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Immigration focus of sociology research in southwest Kansas

Monday, July 22, 2013



MANHATTAN -- A Kansas State University researcher is examining why Hispanic immigration has become more common in rural areas and how Hispanic immigrants have adapted in these places, particularly southwest Kansas.

Matthew Sanderson, associate professor of sociology who studies international migration, is completing a study on Hispanic immigrants living in the Kansas towns of Garden City, Liberal and Ulysses -- a region often called a "new destination" because it's a relatively new gateway for immigration into the U.S. The study looks at the characteristics of the people immigrating to these towns; what's motivating them to move to these Kansas towns rather than larger, metropolitan cities; what opportunities this region offers immigrants; and whether study participants have achieved upward mobility in their community and in the workforce.

"Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and Miami are the five key gateways where more than 70 percent of Hispanic and Latino immigration in the U.S. has historically been directed," Sanderson said. "In the early 1980s and especially the 1990s, however, we saw those gateways decline in importance while new rural destinations like southwest Kansas and other rural places in states like North Carolina and Georgia experienced very large increases in Hispanic immigration. This was quite surprising."

According to Sanderson, the unexpected rise of rural destinations has interested social scientists, who are trying to understand why this happened in so many places at the same time as well as how immigrants fare in these new locations.

In summer 2012, Sanderson led a student group that conducted interviews with more than 140 self-identified Hispanic or Latino and Latina immigrants primarily living in Garden City. All the interviewees were foreign born, between the ages of 18 to 65, and had work experience in the U.S. and their country of origin.

Participants gave basic demographic information, their work history in their country of origin and in the U.S., and their perceptions of their lives in Garden City and their futures.

Seventy percent came to Garden City for a job, often in a meatpacking plant, while 30 percent said they came because of family in the area. Eighty-two percent were from Mexico; 11 percent were from El Salvador; 4 percent were from Guatemala; and a few were from Honduras, Peru and Cuba.

The majority came from only three states in Mexico: Chihuahua, Durango and Michoacan.

"Migration is not a random event, but rather something that's highly channeled and geographically specific," Sanderson said. "Jobs attract immigrants to specific places, networks of people get them set up, information about things like jobs and housing gets sent back home, and then a cycle begins that perpetuates out-migration from specific places in Mexico, for example, to a place like Garden City. Several villages in Mexico have been depopulated this way."

After adjusting for inflation, those interviewed made on average about $1,800 a month at their first job in the U.S., compared to about $600 a month at their last job in Mexico -- a big incentive to migrate to the U.S., Sanderson said. A large number of participants, however, said they also experienced job status downgrading from their prior occupation as a dentist, doctor or minister in their country of origin.

Data also was collected about social interactions at work and in the community with non-Hispanics. Sanderson found that outside of work, there was very little cross-culture interaction.

"Work environments like meatpacking plants tend to be very multicultural, but that does not seem to have translated into a thriving multicultural community," Sanderson said. "We're basically seeing a community that has two communities in it, each with its own circle of friends, neighborhoods and churches. These two groups frequently interact at work, but then go home to largely separate communities."

Participants were then asked questions such as how they felt about their lives and prospects in the community, as well as where they saw themselves living and working in the next five years.

Sixty percent said they plan to stay in Garden City because it fulfills their needs. Nearly 90 percent said their job was a means for upward mobility and their lives would get better through their job.

"Generally these folks are working in relatively undesirable, low-paying and sometimes dangerous jobs that most people would not equate with upward mobility," Sanderson said. "But participants actually gave us a pretty rosy picture. It's an interesting matter of perspective because according to the data, many report that they're doing much better objectively in terms of income in the U.S. compared to back home. Subjectively, many told us their jobs are helping them advance in their lives. Yet these rural communities may not have the types of job opportunities that allow them to take the next step and continue to move up in terms of living standards."

Sanderson said future job prospects may become even more limited because of the lack of networking caused by many participants living in relatively isolated circles of family and friends without meaningful interaction with the non-Hispanic community.

Sanderson said the goal of his research is to provide a more detailed understanding of immigration and its relationship to these rural communities. Garden City's cultural relations board -- which includes representatives from the Hispanic and Latino community as well as the Somali and Muslim communities -- plans to use the findings to enhance integration efforts. Garden City is considered a model for many new rural destinations.

Additionally, the information may help advance the dialog about the challenges of immigration in small, rural towns, as well as the responsibilities of the Fortune 500 companies that employ immigrants in these communities, Sanderson said.

"There is no question that immigrants who come here without proper documentation are by definition breaking the law," Sanderson said. "Moving imposes lots of costs and burdens on immigrants. As a social scientist I want to find out why immigration happens in this part of Kansas and what the consequences of these movements are for immigrants and communities. It's clear that there is a strong demand for immigrant labor in these new rural destinations. A majority told us they would prefer to stay in their origin country and do well there, but opportunities tend to be limited in these places and the American industries have a strong demand for labor."

According to Sanderson, the shift from urban to rural areas by some industries has appealed to immigrants who are able to meet the demand for workers and the opportunity to establish a better life for themselves and their families. One result, however, has been the emergence of segmented communities living in the same town.

"This is a significant issue now, and it will be for the foreseeable future, especially as much of rural Kansas continues to face the prospects of long-term population loss," Sanderson said. "Immigration is preventing these communities from declining further."

The project stems from research Sanderson explored while earning his doctorate, and is funded by the College of Arts and Science's faculty enhancement program, a competitive funding program supporting the scholarship and research of junior faculty in the college.


Matthew Sanderson

News tip

Garden City, Liberal, Ulysses

Written by

Greg Tammen

At a glance

Matthew Sanderson, associate professor of sociology, is examining why Hispanic immigration has become more common in rural areas and how Hispanic immigrants have adapted in these places, particularly southwest Kansas. He found that while immigrants are fairing better financially in the U.S., they are not socially, which has created segregated communities living in the same town. Additionally, he found that immigrants are helping stabilize the populations of rural towns and fill the labor demand by many industries in those towns. 

Notable quote

"This is a significant issue now, and it will be for the foreseeable future, especially as much of rural Kansas continues to face the prospects of long-term population loss. Immigration is preventing these communities from declining further."

– Matthew Sanderson, associate professor of sociology