, for example, 95 percent of immigrants live in the suburbs; so do 92 percent of all residents.”

Why are so many immigrants moving directly to suburban areas? “Contemporary immigrants,” Singer observes, “like their earlier counterparts, frequently settle close to where the jobs are; however, this time around, the jobs are mostly in the suburbs. Moreover, many inner suburbs are distinguished by the affordability of their housing, especially as compared with dwindling options in many central city neighborhoods, particularly those experiencing gentrification. This in part explains the sharp contrast of settlement patterns in continuous gateways (where more than half of the immigrants reside in central cities), and emerging gateways (where fully three-quarters of immigrants resided outside the central cities) in 2000.” Furthermore, in some emerging gateway metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Washington D.C., Singer notes, “nearly all of immigrants lived in the suburbs in 2000, whereas in 1970 only 55 percent of the areas’ immigrants did. In those metro areas, immigrant settlement patterns resemble those of the native-born population, so that similarly high shares of both populations reside in the suburbs.”

The context of new immigrant urban and suburban settlement is both spatial and social. Dynamic and transitioning immigrant settlement in a city occurs over geographic space affecting physical changes to neighborhoods over time (spatial context). At the same time, transitioning immigrant settlement geography in a city affects communities (social context). In new immigrant gateways witnessing dramatic growth of their foreign born populations, we see both spatial and social changes occurring on the urban and suburban landscape. Spatial changes are manifested in physical neighborhood changes visibly evident on the landscape (i.e. housing and retail change, new and different signage, cultural and religious institutions). Social changes are manifested in the communities comprising cities through new cultural traditions brought from immigrant homelands and layered upon the traditional cultural practices already in place among the long-term population (i.e. festivals, music, radio, food). Geographers have set out to describe the spatial and social changes occurring across space and place in neighborhoods and communities as a result of transitioning immigrant settlement geography. As Wei Li, a geographer at Arizona State University, suggests, “the spatial dimensions of ethnicity are what geographers can best address, not only from the perspective of spatial variations of ethnicity, but also the relationship between the spatial form of ethnic communities and ethnicity and racial formation as social constructions.” Such new ways of looking at immigrant settlement in urban and suburban places include ethnoburbs and international corridors, among others, and challenge older concepts such as assimilation.

In particular, Li defines a new form of suburban immigrant settlement—the ethnoburb—as a “global economic outpost” due in part to the forces and effects of economic globalization and global restructuring, geopolitical struggles within and between nation-states, immigration policy shifts in the United States, and a variety of local conditions. Ethnoburbs have emerged “under the influence of international geopolitical and global economic restructuring; changing national immigration and trade policies; local demographic, economic, and political contexts; and increasing transnational networks and connections.” Ethnoburbs, Li describes, are “suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas and business districts in large metropolitan areas…[and] are multiethnic communities in which one ethnic minority group has a significant concentration but does not necessarily constitute a majority.” She also notes “such suburban clusters replicate some features of an ethnic enclave and some features of a suburb that lacks any specific minority identity.”

In her case study of Chinese settlement in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County, California, which culminated in the development of the ethnoburb model, Li notes that many of the recent immigrants in this area are Mandarin-speaking from Taiwan, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world. However, “they are a heterogeneous, highly polarized population in terms of educational, occupational, and economic status, and they have generated rapidly growing Chinese residential areas and business districts in which Chinese residents actively participate in local politics and social life.” Li, and the Chinese residents of the area themselves, are quick to note that this newly emerging form of immigrant settlement is most certainly not a “suburban Chinatown”, which would imply a link to the traditional ethnic enclaves that formed in inner city areas in the past. Rather, ethnoburbs are decidedly multiethnic and distinctively suburban in nature.

In addition to the concept of ethnoburbs as a component of multiethnic immigrant suburban settlement, the intermingling spatial patterns of diverse immigrant multiethnic residences and businesses along a business retail ribbon forms an international corridor. In the Sunbelt South, for example, sprawling, automobile oriented cities and metropolitan regions contain particular instances, often in aging, middle-ring suburbs of a broader metro area—places like Nolensville Road in Nashville, Tennessee; Central Avenue and South Boulevard in Charlotte, North Carolina; Buford Highway in Chamblee and Doraville (suburban Atlanta), Georgia; and Greensprings Highway, Valley Avenue, and Lorna Road in the Birmingham suburban municipalities of Homewood and Hoover, Alabama.

As I’ve discussed in previous pieces for The Migrationist (here, here, and here), there is a growing trend of municipalities exploring ways in which to cultivate a welcoming and inclusive environment for immigrants and refugees. This could involve a mayor issuing a proclamation or a city council passing a resolution that the city is officially a “welcoming city” and the steps the city will take to strengthen that context. Often in such cases, a city goes on to form a task force to study the concept, learn about best practices, and offer recommendations for a path forward. Examples include immigrant integration task forces in Charlotte, Cincinnati, and Atlanta. A city may also go on to establish an “Office of New Americans” like that in Chicago and Nashville, an “Office of Immigrant Affairs” (New York City and Los Angeles, for example), and an “Office of Multicultural Affairs” (Atlanta, for example). Many illustrations are found among Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative, the Global Great Lakes Network, and Cities of Migration’s catalogue of good ideas in immigrant integration from around the world. And more organizations are taking note. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the American Immigration Council recently released a reportReimagining the Midwest: Immigration Initiatives and the Capacity of Local Leadership—describing immigrant integration and welcoming initiatives in cities and metropolitan areas across the Midwest region of the United States.

In most cases, municipalities—whether core city or suburb—are part of a larger metropolitan region. A core city of a metropolitan area becoming a “welcoming city” is all good and well. But it’s important for that municipality to recognize the true nature of immigrant settlement within its larger metropolitan area. In a welcoming city with a large geographic footprint like Chicago, immigrant suburban settlement is occurring within the boundaries of the City of Chicago, in addition to other suburban municipalities forming the greater Chicagoland region (see, for example, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, a membership organization of mayors from northeastern Illinois’ 273 cities, towns, and villages). But in a welcoming city with a smaller geographic footprint like Atlanta, much of the immigrant settlement occurring within the greater Atlanta metropolitan area is beyond the boundaries of the City of Atlanta proper and is occurring in suburban municipalities. And some of those municipalities are also becoming welcoming cities, including Clarkston and Norcross. But many others may not as yet have considered the concept, or may have a different perspective. In any metropolitan area, as local municipal and civic leaders and policymakers consider ways in which to cultivate a welcoming and inclusive environment for the broader region, the geography of immigrant settlement is an important consideration. Regional partnerships that transcend not only municipalities, but also different community sectors, are critically important.

As the inter-urban and intra-urban geography of immigrant settlement continues to change—with international migrants moving to more non-traditional “new destinations” in places across the U.S., and more often than not moving to suburban areas—local leaders will need to keep this geography in mind as they pursue and encourage a variety of strategies for better integration and inclusion.



Kerr, Juliana, Paul McDaniel, and Melissa Guinan. 2014. Reimagining the Midwest: Immigration Initiatives and the Capacity of Local Leadership. Chicago, IL: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the American Immigration Council.

Li, Wei. 2009. Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

McDaniel, Paul N. and Anita I. Drever. 2009. “Ethnic Enclave or International Corridor? Immigrant Businesses in a New South City.” Southeastern Geographer 49, 1 (Spring): 3-23.

Singer, Audrey. 2004. The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

Singer, Audrey, Susan W. Hardwick, and Caroline B. Brettell. 2008. Twenty First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

Wilson, Jill and Audrey Singer. 2011. Immigrants in 2010 Metropolitan America: A Decade of Change. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

One comment

  1. […] that the task force should include is the perspective of researchers who have studied the geography of immigrant settlement in the U.S. at the city, metropolitan regional, and state levels. […]


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