Research shows rural community institutions affect immigrants’ receptivity

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Demographic research has revealed that immigrants are increasingly foregoing traditional gateway cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and, instead, are settling in rural communities. Recent current events illustrate that sometimes immigrants aren’t well received by those residents.

Esther Prins, associate professor of adult education, and Blaire Toso, research associate with the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy and the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy (ISAL), recently published research that revealed four constellations of factors that influence receptivity toward immigrants in rural Pennsylvania: national and local politics, the labor market and immigrant occupations, immigrants' ability to look or act like native-born residents and community institutions.

“To the general public and many policymakers, immigrants in rural Pennsylvania are invisible — the region is largely considered white and U.S.-born,” Prins said. “Also, much of the research, media coverage and policy debates on immigration has focused on Latinos, so we don’t know as much about the needs of other immigrant groups and how to help them become integrated into their local communities.”

The study focused on 30 Pennsylvania counties that, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, had 500 or more residents who spoke English “less than very well.” The researchers decided to contact local adult English-as-a-second-language providers as key informants.

Prins and her colleagues (Sheila Sherow, Blaire Toso and Bunny Willits) administered a survey and conducted in-depth interviews, asking about each immigrant group with an estimated county population of 50 or more. That allowed them to compare responses across immigrants’ geographic regions of origin. Differentiation of responses was important because prior research suggests that even in the same region or community, immigrants from different countries may encounter distinct contexts of reception — for example, based on the immigrants’ legal status, skin color, language ability and so on.

The study underscored how attending English as a second language (ESL) classes and speaking English signal immigrants’ ability to navigate the local community and their desire to integrate. The ability to speak English was considered immigrants’ greatest challenge. Similarly, ESL providers believed that immigrants who placed less value on learning English were less welcomed and had more trouble being accepted. Notably, Latino immigrants were the most likely of all immigrant groups to be characterized as not well integrated, as having English language difficulties and as not wanting to learn English. These findings suggest that in rural Pennsylvania, Latinos encounter a cooler reception than other immigrant groups.

The research also unveiled the sometimes contradictory roles that rural community institutions play as gatekeepers that can enable or impede immigrants’ access to services and their sociocultural and economic incorporation.

ESL providers reported that in many cases community institutions such as universities, churches, schools, and ESL programs created a more hospitable context of reception and helped immigrants become part of the community. In counties with universities, respondents noted that people associated with the university were more open to, and interested in learning about, newcomers and their cultures.

However, participants also related examples of schools, social service agencies, hospitals and other institutions as sites of tension. Some ESL providers reported that immigrant youths, particularly those in middle school, encountered racial and ethnic problems. Another participant observed that school children reflected ideas learned in the home, suggesting that community members of all ages shape the context of reception. And, provision of learning support for English-language learners was a challenge in rural schools, the study showed.

“Our study highlights the important role that community institutions and their representatives play in encouraging or discouraging immigrant incorporation. Educators and other institutional leaders can enhance local views of immigrants by highlighting their contributions to community vitality and dispelling popular misconceptions,” Prins said.

“They can also help immigrants to access educational and social services, understand local culture and institutions such as the school system, gain entrée to community events, and take advantage of English language instruction.”

The research was funded by a Seed Grant from the College of Agricultural Sciences and support from two College of Education institutes: the Goodling Institute and ISAL.

Prins and Toso recap their project in a published article in the journal Rural Sociology (Volume 77, pages 435-461).

Last Updated March 20, 2013