How Do Undocumented Immigrants Make Residential Decisions?

How Do Undocumented Immigrants Make Residential Decisions?
Asad L. Asad, Eva Rosen
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies
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Residential segregation persists among white households and households of color but is declining within communities of color. This study explores the different ways undocumented status is associated with residential decisions and its implications on residential segregation. Drawing on 47 interviews with 20 undocumented-headed Mexican households in Dallas County, Texas, researchers examine the drivers of residential decisionmaking and illustrate the complex trade-offs undocumented households make between neighborhood quality and legal risk. The study sample included 18 currently undocumented-headed and two formerly undocumented-headed families. These families were selected from a broader racially and socioeconomically diverse sample used for a study on how white, black, and Latino families make residential decisions. Over the course of three years, researchers conducted repeat interviews in Spanish with each of the families about their life stories, residential histories, immigration experiences, and how their legal status and interaction with law enforcement affected their everyday lives. The researchers evaluated how demographic and neighborhood characteristics shaped the families’ perspectives on residential choice. They also examined how a shift in legal status among formerly undocumented families affected their residential mobility. The authors recognize the limitations of sample size and note that although the study design restricts the scope of the conclusions, the experiences captured among these households illustrate the range of ways undocumented status can impact residential selection. The findings reveal how the residential choices of undocumented immigrants are influenced by their perception of racial hierarchies through the eyes of US law enforcement. By choosing to live in communities of color, which are either ignored by law enforcement or overpoliced for reasons other than legal status, undocumented immigrants believe they have a better chance of going unnoticed.

Key findings

  • Most households wanted to live in integrated neighborhoods characterized by low rates of poverty and violent crime with access to high-quality schools and well-paying jobs. They cited majority white neighborhoods in Dallas County such as Farmers Branch, Highland Park, Irving, North Dallas, and Plano as examples of high-quality areas.
  • Although financial barriers make these “high quality” neighborhoods inaccessible, most respondents noted the perceived risk of encountering law enforcement as the primary reason for avoiding such neighborhoods. Most households agreed that federal, state, and local law enforcement patrol majority-white areas to exclude Latinos and, specifically, the undocumented.
  • Fourteen of the currently undocumented households lived among members of their coethnic communities, where they believed lacking documentation was less risky. The respondents felt more comfortable living among a community that shared cultural norms and expectations about dealing with law enforcement. Some households, however, perceived limits to these advantages, noting that in places like Dallas—where being Latino is often associated with being undocumented—majority-Hispanic neighborhoods attract the attention of law enforcement officials.
  • Four of the currently undocumented households lived in predominantly black neighborhoods, noting their beliefs that immigration officials are much less likely to check majority-black areas and local police are too preoccupied targeting black residents to focus on the legal status of Latino families.
  • For the two households that were able to acquire legal status, their ability to move neighborhoods varied. One household could not overcome the financial barriers of moving and remained in their majority-black neighborhood, which they characterized as “anything but ideal.” In contrast, the other household leveraged their legal status and educational background to secure better-paying jobs and moved out of what they described as a “bad” majority-Hispanic neighborhood into a “nicer” majority-white area.

The How Housing Matters editorial team decided to use the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” to refer to people of Latin American origin, in alignment with the terminology used by the authors of the study. We recognize that the term “Latinx” is more inclusive of the way this group may self-identify. How Housing Matters strives to avoid language that is exclusive and will always attempt to explain the editorial rationale behind the labeling of certain groups.

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